Reflection on the Future of Public Broadcasting in Africa and Asia
(Voice of Nigeria)
Are state and public broadcasters in Africa and Asia, nay most of the developing countries including ours not losing their essence and values? I am forced to embark on this rhetoric because of the discernible shrinking audience base, unappealing content, weak financial backbone and doubtful credibility of state and public broadcasters in many development countries.
At a time public broadcasting has patriotic role to play in galvanizing public participation in the polity, engendering development, promoting cohesion, inclusiveness and diversity as well as preserving cultural identity in the developing countries, many public broadcasters are in serious hiccups with lacklustre appeal, losing their best hands to private and foreign broadcasters with the commercial and cable channels who smile to the bank as advert revenue flows freely for them while it thins out for public broadcasters, most whom are under threat of being commercialized or sold to private concerns because of unsustainability. The advertisers and even the public seem to give them low rating in terms of quality and diversity of their content and production.
Today, most households have logged out of terrestrial broadcasting and hooked on satellite cable channels whose bouquet of offer are mostly foreign and private dominated and whose content are mainly entertainment, games and sports and foreign news. Even the content of such foreign news are usually not truly or fully representative of realities on ground in developing countries. Rather, it depresses the audience or aggravates their crises. There is a greater danger that these public and state broadcasters might be completely wiped out in competition with the crowd of private commercial and foreign content providers in an era of digital migration and cultural globalization.
Yet, addressing the insensitivity of market driven broadcast services provision and inspiring positive development are the raison d’etre of Public Broadcasting which is essentially a social service, a public good that should ordinarily be available to everybody irrespective of whether they can afford it or not. As a medium of mass communication, it must take care of the needs of all in a national polity in terms of what it offers them of information, education, entertainment, societal correlation, cultural transmission and public mobilization.
It has additional roles of facilitating peace and stability in the society through conflict resolution programming, public engagement as well as providing grounds for rehabilitation after crisis and empowerment of the citizenry in economic emergencies, offering the government and public choices and alternatives in times of critical decision making in the public policy process. Public Broadcasting is the ideal arena of public discourse or participation, because its channels are not exclusive to any group as it is intended to be giving voice to all in the society. Everybody has access to Public Broadcasting, normally funded by the taxpayer.
When public broadcasting institutions are properly structured, funded, managed or staffed, they are able to deliver well on quality and diversity of content and reach of audience. We know this by the feedback it gets and the impact in terms of the transformation it engenders, particularly in behavioural change and government sensitivity to public needs and concerns because as professionals or players in the broadcasting system, what we value most is quality (diversity, richness and cleanness) of production, level of public engagement, audience size and feedback.
In many development countries confronting economic and political structural challenges, the broadcasting system is equally under stress which centres on ownership. In these countries. There is still a confusion on the definition of public broadcasting as state broadcasting in which government strictly owns, funds and employs staff. Such broadcasters are therefore placed under civil service regime or bureaucracy. So, when these countries contemplate or pursue commercialization and privatization policy as a means of economic engineering and therefore list public or state broadcasters as institutions that must go on sale or fend for themselves, they still expect them to also play the patriotic and appendage role of state organs.
We have to accept that in many of these developing countries, the rationale for privatization or commercialization of public enterprises or utilities is not because those services have outlived their usefulness and can be sold off as second hand materials or scraps while governments use their proceeds to take care of more strategic utilities for the public. No. The rationale can be of two fold. One, certain interests in such countries who cannot afford the start-up requirement of lucrative government business may push for its privatization or concessioning. Second, it might be that the service or utility, while it retains its public essence had been badly or unsustainably run by conscienceless public officials who turn it to a drain pipe of public resources that the government is left with no other option than to put it on the market for cheap sale.
Still within the polity where policy liberalization, because of economic structural imperatives have necessitated entry of private providers into services formerly provided solely by the government including broadcasting, the liberated but frail and disadvantaged state and public broadcasters are expected to compete with the new entrants who are smarter, better managed with lean board and management structure. They cannot do so very successfully. So, private commercial broadcasters which are low scoring on national interest but having mercantilist or mercenary orientation with eyes on the bottom line will always push to the public the dominant pop culture content that will shore up their audience base and profit margin as they often have scant regard for the larger national interest.
Now, the social media driven by new technology has crashed all the walls and borders of public broadcasting where the nimble private commercial broadcasting operators and individuals are now the lords of the air and minds of the mass audience. Yet, what the mass audience usually relish are not really development oriented but entertainment, sports and betting focussed. Unfortunately, these sort of content are usually foreign dominated, assaulting national values, culture, and morality, even depraving to enlightened taste. In fact, they are usually more reckless as they lack restraint in what they broadcast because their offers are considered juicy and palatable to the base palates of undiscerning minds that constitute majority of the audience. Responsibility is hardly their watchword.
So, if the public and state broadcasters must compete for audience to be profitable and sustainable, they must necessarily compromise their altruistic public value by playing the same game or outdoing the private commercial and foreign broadcasters in depravity. This is suicidal and could sound the death knell of public broadcasting in developing countries. Their mission and legitimacy are eroded.
For every country that is still in a national construction process, every nation that is undergoing cultural reawakening or rediscovering her identity crisis; for every country that is still evolving from her colonial or imperialist past and striving to launch into a future in which her independence and honour are guaranteed, public broadcasting cannot be discounted nor must it be left to the dogs and promoters of foreign perverted values that are culturally eroding and corrosive.
In all developing countries therefore, State or public broadcasting institutions must be taken as strategic national or public assets that their governments or social and information policy makers or advisors cannot afford to subject to the same capitalist philosophy or economic models of commercialization and privatization because this will necessitate them to abandon their pristine patriotic role of national correlation, mobilization and cultural transmission while competing with private commercial broadcasters for advertising revenue.
State, national and public broadcasters cannot be sustainable if the legislative and executive arms of government of developing countries do not consider themselves as critical owners or stakeholders in the survival and relevance of these broadcasters because Public Broadcasters are supposed to be the authentic voice in any national polity, not foreign, private or cable broadcasters that purvey depraving, distasteful and divisive content to precipitate crises and wars in developing countries or perpetuate foreign and imperialist hegemonies and cultural distortions, particularly in Africa and Asia. But you find situations in these developing countries where the elites, state and public officials give preference and audience to external service broadcasters of other countries or local private broadcasters whose establishment are inspired purely by commercial and other parochial interests that do not conduce to national cohesion, peace and stability.
Preference of the leaders, policy makers and elites of these countries for the contents of foreign broadcasters and their local surrogates or clones when our own broadcasters should be strengthened in terms of structure, governance, funding, independence, patronage, infrastructure and capacity enhancement smacks of neo-colonialism or imperialism. It is an indication we are still locked in a state of anomie, suffering from self-rejection, lacking pride of identity.
If Public Service Broadcasting must continue to produce public value for the developing countries in Africa and Asia, their citizens, leaders and information policy makers must study models and best practices of public broadcasting globally to see how they can adopt their structure, governance, management and funding, not forgetting our local peculiarities to assure their relevance and sustainability.
The point here is in trying to solve the financial or structural economic dilemma of developing countries of Africa and Asia, social and information policy makers and leaders of government must not abdicate the patriotic national responsibility of public broadcasting because it is still very vital to sustaining or promoting national identity, heritage and cohesion and mobilizing for national development in both continents.