By Okoh Aihe
THE thing about the future is that it steals on you like a thief at night and you are hardly prepared. The launch of the second phase of the Digital Switchover, DSO, which looked very far away, is beginning tomorrow from Lagos. Whether it is the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, who should be driving it or the Minister through the Ministry of Information and Culture who should have been an invitee to the event, there seems to be some level of readiness and, come tomorrow, even the ordinary local in Lagos will have the rare opportunity to see and enjoy digital TV signals; you know, that kind of technology that makes TV sound and pictures bring to earth the beauty of heaven.
Tomorrow will usher in a fresh burst of excitement, knowing that we have missed the digital switchover twice: June 2015 and July 2020, respectively, and, at last, some reasonableness have come into a process that was once upon a time in disarray and completely hopeless. For a start, the promise looks mouthwatering. At the launch tomorrow, Lagosians will have immediate access to about 30 TV channels through the magic of one Set Top Box that will help anologue television sets convert the signals to digital. So, the locals can enjoy pure bliss, watch good TV and see those kind of entertainment they used to espy from the rich man’s window. Their time has come only if they can overcome one little problem.
There will be speeches laced with reality and a little dose of political mayonnaise to make the content of their presentations much easier to digest. While one can say that there is some level of excitement from within the NBC that the process is able to take off in Lagos, the biggest economy in Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister superintending the parastatal, will obviously be elated that, finally, his government is able to deliver genuinely on this project.
They, too, can have their day. Although what will happen tomorrow will be unable to replace the horror playing out on our streets, from the North to the South and from East to West, of near absolute chaos to the annoying silence of the authorities, every achievement is worth celebrating to encourage those involved in the process, except that there is the need for caution: that this process be stripped of political appurtenances. From tomorrow, there will be new kids on the block in the Lagos broadcast space. Pinnacle and ITS will suddenly become the new stars of an emerging broadcast ecosystem. Except that they remain kids. No metaphor is intended here. Under the unfolding arrangement, the two platforms will serve as signal carriers, at a fee, for the TV stations in the Lagos area. So, with a little flip of the remote button, you will enjoy the possibility of all terrestrial TV stations in a single bouquet. How very interesting!
The other very important player in the ecosystem is the Set Top Box manufacturer and, of course, there are the buyers who form the audience or viewers. The role of government is to provide a commodious playing field for all parties to thrive. Perhaps, stepping into the role in the preceding line, the Minister, a couple of weeks ago, directed GOTV and Star Times to evacuate their services to the platforms provided by ITS and Pinnacle, saying that is the only way the signal carriers can survive in the business. While the merit of such affluent declaration was being examined, there was a subtle push back by some other parties which say that the Digital Switchover White Paper on which such proclamation was made has since expired.
Such subtle dig will be expected in the DSO process going forward. But permit me to make an observation based on the information at my disposal. Directing GOTV and Star Times to go on the platform of Pinnacle and ITS to carry their signals could be obliquely akin to the possibility of directing MTN and Glo to move their services to NITEL facility. Pinnacle and ITS, in the immediate, remain kids without the capacity to carry the massive content of GOTV and Star Times across the country; while NITEL is too old to understand the new dance of modern technology. The platforms will be overwhelmed. Service will fail. And one party suffers – the audience or subscriber.
It is, therefore, important to examine some myths and role definitions. I think I should say explode some myths. Myth number one. The Digital Terrestrial Television, DTT, which comes on stream tomorrow has no congruence with Digital Satellite Television, DSTV, or Cable Television. While DTT is open television for every viewer with a TV set and signals converter at home, DSTV is pay TV and offers premium bouquet for premium prices to the annoyance of subscribers. In this part of the world we love to get things free or pay a little fraction for a great service. But DSTV comes with a high tech decoder which provides access to television programmes. Without buying a decoder, no subscriber will have access to such premium programming like the last UFC fight by Kamaru Usman, the Nigerian Nightmare.
Myth number two. There is the story around town that DTT has come to equalise the status of TV viewers as folks on the platform will be able to watch Premiership, La Liga and other global sporting events and TV channels like CNN. This is not true in the immediate. Sporting events and some other great television programmes are paid for by broadcasters and are re-bagged for piecemeal delivery at very good price. One can see why the Exclusivity clause in the Nigeria Broadcasting Code is getting nastier but those who want to implement it now will have to pass through the eye of the needle to achieve results as Nigerian courts are not known for blind patriotism or miscarriage of justice.
Myth number 3. DTT has voracious capacity to accommodate multiplicity of programming. So, while it would already have provided space for Nigerian TV stations, including the top ones like NTA, AIT, Channels and TVC, the regulator has also licenced some outfits to programme quality channels which, on the long run, will have to be sustained by the advertisers, not subscribers. I will have to add here that NBC will really have to sabotage our culture to licence broadcasters like CNN and BBC, among others, to run on DTT.
Myth number four. DTT will not come free. The viewer has to buy a Set Top Box which will cost close to N10, 000. The Nigerian worker who is still fighting for a minimum wage of N30, 000 will not be able to shell out that kind of money in these troubling times. Herein comes the role of the state.
What some countries have done is to subsidise the cost of the Set Top Box. I am aware that the NBC has tried to woo the Lagos State government to make a direct intervention and help the ordinary folks hook on to quality TV channels. There has to be the involvement of government, whether Federal, state or local council to help Nigerians enjoy democratised TV viewing opportunities.
The DSO process will be re-fired tomorrow in Lagos. Let truth and genuine patriotism supply the fuel to sustain the process.