After Switching to Digital What Really Have Been the Gains

Kenya is among the few African countries that have completely switched from analogue to digital TV. This they accomplished in early 2016. The move was not without its own politics, selfish interests, courtroom drama, misinformation and wasted resources. The story should be made into a TV documentary!

Digital Television is now firmly established and some benefits have been seen – clearer pictures, high quality sound, more choices leading to greater competition and the greater sharing of the broadcasting cake with the ease in setting up a TV broadcasting station.

No longer does a budding broadcaster have to worry about the transmission infrastructure and the technicality and expense that went with analogue television broadcasting.

In 1999, when my company was involved in the set-up of the Nation Media Group Radio and TV station, not only did we have to bring together a whole team of architects, engineers, technicians, riggers and others, we had to also get involved in assisting the Group in the purchase of land to put up the Limuru Transmission station.

The cost to Nation Media Group was colossal involving buying the land, huge transmitters, aerials, putting up a 140 Metre mast, studio to transmitter links (STLs), stand-by generators and other equipment and infrastructure. Due to the long learning curve involved in the set up and maintenance of such equipment we were contracted for seven years to maintain the transmission facilities. Those were the days!

Today one can set up a TV broadcasting station, literally by having a single computer, a mobile phone and connection to the internet. Okay, you will still need vision mixers, monitors, etc but you get the drift. It is no longer a big players game.

The emphasis is no longer on the set-up infrastructure but on content. Content is king and herein lies the business opportunity for budding and seasoned entrepreneurs. Many have seized this opportunity to the extent that there are now over 70 TV stations from a mere 3 back in 1999 and the list is growing.

The number of content creators (also known as independent producers) is estimated at over 100, many of whom are youthful entrepreneurs. Due to the collaborative nature of content creation, a single production may involve hundreds of players and the income generation and job creation can be tremendous.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Nigeria where the Nollywood industry has propelled Nigeria to be the country with the highest GDP in Africa. Kenya’s own Riverwood, Machawood and Pwaniwood just lack serious innovation and support and the day it happens we will see similar results as in Nigeria.

Unfortunately, the scene in Kenya is not encouraging. Advertisers especially the large corporates have not been truly supportive of local content creation. Many still shy away from sponsoring local creatives to come up with engaging content. Even the advertisements they commission are usually produced by non-locals.

The government has been trying to push content creation by locals but their efforts have been sporadic and lack a concrete policy framework and direction. The Ministry in charge of broadcasting, seems to have largely left this aspect to Adam Smith’s invisible hand in the free market but as Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz once said “the reason why the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there”.

The Ministry, Media Owners, the Communications Authority and the independent producers need to come together to ensure that the gains from transition to digital will truly translate into a boon to the local economy and greater content for the entertainment, education and information of the general public. Otherwise to many, the transition to digital appears to have been just another (unnecessary) government action. The major beneficiaries of the switch to digital seem to be the mobile service operators who now have frequencies freed up by the switch to extend their 3G, 4G and 5G networks. Perhaps they should play a greater role in ensuring the switch also benefits the broadcasting industry and the economy as a whole.