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Special report: ABN & the future of African broadcasting

George Twumasi,  Deputy Chairman and CEO, ABN

George Twumasi,
Deputy Chairman and CEO, ABN

In this special guest post, George Twumasi, the visionary force behind ABN (African Broadcasting Network), looks at the wider significance of African broadcasting, & the role next-gen broadcasting technology can play in the continent’s future. 

In the past, Africa’s television broadcasters and media practitioners have had very little influence, if any, in shaping Africa’s image either within the continent or on the international stage.

Africans have simply been unable to effectively construct a positive image of Africa. Across the most powerful television newsrooms throughout the most advanced economies of the world, news concerning Africa continues to focus on war, famine, poverty, ill-health and corruption…

In Africa itself, it is not surprising, considering this historical use of the broadcast media in colonial subjugation, that with independence African governments moved quickly to control radio and other forms of media, which they mostly utilized to maintain an unwavering regime of intimidation and manipulation.

At the beginning of the 21st century, however, Africa’s restless youth – in spite of a broad set of challenges – are determined to achieve change.

Enter the African Broadcasting Network (ABN). Its mission is to imagine new possibilities for Africa’s young, restore hope, rebuild civic responsibility, and equip citizens with appropriate life skills. ABN strongly believes that public service oriented television broadcasting, underpinned by relevant educational programming, can play a unique role in these processes.

Fortunately for ABN, with the current strides in telecoms media & technology, Africa is set to embrace a multiplatform, digital content delivery environment within the next five years, through which hundreds of millions of Africans can be readily reached via mobile television broadcasting.

Digital opportunities…

Africa’s switch from analogue to digital broadcasting is opening up major opportunities…

Currently, nearly 70% of Africa’s 1.1 billion population are under the age of 30. Of these, over 900 million people are set to have access to a mobile phone by the end of 2015. Given easy access to mobile television broadcasting, cheap broadband services will likely encourage the majority of these young Africans to skip traditional television and directly consume television entertainment content via personal mobile devices. Hence, the demand for affordable mobile television devices – like Huawei’s Ideos – is set to soar, as quality, African-produced content becomes increasingly accessible for millions of new, insatiable consumers.

However, specific to digital terrestrial television (DTT) (given the prohibitive costs associated with its development), many sub-Saharan African governments will be forced in the short term to opt for investments into direct-to-home (DTH) television broadcasting as a viable alternative.

An ensuing result is that, in order to recoup investment and ensure profitability, licensed carrier broadcasting platforms across Africa will have to offer several more television channels via the same spectrum that was previously only able to transmit a single analogue channel.

Viewers are therefore likely to be offered a wider range of channels. A negative knock-on effect of this, given the current dearth of quality African content, is that an ensuing demand for content would result in the rapid proliferation of non-African television channels.

That notwithstanding, in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Cameroon, a number of privately owned terrestrial television channels have triggered a significant, commercially viable demand for advertiser-supported local content. These channels could successfully combine and aggregate their current content offerings into a single bouquet, low-subscription pay-TV service.

The possibility of paying to view more than 20 engaging, locally produced television channels is one that tens of millions of low-income households would be willing to subscribe to. In addition, improvements in Internet access, digital storage technologies, and digital playout systems are bound to enhance commercial multi-platform distribution. This would enable Africa’s creative artists to produce increasing volumes of entertaining local television content

For the first time in its history, as the imminent convergence of a digital television and mobile network ecosystem becomes a tangible reality, sub-Saharan Africa’s local television content industries can expect explosive commercial growth. Therefore, African entrepreneurs that are able to generate monetisable business models will command handsome revenue streams.

Looking forward

The value of public service broadcasting is undisputable even in the developed western countries, where high literacy rates and socio-economic development have lessened the urgency of radio and television programming aimed at social equality and citizen empowerment. This cannot be said for an Africa struggling with the combined legacies of both a burdened past and the challenges and opportunities thrown up by globalization. Half a century after independence, Africa’s share of world trade has fallen from 3% in the 1950s to less than 2% in the 1990s.

Africa’s challenges today are as pressing as they were after attaining independence more than half a century ago. Africa may well have entered a new space with significant improvements in governance and economic growth, but its people remain underdeveloped.

Public service broadcasting and educational programming have a unique role to play in the process of emancipating and developing the minds of hundreds millions of Africans. It is a role that cannot be quantified in financial terms.

Furthermore, new strides in media technology are set to usher in an enabling environment in which existing African content libraries can be digitally archived and re-used as an invaluable resource for the creation of new television programming and niche content channels.

Cloud-as-a-service and big data in particular, are set to play a decisive role in determining which media enterprises grow their profits and market share during the next five-to-ten years. Africa’s content businesses, including its state broadcasters, will need to incorporate cloud and data services as an integral part of their business models by the end of 2017. Broadcasters who refuse to take stock of the cloud’s strategic and operational advantages will lose out. It is a transformation that will be underpinned by the key social media brands Facebook and WhatsApp: increasingly, these are set to become very powerful tools for social interaction and intellectual engagement among Africa’s youth.

I believe that Africa’s state broadcasting sector is ready for a major transformation through which it could play a large role in the mental emancipation and enhanced development of the African mind.

George Twumasi will be appearing at this year’s AfricaCast, Africa’s premier show on the future of broadcasting, which takes place on the 11th-13th November 2014 at the Cape Town Convention Centre, South Africa. Go here for booking and info

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