By Amenawon Osedamen

Seventeen years after private broadcasting began in the country; the Federal Government under the leadership of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua is about doing the needful.

The much awaited leveling of the playing field to give equal accommodation and opportunity to all the players, whether private or public, began last week with the regulator, the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, announcing the process that will end in the licensing of a private network broadcaster for Television and Radio and finally break the years of monopoly for the government stations.

“After 77 years of radio broadcasting, 50 years of Television broadcasting and 17 years of broadcast deregulation in Nigeria, only the Federal Government owns the only licensed radio and television networks; namely the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigerian, FRCN and the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA.

“Given Nigeria’s enormous size, her wide diversity and remarkable plurality, as well as its economic prospects, the National Broadcasting Commission has determined that it is feasible, desirable and indeed imperative to increase the number of Broadcast Networks in the country.
“The Commission has therefore sought and received the gracious approval of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to commence the licensing process for commercially operated and privately owned Radio and Television Network Services, to operate alongside the existing Federal Government owned Radio and Television Networks.”  Announcing the intention of government, Director General of the NBC, Engr Yomi Bolarinwa released a programme of action which began on September 3, 2009, and is expected to end on December 14, 2009, when a successful bidder will be selected and announced.

No doubt the announc-ement has excited the broadcast industry as broadcast operators have been given a golden opportunity to rub shoulders at the network level. But unlike the NTA and FRCN kind of operations where powers are concentrated in the hands of a central authority – the government – the kind of license being put on sale will have to be jointly competed for by as many broadcasters as possible who must have to work to together under one roof.
Simple interpretation: the government still does not trust individuals enough to concentrate broadcast powers in their hands.

But this small shift of grounds is very interesting and is capable of doing great things for the broadcast sector. For one thing the regulator may have realized that the biggest investor in any business is not government but individuals who use their knowledge and wealth to make a difference in any sector. And for another the regulator may also have realized that it really doesn’t make sense to stick to old ways of doing things when expected results failed to come nearly after two decades. Since independence the government broadcasters have dominated the sector just by sheer might of political patronage and even now can really not boast of serious investment on ground nor can they claim to be providing leadership in terms of investment in infrastructure just two years to the country’s plan to digital switch over.

But beyond the euphoria and prospects last week, some people were beginning to see the move as a major opportunity for the NBC to redeem itself and take proper ownership of the industry by exercising its powers properly. Somebody confided in Vanguard Hi Tech that since 1992, the government stations seem to have existed outside of the purview of the NBC, creating the impression that they could not be regulated.

While private stations were sanctioned from time to time, the government stations could virtually do anything including taking ownership of nationals events from which they excluded private broad-casters, and they were hardly reprimanded.   What should the NBC do? Use this opportunity to license NTA and FRCN even if the action would be merely symbolic. But it would speak of the authority of the regulator. This is the only way a level playing can be created; the only way the government can convince investors of fairness and encourage them to put more money on the sector. So for most of the people who are excited about the development, they are also asking the regulator to commence the licensing process of present holders of monopoly power today.

The process also presents a quagmire. Although it is expected that during the licensing stages the NBC will go through a lot of documents to ensure the workability of the groups coming together, the fear still remains: how long the network relationship can stick together? The point being made here is that although a network can be licensed, nothing guarantees that the network partners stay together for long. Should that happen the industry will be taken back in time instead of making progress.
What is needed therefore is for the NBC to ensure that only the best network is licensed irrespective of individual preferences and secret biases.

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