The NBC’s Digital Challenge [opinion]

By any measure, the NBC’s process of digitalisation is facing considerable challenges.

Despite widespread publicity (constant aertising on radio and television, newspaper articles and aerts, posters in supermarkets, etc) the end result, according to a report in The Namibian (6 March, 2014) is that only 2 900 decoders have been sold. This means that less than 0.2 percent of the population currently have access to the full bouquet of television and radio broadcasts being offered by our public broadcaster, including NBC ‘2’ and ‘3’.

In addition, there is an admission that the first 2 000 decoders failed to fully comply with the latest specifications of the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia and were sold for N$159, rather than the full price of N$199. Already complaints are appearing in SMS pages (The Namibian, 12 March 2014) about the reliability of these units.

This process of digitalisation is, of course, an international mandate, and by June 2015 broadcasters worldwide will have to embrace digital broadcasting.

Apart from the poor sales of decoders NBC Director General Albertus Aochamub admitted another failure in that only 49% of the population can currently receive digital signals. He then admitted that if the satellite option had been embraced, rather than terrestrial technology, “100% of the population would have had a television signal much faster.” He went on to acknowledge that satellite coverage was being considered – “we have … . begun to work on looking at an alternative solution that complements terrestrial coverage.”

With Namibia’s diverse population spread over a large physical area, it begs the question why that 100% coverage through satellite wasn’t considered from the start? Research by Stork and Kanyangela (Digital TV Switchover: Economic Impact Assessment), published on the NBC’s own website, noted back in 2009 that “About 50% of Namibian households with a TV watch TV using digital technologies in the form of set-top boxes to receive SABC or Pay-TV already. This is mostly via Satellite services such as DStv (42%)”.

In addition, the majority of new Namibian homes (especially flats or townhouse complexes) being constructed do not have a traditional aerial, but most do have connections to a (communal) satellite dish. Thus, to watch NBC 2 and 3, viewers would not only have to purchase the NBC’s digital decoder, but also purchase (and climb on the roof to install) a television aerial.

A potential decoder purchaser would also question the benefits of access to ‘NBC 2’ and ‘NBC 3’. The media have stated that NBC 2 would be ‘political’ content and NBC 3 would be ‘sport and entertainment’. However, it’s difficult to know precisely the content of these extra channels – their schedules are never publicised in the newspapers, thus depriving the DTT team at NBC of what would have been invaluable (free) publicity, leading, no doubt, to increased sales of the decoders.

The idea of broadcasting parliamentary activities live on NBC 2 (with repeats when parliament is not in session) and even extending that coverage to, say regional councils and local municipalities, is an excellent one, and there would be many (including political journalists and regional politicians) who would be willing to purchase a decoder to watch these activities alone.

And apart from the entertainment options on NBC 3, another digital channel might also be introduced to make the digital decoders more attractive – namely NBC +1. In many countries this is now common practice, and it simply implies that coverage on NBC 1 is repeated as a delayed transmission one hour later. If one comes home late you can still catch up on your favourite programmes an hour later. With digital technology it is not difficult to achieve and, again, creates an even more attractive bouquet of options for the viewer.

The new digital decoders, according to one NBC source, do boast the elusive electronic programme guide (EPG) that thus far has been missing from the NBC’s broadcasts on DStv. Until now DStv decoders cannot automatically tune to NBC programmes at certain times of the day, nor can PVR decoders automatically record NBC programmes. However, the EPG on the NBC decoders will be essentially useless for those already connected to the DStv system as the DStv PVR will not recognise that external decoder.

And for those who are not connected to DStv there will be numerous subscribers in Namibia who have already purchased a digital terrestrial decoder, although not the NBC’s – namely GO TV. Although this involves a monthly subscription, it gives viewers a wider range of channels (currently 33) than the NBC’s own decoder, including, of course, NBC and One Africa TV (a station that currently battles to reach those Namibians connected to the DStv bouquet, on which it doesn’t appear).

Perhaps, with so few decoders having been sold, and with the director-general implying that the decision was flawed, the NBC could be bold and cover 100% of the country using satellite technology. The DStv bouquet already exists, and the close relationship of the ruling party, through Kalahari Holdings, with Multichoice Namibia would suggest that extending that bouquet to include NBC 2 and 3 wouldn’t be difficult.

Perhaps DStv could be persuaded to introduce a unique ‘Namibian’ bouquet for, say, N$204 a year (the current licence fee) which would include the NBC channels, One Africa Television and TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network)? The subsidy currently being used for the NBC digital terrestrial decoders could then be used to subsidise satellite dishes and set top boxes which, if the viewer desired, would also have the aantage for Multichoice of being expandable to embrace other DStv channels.

If sales of the terrestrial NBC decoders don’t soon increase, there will have to be a rethink on a national level of how Namibian broadcasters can embrace the digital age. Change will have to take place, but as a nation it is important to make the correct decisions that, in the long term, will not only be the viable but sensible choice.

The author is a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Namibia.

Source : The Namibian