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Ghana’s digital push reveals TV tale of woe

Industry lacks broadcasting law, license transparency

Ghana’s migration from analog to digital TV transmission by 2014 has revealed a host of industry-related problems in the West African nation, including concerns over the lack of a law governing broadcasting and the transparency of digital license allocation.

There’s also the question of whether a country of 24 million, with just 4 million TV-owning households, can raise enough advertising revenue to sustain extra digital channels.

Today there are close to a dozen commercial broadcasters on air, and at least 30 more have applied for digital licenses, which the government is expected to begin issuing soon. They will be fighting for smaller and smaller slices of an advertising pie that is already struggling to feed the industry.

“Look at our advertising market — it can’t support it,” says Oscar Nchor, technical director of pubcaster Ghana Broadcasting Corp. “We cannot have more than 30 terrestrial channels and hope to make them viable.”

The government began upgrading its antiquated equipment in 2005, and introduced a DTT broadcasting academy last year — the first of its kind in Africa — to assist with industry-wide technical training.

It also rolled out a pilot commercial digital service, Smart TV, to test digital technology via GBC and Sweden’s Next Generation Broadcasting.

But that move raised the ire of the National Communications Authority, the country’s main regulatory body, which censured pols for introducing the pilot service before passing its first broadcast law.

Government monopoly of the airwaves ended in 1995, but there are as yet no broadcast laws in place. Pols are working on a plan that attempts to outline funding mechanisms, to introduce content standards and advertising guidelines, and to require broadcasters to give prominence to local content.

Meanwhile, the existing webs accused the government of giving NGB, which owns Smart TV, an unfair competitive advantage at a time when they were shut out from digital trials.

Nchor defends the pilot service, saying it was the only way for Ghana to test its digital technology.

“Everything that we know about digital migration came from those efforts,” he says.

Nevertheless, the GBC-NGB partnership raised concerns over whether the government is offering broadcasters a level playing field, and whether a lack of transparency in the TV licensing process will open the door for political patronage to influence decision-making.

A host of new webs could give Ghana’s fledgling TV industry a shot in the arm by spurring demand for original content.

But in a country whose airwaves are already overrun by foreign programming — from Mexican telenovelas to Nigerian movies to Korean sitcoms — frosh broadcasters are likely to continue to look abroad for cheap content.

And with advertising in short supply, Nchor said the move to digital would force broadcasters to look at other revenue models, such as pay TV subscriptions and pay-per-view.

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