Monday, 13 Jan 2014

Digital Migration: Navigating the stampede

By Patrick Rukwaro, Internews in Kenya
2013 was an important year for the media in Kenya.  Two transformative events took place. First was the enactment of the Kenya Information and Communication amendment Bill 2013 commonly known as the media bill about which, I will not comment.

The other protracted media event was the switch over from analogue television transmission to digital terrestrial television which was postponed to February 2014. It is also known as “the digital migration”. The media bill which was eventually signed into law is an act of parliament. It can be changed or amended; this being the only comfort the media fraternity can give themselves after the bill passed into law despite industry protests.

The changeover to digital TV has also not been without drama. Despite an extension of the deadline; the case is still in court.

Though the impression created was that media owners were resisting the migration, the fact is they actually were not. They were only praying for a delay in the migration. The general public at some stage did not seem to make a difference between the media bill and digital migration neither did some journalists any way!

Implementing the migration is a global obligation which every nation will have to meet at some stage. All countries with the exception of North Korea and Laos have set migration deadlines.

But there are challenges. In Portugal, viewers were advised to buy a decoder, much like they were in Kenya. Problem is it did not work, so they ended up buying satellite reception dishes instead. It did not end there. With their migration date approaching in 2009, the population now demanded free and universal digital terrestrial television from the government. There were near riots. The migration went ahead anyway and Portugal fully migrated in 2012. Kenyans will have to buy set top boxes which convert analogue signals to digital ones. However there are television sets which have an inbuilt converter.

The case in the United States was one of cost of the set top boxes. Like it is being argued in Kenya, a significant number of the people could not afford the sets used to change an analogue signal to a digital one. The sets were subsidized but only for eligible households mainly those in inner-cities and for the elderly. 40 million households qualified for subsidy while the rest either purchased the boxes at the normal price of $50 or moved on through cable or satellite broadcasting. They migrated in 2009.

South Africa had the twin challenge of cost of the boxes and working out enough local content. The country first created a decoder manufacturing strategy, meaning they did not have to import the gadgets. Secondly, they put up twin strategies governing subsidy and developing enough local content. It was expected to migrate late last year.

Migration will lead to several consequences. The most talked about is clarity of sound and picture, increase in number of television channels, freeing the spectrum to more players and reducing operating costs. There are opportunities as well. First it will be easier and cheaper to operate a television station. Non-profits will be able to establish low cost community television stations and use them to communicate their development agenda to a narrow but specific audience. Television will not be only for entertainment, but development as well. Such developments happened in Accra, Ghana and also in Cape Town, South Africa.

A second consequence is likely to be loss of jobs in mainstream television stations and job creation in the private production sector.  Mainstream television stations will not have a need to maintain a huge number of staff in transmission stations dotted all over the country, employ in-house producers while retaining a retinue of artists like they do now. They will have an option to outsource programmes and that will lead to loss of jobs.

On the other hand, digital migration will lead to creation of jobs because of the demand for locally produced content. The local content quota in Kenya is now pegged at 60% of everything broadcast. That’s a huge amount of content to generate but this will lead to an equally huge leap in the growth of the broadcast industry. There is the hire and supply of production equipment including cameras and the accessories, editing suites, acting talent, talent agents, and so on.

Media houses can decide to generate all the content they broadcast or go for cheap productions such as the low quality local music videos we are currently watching in most of the stations and thus leave little or no room for professional independent producers and freelancers. Such a scenario was witnessed in the UK and to check it, the government imposed an independent production quota of 25%. That is to say, if you are a television station, 25% of your content must come from independent production houses.

So, come on, get up and buy a set top box and welcome to digital terrestrial television.

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