As a person who is deeply involved in developing interactive media solutions, I have no doubt that change is inevitable for Free To Air commercial and state broadcasters in Africa.Out of a walk along the streets of Livingston, in Zambia few years back, on TV, an array of 100 channels awaited me.Yet, not one of those channels resembled the full service, free-to-air model of broadcast television that has entertained, educated, even edified African viewers for nigh on the last few decades. Had I seen the future? If the present decline in advertising revenue, experienced by African free-to-air TV broadcasters, continues, then the answer is yes. Since then, I have been wondering whether the full service model, one that includes news, current affairs, sport and entertainment of African broadcast television is in danger of going the same way as full-service airlines. If so, the implications run deeply to the functioning of the African political system.Despite gratuitous advice on cutting funding for state owned media companies, new emerging broadcasting services largely driven by technologies on the national broadcasters will impact on programming. It is just a matter of how thinly the vegemite can be spread before it becomes unappetising.The full service model has already gone in part in Africa thanks to the likes of Zuku, STARTIMES and DSTV. As I flicked through the free-to-air offering in the many service areas in Livingston I noticed two shopping channels. I wanted to believe they are broadcast TV channels but I was awfully wrong because they are what experts call data delivery services. They just happen to look like TV stations, with their moving images, synchronous sound and the unrelieved advertising.
Bottom line is that these new TV stations are all product and no plot.There’s little to entertain, educate or edify Africans unless you are an unreformed shopaholic.Then there are the digital siblings, the extra channels made available to the established broadcasters, free of charge like state broadcasters.Like in Uganda, if your DSTV subscriptions expires, you can only watch one channel called UBC which is the national broadcaster. It was part of the deal to shift to digital transmission but they could have been offered to new broadcast entrants, privileging media diversity not the status quo.Programming on small channels is still evolving but none are full service in Africa as per the last time i checked.Some of them are being locked away on the internet where no inveterate channel changer will ever come across it inadvertently.The legacy parents of the digital siblings, alone, cling to the full service model.That model, first defined for commercial television broadcasters in the western world more than sixty years ago, commits each station to deliver a full range of programming from religious programs and children’s programs to news and current affairs, all stations had to be something to all people at least some of the time. But that takes money. In reality, commercial TV licenses are no longer a license to print money for governments in Africa.Overall privately owned commercial broadcasters are still trying and are more adventurous in programming than their state owned rivals.The restructure of free-to-air TV broadcasting in Africa has a long way to go and I can only hope the full service model that made Television cool in 20th century will not be an early victim due to evolving broadcasting platforms.