DSTV Uganda’s swanky offices in Kololo are a powerful statement of where the money ends up in the television business. As a content carrier the business relies almost entirely on other providers for its survival. However with its successful subscription business DSTV makes most of the money.
It is part of a small cluster of content carriers that dominate the fairly narrow market for subscription services – a potential growth area in the era of digital television.
This “content carrier domination” is not an unusual reality and its repeated around the world with content carriers from ITunes to, in a sense Facebook, aggregating much of the profit in stark contrast to those that originate and provide content. Record companies for example have been in the spotlight for profiting off the creative sweat of the artists they represent. It is not so much a moral issue as some would say but one of business models.
However there is something fundamentally wrong with this formula especially for a Ugandan television station like Urban, which is founded – and managed as a business that reflects the changing way in which content is produced and consumed, and also, how it is valued.
Greater access for consumers is commercially beneficial but also lends itself, not just tangentially, to public interest by increasing knowledge and participation in the cultural market place.
Subsequently it is a subject for regulation under the Uganda Communications Commission Act and to an extent the National Information Technology Authority. Both agencies however as anyone interested can surmise are more invested in the mechanics of the market not its ultimate effect. Put differently an economy is not simply the creation and exchange of value but the quality of living that it affords. The latter is where the public interest lies.
The market for cultural products is therefore a market of the public interest. The context where carriers like DSTV do not invest in content creation and in fact represent obvious barriers to audiences accessing content is a situation that needs addressing. High cost for access for example generally means few people can watch whatever content is available. It also biases content in favor of that developed elsewhere since in our experience the process of getting into the DSTV bouquet is something of a nightmare for local content providers. Lastly if the commercialization of content remains narrow – and local content providers are not generating value, they in turn cannot invest in creating that content.
This is the experience of many TV stations in Uganda. There is little revenue to move into longer productions or invest in say special features and investigative desks. The effect of this is to hollow out the potential of local players that wish, in the end, to compete favorably with foreign content ( including news, soaps, sports and other entertainment shows)
It bears repeating.
There may come a time when DSTV (and other carriers) are put in the dustbin of technology – the way cassette tapes made way for disks and now flash technology but that time is not now. However there are lessons to learn from this process. In so long as the technology was both elusive and exclusive – fewer people had access to it and therefore it had less of an impact. As far as cultural products created in Uganda are concerned the pricey service of DSTV and other carriers (despite digital migration) simply deny Ugandans a chance to watch, say soap operas and other television products, created within the country with an eye for its audience.
Since carriers like DSTV do not themselves create local content they force most providers of content- without the revenue bases, to buy cheap, out-dated material like Mexican soaps to supplement their programming. It is in fact largely Ugandan music that remains the most widely available local content. Luckily this can now be consumed more readily on personal mobile devices and no longer relies on restricted airplay especially on television.
The real crisis of why Ugandan content is not just that local content needs support, and therefore a fair relationship between carriers and providers, or that Ugandans are assumed to be healthier if foreign shows are balanced by local ones. It is simply that in this age when information and technology are intersecting more rapidly and cheaply, confident Ugandans, like other Africans have a chance of a generation to participate in the global cultural market place on their own terms.
DSTV and its representation of a dirty monopoly of content transmission make this reality near impossible to fully evolve out of. One has to say dirty because along with this constricted cultural market system is the unhelpful approach to regulation that comes in the form of Uganda Communications Commission.
Recently, along with the many taxes and levies it currently charges, UCC is suggesting that television stations give up two per cent of their gross earnings. There appears no clear plan on what they will do with the funds (in any case this is a tax which must be properly approved). UCC’s insistence that all channels provide 70% local content is truly laughable if it were not downright tragic. Stations like Urban can only thrive on a diet of great local production, which it is currently attempting under these insane conditions.
UCC has its regulatory teeth not only in broadcast but also telecoms one area where access could be discussed. However any one dumb enough to regularly stream local television on their mobile phone understands how painful it is to the pocket. There is no suggestion, accept on paper, that telecoms that are now effectively also broadcasters should lower the cost of data to improve access to local content something, which UCC could consider. [To understand the prohibitive cost of the business kindly visit the licensing fee structure on the UCC site]
The relationship between broadcasters and UCC requires more than this post. After several complaints about the underwhelming conduct of the regulator through the digital migration process – many ‘new” television stations are off air today. Even then the complaint was that UCC should not allow digital migration to be a “pay TV” migration, which it has surely become. For the most part UCC operates not like an independent regulator but rather like the public relations arm of the telecoms sector. I have complained to the body several times. In my last conversation with its chief executive officer – he said telecoms (whose infrastructure is crucial to future broadcasters) are themselves overwhelmed by taxes and asked if folks like myself could make the case of cheaper (more reliable data services) to parliament instead.
As someone who believes that television is essential to journalism in our age, the current state of affairs is hugely retrogressive not just because it denies large audiences access to information and entertainment but also by shutting out progressive local content it denies many Ugandans and other Africans cultural products that can re-educate us and the rest of the world about our heritage and diversity.
Many young people are confronted with the borderless world of the Internet everyday. Many are about to situate themselves within that shared eco-system by identifying with their local communities whilst being in effect global citizens. However many Africans are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cultural products as well as their attending values and arguments that originate elsewhere. It is not a level playing field.
UCC is not alone in its unserious approach to its regulatory role. Last year I was involved in a long, if largely quiet campaign, to get the Ugandan government to consider tax relief to Walt Disney’s Queen of Katwe movie which was partly filmed in Uganda. Most of the film production (nearly 85%) was done in South Africa whose tax regime is constructed to encourage filming in that destination. Uganda is a late comer (despite years of encouragement) to reforming its tax system, which it is only just attempting. Aside from the benefits of this to the economy and tourism, which has seen the biggest drop in earnings in nearly a decade, in-country film production transfers skills and reach to Uganda’s own talent.
This ability of having skilled filmmakers is important to the local industry and to television itself. I argue that it is even more important not for it’s earnings but for its potential to provide tools to the next generation of Ugandan storytellers to craft their own narrative in this shared world. This is the ideological battlefield being shaped by technology.
It is in this wider context that DSTV does the most harm. It is like a butchery that is wealthier than the local ranchers and subsequently stalls the investment into other products like tanneries – earning its money mostly from meat sales.
This week Urban Television debuted on DSTV (Channel 288, together with TV West on 289) and what should have been a given is being greeted with applause. It has taken nearly 3-years and a lot of commercial diplomacy for this to happen sometimes bordering on the comical (at one point I lobbied the golf buddies of DSTV manager Charles Hamya for help as a consultant with the station). The move is great for viewers and a boost to the morale of Urban’s young professionals. However I can think of a situation where our energies were better devoted to creating better local content and supporting credible journalism by the station and others like it.