Kenya’s three leading media houses, (Nation Media Group, Royal Media Services and The Standard Group) have recently voluntarily pulled their TV broadcasts off air after failing to prepare for the digital TV broadcast migration. While independent media is historically vested with the noble duty of impartiality, accuracy and honesty in their broadcasts, the events leading to the said TV stations going off air have exposed how the three media houses can sacrifice facts and objectivity for self-interest and preservation.
According to the three, they are off air because of two reasons: one, the high court ruling in favor of digital migration did not give them time to import new equipment and two, Communications Authority forcefully raided their transmission site in Limuru and carted away their analogue transmission equipment. As a result, they say, ‘over 90% of Kenyans‘ have been thrown into an information-entertainment-education black hole. This, they add, is a constitutional affront on Kenyans’ right to information, Kenyans who are now ‘angry and frustrated’ at the lack of NTV, QTV, Citizen and KTN in their living rooms.
How much time?
To be fair, both reasons for their being off air are true and valid to an extent. However, both are dishonest and twisted; this is why. The discourse on digital TV broadcast happened in the US in from the early 1980’s culminating into their adoption of digital TV (DTV) as a national standard in 1997. Other developed nations like Western Europe and Japan saw the economic sense of DTV and adopted it about then. For the rest of the world, the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Regional Radio Conference (RRC) adopted a resolution in 2006 committing all member countries to the adoption of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVBT) as national standard by July 2015. Kenya is a signatory and therefore adopted the resolution in 2006. Kenya’s enthusiasm with DVBT saw her set her own migration date as July 2012, three whole years ahead of schedule! Kenyan media players therefore had six years to meet the internal migration deadline and a further 3 years to fine-tune any teething problems before the global deadline. Our neighbors Tanzania migrated in 2013.
The 2012 deadline was in fact beaten when Signet, a subsidiary of KBC, went live with Kenya’s first DVBT transmission in December 2009 in Nairobi. The following year Kenya adopted an even better digital platform, DVBT2, to save us the cost of a future migration. The dates remained the same. Again, Signet went live with DVBT2 in February 2012 in Nairobi. A new company, Pan-African Network Group was live on the same platform in Nairobi in June of the same year. It is instructive to note that all these developments happened in the public space. Tenders were floated and won openly. Standards were set and deadlines announced.
In the meantime, KTN, Citizen TV and NTV kept themselves busy with the 2007 general election and the subsequent violence. They had live events, debates, analyses and all. Kofi Annan’s peace accord was actually signed live on TV. 2012 seemed millennial. These broadcasters either thought the migration was not happening or as happens in Kenya, felt insulated by the right people in they knew in the right places. Either way, they simply had no recourse plans. Having lost a bid for signal distribution following a half-hearted participation in the international tender in 2011, they successfully moved to court in 2013 to compel the then CCK to award them frequencies.The local migration date was then moved to December 2014, more time for them. Meanwhile, DSTV launched GoTV, a new service that would tap into the DVBT2 platform but NMG launched QTV, another channel on the analogue platform!
Another election happened complete with all the media frenzy. Come November 2014, the three moved to court in a grossly belated move to stop the digital migration. They wanted more time! Yes, more time to import decoders and transmitters! Eight years later!
As a matter of fact, all willing media houses have had more than enough time since 2006 to not only comply, but also chart the path of the digital migration. What is happening at the three media houses is a classic case of economist Joseph Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ theory: new technologies disrupting interests and comforts of entrenched players in an industry while destroying entry barriers to new players. The only difference in this case is that the change has been brought about by legislation rather than innovation and the resistors have failed to garner the political muscle to thwart the change.
History is replete with grand examples of the cost of resisting technological change. Kodak, the inventor of the digital camera, was killed by the same digital camera because they failed to manage changes in the industry occasioned by their new technology. Nokia gave us mobile phones but died after failing to manage changing consumer tastes and trends. Same fate befell the pioneer smartphone maker, Blackberry. Here in Kenya, the then Kencell was a market leader in voice, data, geographical coverage and number of active mobile connections. As the market evolved to low income consumers and gadgets, our mighty Kencell stayed put. Several name changes later, they cannot provide a worthy alternative to the mighty Safaricom.
By law, the three media houses have until March 30th to broadcast in the rest of the country on the analogue format. Their joint decision to go off air in protest and blame it on the Supreme Court and CA is at best a fatuous teenage tantrum. While at it, they surely know a clause exists for the repossession of unused frequencies. CA’s action after the court ruling is not only legal but fair for those who have abided by the migration timelines.
Information Black hole
It is simply not true that 90% of Kenyans are now groping in the dark following this voluntary shutdown. TV ownership in Kenya stands at 30% of the households. That aside, we are in 2015. It means there are new media for accessing information, entertainment and education. The proposition that these three media houses provide material that would be deemed educative is one that is best not interrogated so as not to give it undeserved currency and in the interest of our comely friends in Nigeria and Latin America. For the 50% of Kenyans with internet access, this forms the main source of information and entertainment. The simple reason is that internet is mobile and individualized. You have it in the bus, in the club, at home, in the office, at school and everywhere else.
This lie is even made more interesting by the fact that the broadcasters went off air but continue to upload their programmes on YouTube. Obviously, they understand that we have alternative media. It is really their loss. No one pays viewers to watch advertisements on TV but free-to-air (FTA) TV runs on advertisers’ money. The intelligent thing would be to quickly comply, even compromise today’s profit, but maintain their respective viewership. The law requires that all FTA’s must be carried by all content providers free, subscription or otherwise. Therefore, GoTV, Startimes, Bamba TV, Zuku and the rest simply comply with the law by carrying the local FTA channels. Going off air does not punish them or the viewers; neither does it save or earn NTV/Citizen TV/QTV/KTN any money. In fact, less than 0.5m Kenyans have internet good enough to view a newscast.
Angry and Frustrated
We are supposed to be angry and frustrated that we can’t watch NTV/Citizen/QTV/KTN! Patriotism means I will not make an honest description of what I really think of the quality of content of these TV stations. Granted, they are the most popular in Kenya. Advertisers want numbers; the quality of those numbers may not matter. Two thirds of Kenyan households do not own TV’s for various reasons. Why would they be angry and frustrated? For their neighbors!
In summary, these TV stations have had over eight years to prepare for the migration. They still have a month to broadcast in analogue in the rest of the country and can reach viewers with compliant devices through digital frequencies they currently own. They must be included on all decoders free by the law. Kenyans have multiple other sources of information, entertainment and education and are therefore neither ‘angry and frustrated’ nor in ‘darkness’ at the absence of these stations on their TV screens. The law must be obeyed by all without undue exceptions and on this, the three have shown an inflated feeling of entitlement to special treatment and dishonestly tried to shape the facts in their favor. It’s little wonder when else these broadcasters willfully ignore facts and objectivity in pursuit of vested partisan interests.
In a country where top businesses thrive on political patronage rather than competitive and technological innovation, NMG, RMS and SG obviously feel lost in the absence of a political compass. They have been forced to play by the rules for once and are clearly unprepared. This may not be the cleanest of all government processes neither is digital TV Kenya’s pressing priority, but there were time and avenues for that discourse. It is my wish other government bodies emulated CA and that the politicians let these bodies work. Most importantly, Kenyans need to see our leading media houses for what they really are; brokers.