Television liberalisation makes further inroads into francophone Africa

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Two recent developments in francophone Africa have set the stage for wider broadcast liberalisation. Firstly, the Ivorian Minister of Communication has received a study recommending opening up the market. Secondly, Africa’s newest Pay TV contender GTV fired its opening shots in the battle to win a significant chunk of subscribers in francophone markets. Russell Southwood looks at what’s happening.

Cote d’Ivoire liberalised the press in 1990 but up until now there have only been two “Free-To-Air” public television channels: La Première et TV2. This is all set change with the delivery of report by French consulting company Media Consulting Group (MCG) to the Minister of Communications, Ibrahim Sy Savané.

The report recommends a “prudent” opening up of the sector “to permit the achievement of the growth of the televisual offer, and to reinforce public debate by creating new spaces for citizenship, and to create the conditions for a national industry of programme-making.”

The report envisages liberalisation happening in stages:”step-by-step liberalisation with the first step being the creation of two private, Free-To-Air channels, whose coverage area would be restricted to (the capital) Abidjan and its immediate environs before later being extended nationally.” This would mean that four TV channels would be relying on the local advertising market for financing. Cote d’Ivoire was once one of the lion economies of West Africa but the impact of the recent civil has cut back economic growth. However, if the current peace holds, then the rather tentative liberalisation suggested may turn out to be quite conservative.

The report lays out the requirements of a liberalised market in policy and regulatory terms, including the necessity to strengthen both regulation and self-regulation in the industry. The creation of the two new channels should be open to tender (un cahier des charges) which defined the future obligations of these new operators in terms of news and the inclusion of both Ivorian and African programmes. The report’s authors were keen to emphasise the need to safeguard Ivorian national identity. But according to the report:”Cote d’Ivoire, as many other African countries, already has a lively global competition in terms of cable television.”

The MCG study was financed by the European Union and is aimed at provided the Government with a tool for decision-making. It remains to be seen whether Minister Ibrahim Sy Savané will accept the report’s recommendations. With the country’s current political difficulties, all media policy choices – particularly over new media entrants – will be exceptionally political.

Meanwhile Pay TV channel GTV announced its intention earlier this month to expand its operations into francophone Africa.The new French service promises channels and content specifically targeted to French speaking viewers. The new service includes tailor-made new packages designed for family TV viewing. Channels will include African-produced content, blockbuster international series and sitcoms, kids entertainment, religious and educational/documentaries. The service will offer an entry-level package as well as a premium package, which will include up to 10 live Barclays Premier League games per week.

GTV will shortly be launching in the DRC, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Senegal, Congo Brazzaville, Togo and Benin. The first of these new services started on 16 August.

The launch of these new services at least provides some much needed competition for the near monopoly of Vivendi-owned Canal Plus. It has kept bouquet prices high and has in a number of countries suffered severe problems with piracy. Although it does not report its African subscription numbers separately, Balancing Act estimates that its Sub-Saharan African subscribers number around 200,000.