Everybody and their grandmother turned into a post doctorate-level expert on digital migration in just one week. To say it has been fascinating to watch would be the understatement of the year. ‘Hey NTV, QTV, KTN and Citizen TV, even wildebeest migrate every year and they’re not bothering us,’ several wannabe comics have posited. OK, I’ll admit that made me chuckle.
For every action, there is a social media overreaction. The ad hominem attacks on the broadcasters – derisively christened ‘The Analogue 3’ – and on me exploded. Airheads who don’t even know what DVBT2 stands for became overnight analysts on all matters digital migration, speaking with comical authority on why Nation, Standard and Royal Media were resisting change. ‘Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups,’ George Carlin once said. Looking at the vast wasteland of the Kenyan social media community, I finally understood what he meant.
The big 3 support digital migration
The stations are losing money for every minute that they are off air. Television is an expensive undertaking, especially at the scale at which NTV, QTV, KTN and Citizen do it. ‘The three media houses have been and will always remain committed to digital migration and we are doing everything possible to get your channels back on air,’ they said in a joint said in a joint statement. Not being people to let facts get in the way of a good argument, most people still went to town with the lie that the 3 were opposed to digital migration.
If anything, digital migration is a shot in the arm for the broadcasters. If done right, they will be available in every television household, unlike the current uneven reach because of limited frequencies. ‘The competition is in content, not the platform,’ former Information permanent secretary Dr Bitange Ndemo told me on phone. ‘But you can’t force people to share content because the business model is not created by CA.’
Dr Ndemo thinks both the broadcasters and the regulator are missing the point by fighting over the platform – how the channels are carried. But is it really? M-Net announced it was shutting down its Kenya-focused Maisha Magic channel on Dstv after floundering in ratings. “Unfortunately, Maisha Magic has not performed and grown as per our expectations,’ said Patricia van Rooyen, CEO M-Net Sub-Saharan Africa. “Overall, the channel was unable to achieve the ratings consistency we needed to sustain the business and support our continued investment.” Maisha Magic had been on air for only 5 months and was still aggressively buying and developing content. Though the channel’s staff think it wasn’t given enough time to grow an audience, there is a larger picture here.
Maisha Magic shuts down
A jaw-dropping 60 percent of television owners do not own a set top box. That is from an Ipsos survey conducted on 17th and 18th of February. Among those that own those all-important decoders needed to receive a digital signal, 20% are on Dstv. Its’ sister product GoTV has 37%, Star Times 23% and Zuku 16%. Maisha Magic airs high quality local programming and pays producers often double or higher the usual market rate. It would need ratings higher than Citizen TV to justify those numbers and yet it was hidden away behind a paywall, out of reach of the people it targeted.
The competition is on content not platform, but both are necessary to attract the eyeballs Maisha Magic lacked. It didn’t have a critical mass. At the moment, only NTV, QTV, KTN and Citizen TV have that mass appeal. The last time the stations pulled off the Star Times and GoTV platforms, subscriptions dropped precipitously. The forceful analogue switch-off was designed to force them into using these same providers to reach viewers.
The reasoning is simple: most people would rather buy a set-top box from their Africa Digital Network consortium for and receive their channels for free forever than pay monthly subscriptions for a pay TV service that doesn’t carry them. ‘Our position is that we don’t have a neutral carrier at the moment,’ Royal Media Services group MD Wachira Waruru told me. ‘The Chinese PANG and Signet are both players and referees and we’re a their mercy.’ The Self Provisioning Licence reinstated by the Supreme Court allows the broadcasters to carry their own channels and all they’ve been asking for is time to bring in their set top boxes.
Why the regulator and the government are so keen to prop up the Chinese should worry all patriotic Kenyans. There seems to be a deliberate effort to diminish the economic and editorial influence of the big 3 media houses for some yet unknown reasons. Someday the whole story may unravel, and it may be too late.
Update: A version of this piece was published in my Daily Nation Tuesday column #FrontRow on 24th February and online.