for the Journalists of Southern Africa
THERE has been much correspondence in over the past few weeks regarding the funding of the NBC.
In particular, readers are concerned about having to pay a TV licence for a station they claim not to watch while others have suggested that NBC use decoders and cut off those viewers who fail to pay a TV licence.
Some perspective on these issues is needed. Firstly, as has been pointed out (New Era, 17 January 2012), as a public broadcaster it is vital that the NBC be accessed by all Namibians. To put the service in a coded format that only certain Namibians can access is defeating that concept of public accessibility.
Secondly, the licence fee should be placed in the context of NBC financing as a whole. The Corporation's own website admits that the "main source of funding is an annual state subsidy". According to a news report (The Namibian, 1 March 2011) the amount of that subsidy, in 2007/8, was N$62 million. The NBC also received additional income (advertising and transmitter hire) of nearly N$40 million. It places the N$15 million collected last year by the NBC in licence fees into perspective - a distant third in terms of income.
So should the NBC drop the licence fee altogether and look for other forms of income? Other public broadcasters are dealing with a similar issue. The danger, of course, is that to rely primarily on, say, advertising creates a commercial, not public broadcaster. This is what has happened at the SABC in South Africa where commercial content now dominates, because the Corporation receives 76% of their financing from advertising and only 2% from government subsidy (www.theannual.co.za).
The NBC is, first and foremost, a public broadcaster and not a commercial one. This means that their mandate is to 'inform, educate and entertain', and, one would hope, in that order. If the NBC did not exist Namibians would have to rely on commercial channels with their diet of predominantly imported films, soap operas, and sport, which, although entertaining, would leave us with a significant and dangerous gap in terms of knowledge and information about events in our own country. To live on a diet of media popcorn every day might be enjoyable, but hardly nutritious.
However, by 2015, all television broadcasting in Namibia will have to be in a digital format, and this opens up some intriguing possibilities for future funding. Because the majority of Namibians still own older, analogue television receivers, this means they will have to purchase a set-top decoder box in order to receive NBC broadcasts.
In a fascinating 2007 study [Digital TV switchover: Economic Impact Assessment], Christoph Stork and Rosa Kanyangela looked at the potential impact of digital television on Namibian viewers and contemplated some alternative forms of funding for these set-top boxes. They found that the majority of Namibians would not be able to afford even a subsidized set-top box (at a cost of N$100), and suggested that these set-top boxes could be given away for free with TV licences.
They also noted that, with digital television, this system could allow viewers access to the internet, and thus reduce the so-called 'digital divide' - the gap between those Namibians that can and cannot use the internet.
In fact, the idea of introducing digital set-top boxes for public broadcasting access has already been implemented successfully in Tanzania. When the Tanzanian public broadcaster obtained the rights to show soccer world cup matches in 2010, they put these matches on a new channel, TBC 2, which could only be accessed if viewers obtained a set-top digital decoder.
The clever aspect was that the 'public' channel of TBC, showing news, current affairs and political debates (TBC 1) continued to be free, using the older analogue technology but the 'carrot' was more sport and entertainment if viewers upgraded to the digital set-top box.
The carrot offered by the NBC might not only be 'NBC 2' (a more entertainment-oriented channel) but other channels as well (France 24, Al Jazeera, TBN, etc.), giving a greater choice of viewing options.
What is most dramatic about the Stork/Kanyangela report is that they discovered that nearly 50% of Namibians are already watching television via satellite. It means that for many Namibians, the introduction of digital television will have no effect whatsoever. They are already receiving digital signals and many are also watching NBC in this way (DStv Channel 135).
But this also implies that, perhaps, there needs to be a shift in national policy regarding the distribution of television and radio broadcasting. Previously, immense amounts of the Namibian capital budget were spent on the purchase, construction, erection and maintenance of transmitters for NBC broadcasts.
It would allow all Namibians access to a variety of reliable and consistent television broadcasting channels, a full bouquet of all NBC radio language services, and even internet and text services. The digital migration of the NBC could thus become a cloud with a silver lining, and, rather than being seen as an additional burden for viewers, could lift many Namibians out of the digital cellar and into the digital light.
Robin Tyson is Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Namibia. This article first appeared in The Namibian on 20 January 2012.