CNBC set to expand further across Africa, opening 2-3 more bureaus

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ONE of the first international news broadcasters to set up shop in Africa, Johannesburg-based CNBC Africa, has exceeded growth expectations in just 18 months and plans to expand further into Africa. CNBC Africa chairman Zafar Siddiqi says CNBC will expand its network of African bureaus from the present four (Cape Town, Abuja, Lagos and Nairobi) within the next year to include "two or three" other countries.

"One of the important things about Africa has been the willingness of governments to recognise the importance of the media. They are opening doors for private media. I think within three to five years, the state media will be finished," says Siddiqi, adding that although state-owned media would still exist, they would not be able to retain audiences.

Along with the decline in viewership, their advertising revenue would slump as the private sector broadcasters moved in, he said. "One thing that has to emerge is a regional regulatory body or a regional body which would set standards. Once you have a private sector - whether digital, satellite or DTT (digital terrestrial television, the new standard for free-to-air TV) - you will still need to cope with signals coming from outside your borders. At the moment you have all kinds of stations coming in - like gambling and pornography. There has to be some framework from the African Union."

One of the key developments in the broadcasting sector is the transition to DTT. Most terrestrial, or non-satellite, TV stations broadcast on analogue, but they have to migrate to a digital signal by 2015, when the analogue signal will no longer be supported internationally. SA's deadline for DTT is 2011, but most African governments seem unaware of the urgency.

"They will do it. But they will come in at the last minute, it will be ill-planned, and they will end up spending extra," Siddiqi remarks. "Maybe there should be an African forum for the transition to DTT, bringing all the government ministers together with key speakers to debate the issues."

A critical component for the development of new TV stations is skills. Broadcasters need trained TV journalists. Even in the Middle East, when Arabic-language station CNBC Arabiya was set up five years ago, "one of the glaring deficiencies was the lack of trained, professional TV journalists", Siddiqi says.

One solution to this challenge was to set up a Dubai campus of Australia's Murdoch University, which specialised in media studies. Siddiqi is keen to replicate this approach in Johannesburg, but has run into problems with accreditation. He says the easiest approach to get accreditation in SA would be to work through an existing university to offer specialised media courses, but he's not keen on this idea.

While credits earned at Murdoch University in Dubai can be easily transferred to the university's main campus, this process is held up if the credits are from a different university. "I've talked to the government and the private business sector and they're keen. I think it would be good for Africa," he says.

Business Day (Johannesburg) 4 November 2008