Tuesday, 7.30pm should have been a disturbing day for those who did not know that Malawi was officially migrating from conventional analogue television system to the digital terrestrial television format.
Immediately after Minister of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati finished her address at Sunbird Mzuzu’s Jenjewe Room, analogue transmitters in Mzuzu and Zomba cities were switched off.
And what a commotion that should have caused in some homes as they searched for signal but to no avail.
Interestingly, for those in the know, it was a happy day to kiss goodbye to grainy images that were associated with analogue signal and a welcome to the new era of digital terrestrial television of clear pictures.
Even Kaliati, glowing with happiness that finally the switch off was official, described the migration as a milestone in the broadcasting sector.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the switching off of analogue transmitters in Mzuzu and Zomba is not only marking a digital terrestrial television milestone. It is also making a bold statement that the train of reforms in the broadcasting sector is on the move.
“All of us better get on board, or we will forever be left behind,” she said.
The first phase of migration to digital beamed with hope of increasing local content on the country’s licensed 26 television stations in a bid to promote Malawi’s values and culture.
Added Kaliati: “TV viewers will enjoy more channels and content, better sound and picture quality and enhanced broadcasting applications.
“Further, this move will create demand for local content and this means more job opportunities in the creative industry and more business opportunities for vendors and suppliers for Kiliye Kiliye decoders and digital TVs.”
However, television content producers and broadcasters feel that for local content to increase in quantity and quality, viewers need to pay.
Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) managing director Gospel Kazako told our sister paper The Nation that they petitioned government to ensure that television stations must have a choice either to have their signal paid for-where it will be driven by subscribers-or to put it on free-to-air (FTA).
“All the television stations that you see across the world, be it through DStv, GOtv and all of them, people pay to watch.
“That is why the producers are motivated to come up with content. As long as we make our television free, it would take a long time to develop.
“It is only fair that the policies must point towards having people subscribing. Free things will always be free things and if we are to attain the necessary quality quickly, we need to make sure that there are policies that support the subscription. They call it conditional access,” said Kazako.
He said the local industry is criticised for not matching up to the international standards and yet the policies do not favour producers to benefit from their investment.
“I will give an example: when someone makes a movie in Malawi, mostly people watch it for free. In other countries, for you to watch a movie, you need to pay. The ripple effect is that the money gets to the producers and the actors.
“We need to advance policies to teach the consumer that this is not a free service. In other countries, people pay for radio. These are the things we need to look at,” he said.
Technical advisor on digital migration at the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), Benson Tembo, said the question for people having to pay for content “is tricky and has to be thought through very carefully.”
He acknowledged that it is expensive to produce a programme for TV. Howver, he said television broadcasters have to abide by the conditions of their licenses which is to provide television services for free.
However, he said there are several ways to assist the TV stations to find resources that could actually help them to produce the programmes.
“One way is by making sure that their programmes are very attractive to the business community to find sponsorship for their programmes.
“Another way is to create a fund where all TV stations would subscribe to and then this would go a long way to produce content which is local.
“In other nations, they have a national media trust where TV stations subscribe to and people pay a small fee; sometimes it is a levy on the electricity, sometimes it is a levy on the fuel. And then that money goes into the fund to assist the TV stations to produce programmes. In this country we have to explore which avenue will help us most,” he said.
Tembo said television houses can also come up with additional channels which they can aggregate and put them on the second layer of the Malawi Digital Broadcasting Network Limited (MDBNL), the signal distributor, which will be under pay TV.
“First and foremost, there are those TV stations which have occupied the first 20 slots of the MDBNL. These are meant to be free.
“But, for example Zodiak, it can come up with additional channels, let us say Zodiak 1, 2 and 3. These can go on the second layer and generate funds that would help to produce content for the first layer channel,” said Tembo.
Tembo said that is why MDBNL decoders have got a slot for a card so that in future, viewers can buy it to subscribe monthly for the second layer channels. n