The birth of television

HARARE - In less than a century, television has become one of the greatest gifts from technology to the world, and has grown into the single most important tool for informing, educating and entertaining.

Although the birth of TV broadcasting is widely known — 1936 in Europe, 1939 in North America — the evolution of TV in Africa is less well-known. It is said the establishment of a Moroccan television station in 1954 marked the beginning of the television age in Africa, while others maintain that the first terrestrial television broadcast signals on the continent occurred on October 31, 1959, sent out by to the Western Nigeria Television Service.

But, whatever the date, it is now firmly entrenched as the most effective means of information, education and entertainment across the continent.

As November 21 is World Television Day, we think it is time to reflect on the role TV has played, is playing and will continue to play in Africa as TV heads towards its centenary in the next 20 years.

Zimbabwe’s first broadcasts came in November 1960, when black and white programming started in Harare. This was followed soon afterwards by broadcasts in other parts of the then Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland: from stations in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and Ndola, Zambia. By the 1980s these broadcasts had become colour, and by the early 1990s, almost 80 percent of the country was in receipt of terrestrial signals.

Algeria, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal launched television stations in the late 1950s and early to mid-60’s, but some countries like South Africa and Cameroon TV stations until the 1970s and 1980s. Nigeria was a front runner in introducing news and specific genres of content too. Nigerian Television — now known as the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) — started with a takeover of regional television stations in 1976 by the then Nigerian military authorities, and became the mouthpiece of government. News programming was the bedrock of government’s plan to forge national unity, and scripted news was introduced by this monopoly in the late 70s.

By 1980 efforts to increase the level of original content from Nigerian producers gained momentum, and the NTA network set a ceiling of 20 percent broadcasting time for foreign programming in order to stimulate interest in local content.

Between 1980 and 1985, NTA started producing Africa’s first local soap operas, children’s programmes and comedy series. This marked the birth of the Nollywood film industry, which now produces more than 50 films a week, surpassing Hollywood as the world’s second largest movie industry by numbers of productions, after India’s Bollywood.

Pay-TV was introduced to Africa in 1992, when M-Net launched an analogue service to over 20 countries. A year later, MultiChoice Africa began expansion outside South Africa’s borders, and is now present in 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1995 MultiChoice introduced digital technology to the continent with the launch of the DStv bouquet and in 1996 analogue satellite services to Africa were cancelled. DStv was one of the first broadcasters outside the United States to launch a satellite platform, which enabled high-quality transmission to Africa’s most remote regions.

Streaming and video-on-demand services have for some time supplemented broadcast TV, mostly in the area of news. Today most news consumers are no longer reading lengthy articles, but watching video of events as they unfold from news agency sites or social media networks. The era of consumer-led reporting and social networking has considerably shifted the power of traditional news agencies and at the forefront is video.

This has also led to a number of problems, of course, such as the much-highlighted fake news and so media recipients need to check on authenticity with well-known news agencies.

With relatively slow and expensive Internet connections being the norm in Africa, commercial VOD and streaming services have seen slower growth than countries where data speeds allow for more efficient live streaming. Pay-TV is still growing on the continent.

According to Dataxis, Africa’s pay-TV revenue for 2016 stood at $4,4 billion and is forecast to reach $6 billion by 2021. In 2016, Africa’s pay-TV subscriber base stood at about 18,7 million people, an increase of about two million subscribers over the previous year.

Increasing broadband penetration and the reduction in data rates in Africa will increase the penetration of online video content. We expect online video consumption to be a supplementary service to traditional pay television as online providers do not provide news channels and live sport, which are key to household viewing. In some countries, traditional “video shops” now stand empty as consumers no longer need to leave their homes to get a film; alternatives to this are DStv Box Office services on the Explora decoder, which provides an option in which consumers do not have to pay for the delivery of the movie, while streaming requires the delivery cost and the bandwidth.

In Zimbabwe, street corner DVD sales still thrive, of course, although the key problem here is that almost all of these are pirated copies.

Local content will remain a crucial cultural and economic factor in African markets and requires investment and nurturing to enable growth in the rapidly-changing video entertainment space.

Similarly, Zimbabwe’s film and television industry hopes to regain the production capacity it generated back in the 80s and early 90s, when a large number of international productions were created in the country. There is huge potential for local content production, too, with finances being the only obstacle.

Massive and continued changes in the entertainment industry are afoot, and the recent AT&T acquisition of Time Warner in the US is a perfect example of how the lines between content producers and the owners of distribution platforms are being blurred. The full impact of this disruption on the global landscape remains to be seen.

On the huge and diverse continent of Africa, we will need to marry global best practice to our unique needs, challenges and opportunities, allowing us to navigate our own path through this shifting media environment and ensure that we protect local industries, culture and economic growth. It’s going to be a fascinating and at times bumpy ride, just like the journey so far.

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