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Opinions of Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Columnist: The Cable

A minister’s good turn for the broadcast industry

Once I observed that a number of newspaper publications have fallen to thirty two pages shortly after the ugly debut of COVID-19, I knew that the Media was going to be in serious trouble. Even in good times, the Nigerian media enterprise scraps for survival, employing all the logics in the books to be able to pay salaries and embark on daily operations. Just trying to remain in business and avoid closure which would signal a business misfortune and of course a dearth of infotainment service provision.

But the times are not normal. Businesses have been hit in an unusual way and the media remains a major casualty. So, climbing down from about fifty-six pages which most of the newspapers used to publish pre- COVID-19 means that before most of the media owners could begin to summon the spirit of ingenuity, the commercials have taken a flight. This was expected. In bad times, advertising is usually the last consideration in the plan of an organization going on a dusty road. Even in strong economies the media is panting for life!

I started with the print because once you hold a newspaper, you are able to determine the level of business going on in the media house. For many years, my tradition has been to look at the front and the back of the paper, and then open to the inside pages to count the number of adverts. Since the early 90s when Femi Kusa, a well-respected former editor of The Guardian, introduced some of us to commercial journalism, it has been my daily routine. His philosophy which worked quite well was that a good editorial display can attract a lot of advertising support. It was like a magic wand which The Guardian waved very successfully. But times are different. When you look at the papers trying to fight back to life now you know the struggle is going to be long and very intense.

The pain of the broadcast media is masked by the glitz and glamour and a seeming evocative chant usually displayed by onscreen presenters or the very velvety or champagne voice belting out of the radiostations even if the characters carry terrible trauma within them that is buried in the layers of those well-tailored clothes. As the late Prof Ola Rotimi would say, all lizards lie prostrate on the ground, so it is difficult to tell the one with a stomach ache. With that beauty and elevating live show presentations, it is much more difficult to know which station has headache. That is, for people in discomforting unawareness of the happenings in the broadcast sector long before the coming of COVID-19.

I write in praise of members of the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) who damned all pretensions about claims to a glamorous business and presented a reality check to the Nigerian government through the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, that broadcasting was in dire straits and so many practitioners were at the exit gate of a profession that humanizes even the troubled.

You may not like the Information and Culture Minister because of his superficial predictability in responding to national issues. As I listened to him last week respond to the cries of the broadcast sector, he enjoyed my support and admiration just as he again surprised me a few days later when he handed the National Theatre over to the Central Bank and the Bankers’ Committee to resuscitate or is it rehabilitate and restore? We shall stick to broadcasting today.

The times we are would always challenge us to reason on the go. The Minister demonstrated that at a press briefing. Flanked by officials of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the Minister announced a number of Broadcast Industry-specific measures aimed at giving a lifeline to the industry which, though largely a business, continues to function as critical social service of sorts, which is relevant to the information and enlightenment needs of the people.

The measures include the following: 60 percent debt forgiveness for all debtor broadcast stations in the country; the criterion for enjoying the debt forgiveness is for debtor stations to pay 40 percent of their existing debt within the next 3 months; any station that is unable to pay the balance of 40 percent indebtedness within the 3 months window shall forfeit the opportunity to enjoy the stated debt forgiveness; the debt forgiveness shall apply to functional licensed Terrestrial Radio and Television stations only; the debt forgiveness and discount shall not apply to pay TV service operators in Nigeria; the effective date of the debt forgiveness shall be July 10th 2020 to October 6th, 2020; Broadcast stations will also enjoy 30 percent discount on licenses renewable; the existing license fee is further discounted by 30 per cent for all Open Terrestrial Television services effective July 10th, 2020.

When trouble knocks on the door, this is the way to reason; this is the way to give hope and assurances; this is the way to save lives; this is the way to add a little salt and pepper to our fading hubris that we all matter as a people, no matter the status in the society, in our contributions to the collective pursuit of national dream.

While hoping that the broadcast operators are able to respond positively to the Minister’s generous survival capsule and be able to appreciate him for a rare understanding of a very intrusive situational challenge, the Minister should also extend such understanding to another story that is equally unfolding and getting very inchoate contributions and responses.

Also speaking last week, the Minister had said pay-as-you-go service has come to stay for the DSTV sector. To the privileged Nigerians who watch pay TV, that is very good music to the ears. For a people who hardly want to pay for anything such response is expected, and there will be so much handclapping for the Minister that serious issues will suffer a blurring. This is the reason I am appealing to the Minister to consider the variegated differences between the broadcast technology and the telecoms platforms where pay-as-you-go is a welcome feature. While it is very salutary to work towards a technology that can unhinge payment and costing patterns in the pay TV sector, it will be cheaper than words to imagine that such technology can be decreed into existence irrespective of the laws of deregulation that have made broadcasting a delight in Nigeria. This has been my position on this matter and you can imagine I enjoyed a smirk last week when the smooth-talking but highly resourced boss of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), Mr Babatunde Irufera, maintained a straight face and told Channel TV crew that the pay-as-you-go billing model used in telecommunications was not going to be very easy to implement on pay TV.

The other issue is the complaints by one of the operators that it is losing money on some of its sporting rights in Nigeria and gave intervening reasons responsible for such emerging losses. Here is my concern. I have been in places where such issues are raised and the spontaneous response would be “to let them go if they don’t want to stay and do business in our environment.” In a deregulated environment that is a very barbaric and selfish response. Such response attenuates the standing of a nation internationally. The path of reason is that when an operator complains of difficulties in an operating environment, it is the responsibility of the regulator to carry out an integrity or a stress test of the market and quickly nip the issues that may be conspiring to undermine the market.

Like the rest of the world, Nigeria needs a healthy market serviced and patronized by diverse interests. It is the responsibility of the market umpire to provide a measured balance for the various interests and develop lasting buffers to accommodate dissenting opinions that can add form and maturity to the market.

Aihe writes from Abuja.

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