Uganda - Tough fight amongst top three broadcasters but digitalisation just over the horizon

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Uganda is one of Africa’s most liberalised broadcast markets . It has 9 free-to-air television stations, 190 radio stations and several Pay-TV channels. Neverthless most of the TV market is split between three of the major channels : NTV, WBS and UBC. But with many smaller challengers nipping at their heels, it probably won’t be long before this turns into a four-horse race. And that’s even before the transition to digital channels happens. Russell Southwood looks at how the current major players are likely to fare.

In the beginning there was UBC which is the Government incumbent which has been in existence since independence.

In 1999 WBS was launched and set out to capture parts of UBC’s audience by offering better entertainment and education programming. Better still, it offered these new attractions in Luganda, one of the country’s most widely spoken of 22 vernacular languages. With both of these innovations, it successfully took a large chunk out of UBC’s audiences.

WBS is owned by Gordon Wavamuno the founder and the Chairman of the Spear Group of Companies. He has built a business empire in a wide range of fields including transport, manufacturing, tourism, motor vehicle distribution, trade, insurance and banking, commercial farming, electronic media, entertainment, and property development

One of its successful local shows is Side Mirror, a weekly comedy programme that satirises events in the news in Lugana. As one one person told us : »You enjoy the joke better in a local language. » A recent edition made fund of the suspension of the Inspector of Government who refused to leave office and mocked the President’s speechifying.

In November 2005 UBC was separated from its Ministry and « corporatised ». It took a while to make changes at UBC but it managed to claw back some of the « traditional people » who had defected to UBC. Neither UBC nor WBS has a demographic that is strongly tilted to younger audiences.

The third entrant was NTV, part of the Nation Media Group of Kenya, which entered the market 18 months ago. Its launch a couple of years ago was plagued by transmission mast disputes and a lack of clear audience focus. When I last visited Uganda everyone was predicting that it would fail because it didn’t understand the local market. But NTV has not only wiped the knowing smile off the naysayers’ faces, it has firmly established itself as the number one in the market with a local focus in english and a clear pitch to the country’s ABC1s.

Nevertheless, one of its most popular shows is called Barbed Wire and it satirises local attitudes and trends in a mixture of English and Luganda. A recent show focused on young women students from university trying to extract money and gifts from prospective boyfriends.

Both of the main private channels have transmission coverage of 50-60% of the population with their coverage area centred around Greater Kampala, Entebbe and Jinja. In this area, probably somewhere between 70-80% of the population either own or have access to a television.

The windbreak that prevents UBC from being completely blown away is the fact that it has something more like national coverage, reaching 70% with terrestrial transmission and 100% if you include its channel on DStv which goes out on satellite. The three top TV channels get somewhere between 30-40% TV reach and UBC’s position as a contender is held in place by its ability to add viewers from all those places the other two don’t yet reach.

Outside of this top three, there are a six television stations with smaller audiences : North TV (which broadcasts from Gulu in the North of the country) ; NBS ( a locally owned station) ; Lighthouse Television and Top TV (both religious), Record TV (again religious but from Brazil) and Sports TV (part of the Setanta Africa network). Satellite TV operators include a couple of channels from Tanzania and DStv.

The latter has commissioned a successful five part series called Theatre Fun Factory which takes place live at the National Theatre and mixes sketches and stand-up.

Uganda has some of the lowest advertising rates in anglophone East Africa as it is a smaller economy than its bigger neighbours Kenya and Tanzania. There has been an informal agreement on advertising rates between the big three but with discounting of up to 20% on rate card, the pressures for the break-up of this agreement are already being felt.

There are two competitive pressures in the market that will change its shape. Firstly, it always takes TV stations 2-3 years to establish themselves. On this basis, it will only need one of the smaller TV stations to get over 25% TV reach to start eating into the others’ previously dominant positions. Of those likely to do this, Record TV seems well set to make the breakthrough. Four stations in the market will see increased pressures to discount in order to retain certain advertisers.

The second competitive pressure will be the transition to digital which will bring with it the requirement for a very different style of programming. No longer a day anchored around high audience news broadcasts but a fragmenting set of 3-5 channels with different themes where the aim is to aggregate as many viewers as possible on each channel.

You might think that the transition to digital broadcasting is some way away and therefore you need not worry about it. In Uganda, two of the main broadcasters have already installed hybrid analogue and digital transmitters and with all the other issues resolved, they can simply at the flip of a switch go digital. The transition to digital will probably either open up the national broadcaster’s terrestrial capacity for rent to other broadcasters or as is proposed in Kenya and Tanzania, see it separated out into a separate signal carrier for all broadcasters.

This move will take away UBC’s windbreak and expose it to the full blast of competition. It is currently building itself new studios but like all African public broadcasters it is having real difficulties keeping up with rocketing rights costs, particularly those for popular events like the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations.