Open or closed broadcasting markets: will all of Africa step up to the plate in 2012?

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Two events at the end of last year highlighted that Africa has now reached a crossroads in terms of how its broadcast sectors operate. 35% of countries in Africa now have TV stations other than a sole Government broadcaster: others are joining this list but far too slowly. A report for the African Telecommunications Union which was presented at an event in Nairobi just before Christmas identified that with the exception of a dozen states, almost all other African countries have considerable spectrum resources to expand their TV markets. Russell Southwood looks at how Africa can make 2012 a year for investment and growth in TV broadcasting.

The most recent example of a country liberalising its broadcast sector is Mauritania that announced its liberalisation policy at the end of November, giving two new television channels and five new radio stations government permission to operate.

The High Authority for Press and Broadcasting (HAPA) of Mauritania authorized new channels Mauri-Vision and Wataniya Television, and gave the green light to broadcast for new radio stations Sahara FM, Radio Cobenni-MAPUCO, Mauritanides FM, Radio Tenwir and Radio-Nouakchott.

As everywhere on the continent, demand for new licences is high when they are offered. The government received 27 applications when it announced its intention to grant licenses to broadcast media in Mauritania for private operators. In newly liberalised countries like Tunisia, new and more diverse stations have begun to take shape. An Islamic TV channel, "Al Kalam" (The Pen) will be created by a group of Imams from Sfax, in Southern Tunisia.

In terms of broadcasting, the African continent is at a crossroads. It can either dig in and stick with the closed, one voice TV broadcasting systems or it can follow the lead of the existing liberalisers and reap the benefits of opening up the means of expression into a wider set of hands. In case the benefits are not obvious, it is worth repeating them. A wider range of media allows more people (and groups of people) to express themselves. Local content allows people to see themselves through their own mirror rather than through a mirror presented by others.

On an economic level, it allows the creation of jobs through the setting up of stations and the creation and expansion of advertising agencies to handle broadcast advertising. If local content is encouraged, it creates opportunities for programme and film-makers. The whole process encourages the development of a range of skills that allow countries to engage with the global discussion and the global economy.

Africa is in a uniquely fortunate position. Whereas in developed countries, spectrum is in short supply, most African countries have more spectrum than they know what to do with. Africa’s digital transition in broadcasting may be proceeding slowly but it will again offer more spectrum as broadcast signals are compressed. Countries that have only got a state television broadcaster have plenty of spectrum to give away to new television broadcasters. Africa’s TV broadcasters need to get into dialogue with the telecoms industry that has its eye on this “digital dividend”.

In most countries, there is more than enough spectrum to go round. The only issue is where the spectrum has been for in some countries for in some countries, historic spectrum allocations have left what has been described as “old mens’ teeth”: scattered broadcast allocations that make it hard for both broadcasters and telcos to get what they need for the future.

Africa’s digital broadcast transition will be a long and expensive process but will produce a number of benefits. In all but the countries with developed broadcast sectors, it will shrink the amount of spectrum required by broadcasters even if 2-3 channels are given to each broadcaster. But what about HD and 3D channels for the future?

The key question is: what will future demand for African broadcast look like? African broadcasters have no collective, continent-wide body through which it can express its views on this question. Existing bodies like the African Union of Broadcasters need to take up this responsibility or give way to some new grouping that can more adequately represent private broadcasters.

But open broadcasting is not just about extending the number of TV and radio stations, it’s also about allowing international and regional ownership of these stations. Most African countries have restrictive investment legislation that keeps out international investors: the largest broadcast market in Sub-Saharan Africa – South Africa – has kept out international investors out of terrestrial broadcasting. But without international investment, the media sector cannot grow with the kind of speed experienced by the Africa’s mobile industry. South Africa’s own media owners suffer these restrictions when they look at expanding into terrestrial broadcasting on the continent.

There are understandable fears about loss of control and the dilution of national identity. But there are policy responses that can be used to protect against these kinds of outcomes. Licences can be issued with clauses that specify levels of national news coverage required. Local content quotas can help develop local production capacity and the skills that go with that capacity. Because on the positive side, investment brings professionalism and can bring an end to “crony” media ownership (the TV station owned by shadowy political investors) used to advance the political interests of individuals.

Finally, even in countries where broadcast has been liberalised, Africa’s political class has to get used to behaving differently. The news story in the Regulatory and Policy section below is a case in point. What possessed Uganda’s State Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Musa Ecweru to storm into a radio panel and start making threats top the panellists and presenter? In every issue there are stories of this kind and the best we can say about this one is that no-one got killed as many involve the loss of life by the journalists who produce the output of these stations.

So its straight choice in 2012: either you have a closed broadcasting sector where the voice of Mr President TV dominates like some aging patriarch or you unleash the creativity of Africa’s new broadcasters.

Top Ten broadcast and film highlights from Balancing Act’s You Tube Channel in 2011:

1. Wachira Waruru, CEO, Royal Media on using local content to become No 1

2. Obi Asika, CEO, Storm360 on music TV, TV formats and mobile download potential

3. Kenneth Ashigbey, COO, Ghana's Multimedia Group on MultiTV's FTA service on DTH satellite

4. Richard Bell CEO of Wananchi Group on its Zuku pay TV brand and its triple play offer

5. Jason Njoku, CEO, Iroku Partners on distributing Nollywood and Nigerian Music using You Tube

6. Teju Babyface, CEO, Class Act Entertainment on his new comedy and variety show

7. Steve Ojo, CEO, Galaxy Entertainment on Africa's first telenovela Echoes

8. Dayo Ogunyemi, CEO, Cinemart on the launch of a new mass market cinema chain

9. On 'Adam’s Apples, Ghana's film industry and Nollywood - Shirley Frimpong Manso

10. Kenya's Wanuri Kahiu, maker of Pumzi, talks about her new film project Who Fears Death

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Want up-to-the-minute breaking news? Balancing Act's Twitter feed provides a combination of breaking news for broadcast, film and Internet in Africa, direct tweets from countries visited and access to the occasional rumours circulating. You can follow us on: @BalancingActAfr