Crisis at Namibia’s public broadcaster spreads as it turns off two other private TV channels on its digital broadcasting platform as a desperate negotiating ploy

25 September 2019

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In June this year I wrote about the financial crisis affecting four of Africa’s public broadcasters – SABC (South Africa), KBC (Kenya), UBC (Uganda) and ZBC (Zambia) (see link: African public broadcasters facing a financial crunch – different circumstances and common threads but a worrying trend) Two weeks ago, I also wrote about the financial pressures on ZBC’s signal distributor TopStar, a joint venture with StarTimes (See link)

Earlier this month, Namibia’s national broadcaster NBC joined those four by announcing tough job cuts. The crisis started in December 2018 when the Government announced a broader policy decision to cut state spending and NBC’s funding was cut. It has taken eight months for the other shoe to drop with the announcement of 156 job cuts, reducing the staff complement to 415. NBC also had a staff reduction in 2017 from 618 to 571.

During the past four financial years, NBC’s Government funding has been reduced steadily from N$$237 million (US$15.9 million) in 2014 to N$140 million (US$9.39 million) in the current financial year. Alongside this subsidy, NBC has generated N$100) million (US$6.7 million) across this period each year: in other words, in a small market, it has failed to increase its revenues four years running.

NBC is under the Information and communication technology ministry. Its Minister Stanley Simataa said the government will not allow people to lose their jobs, as it will feed into the already bulging bubble of the unemployed.

“We need to sit down and find a long-term solution because we cannot continue with this situation every financial year,” stated Simataa. The minister said the NBC should look at its operations, and find ways to ensure that they have a staff complement which is in line with its resources, as retrenchment must be the last option.

“The reduction in their funding over the years has definitely made an impact, and we need to see how we as a government can provide them with the needed resources,” he continued.

In its ongoing-struggle with the Government over funding, NBC’s Board Chairman Sven Thieme has threatened to hit the governing politicians with the thing they least like: cutting the daily news to one programme a day and restricting coverage of the next election in November. Alongside this threat, it has done away with director’s fees and pledged to minimize travel.

In a sign the spiraling crisis is getting worse, NBC cut off its main competitor One Africa Television (OATV) and the Christian television network, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), according to a report in Informante on 24 September 2019, from its digital broadcasting platform.

Chief Executive Officer of OATV, Stefan Hugo, said they sent a letter to NBC to clarify and explain why their services was cut off and whether it was a temporary or permanent move. “We have not yet received any feedback,” he said.

Chief Commercial Officer of NBC, Umbi Karuaihe-Upi, said the issue around cost recovery from both the OATV and TBN has been on the table and in discussion with the two entities for some time.

“There are set costs, which the NBC has been carrying to make the broadcasting possible. The two entities benefitted. Our current situation has unfortunately propelled the decision to cut them off,” she explained.

Karuihe- Upi added that it is not the preferred outcome, but that both the OATV and TBN are aware of the situation and should some intervention come from them, then the NBC will look into putting them back on air.

“Our decision is purely business and is informed by our current financial challenges,” she said, adding that the cut off was implemented today.

“These are the only two networks that did not originate from NBC that were cut off. As stated before in our earlier media release on austerity measure, other networks that were also cut off include NBC 3,4,5 and 6,” concluded Karuihe -Upi.

In other words, all private channels and NBC channels except 1 and 2 have been suspended and it has crashed a large part of the broadcasting sector in Namibia except themselves. The move is a desperate one but is also highly anti-competitive. Whilst the other two channels are off its digital platform, NBC will be able to get more advertising. In the meantime, One Africa TV continues to be available on DStv and its more widely distributed GoTV package.

NBC’s crisis raises two issues. Firstly, irrespective of whether NBC spends its money wisely or not, the business model for digital broadcasting in smaller African TV markets is not sustainable. NBC has been trying to run six channels on a steadily shrinking public subsidy and static commercial income. As in the case of its neighbor’s public channel SABC, this will not work.

Secondly, as the example of Zambia shows, digital signal distributor operations in small African TV markets face significant financial challenges. It’s time to ‘come clean’ about these problems and look at how things might work differently.

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