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The state media challenge

Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Photo by:Tamika Amora

It took a while, but the periodic cycle for change at the state broadcaster has finally caught up with us again, this time with very familiar language about the re-positioning and re-defining of the role of state broadcast media in T&T.

We have had a long history of this. Seven years after TTT was established as the country’s lone television broadcaster in 1962, it moved from joint state/private ownership to a 100 per cent state-owned enterprise.

At the very beginning, the International Thomson Organisation of the UK had held 50 per cent ownership, Broadcast Relay Service (Rediffusion) 30 per cent, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) 10 per cent and the Government of T&T 10 per cent.

The change in ownership structure came shortly before the 1970 Black Power uprising.

And, by the time the turbulence of the early 1970s began expressing itself in formal political terms, there were newsroom purges at NBS radio and a virtual executive siege at TTT under chairman, James Alva Bain.

There is a consistent narrative, from people who were there, depicting dramatic battles waged by those with an interest in maintaining the editorial integrity of these operations and those who wanted them ceded to political/sectional interests.

It would be another 10 years, and a change of government in 1986, before the next significant transition.

This came in the form of a liberalising of the national broadcasting environment in 1987 and the addition of fresh competition in both the radio and television sectors.

In 1994, the National Broadcasting Service (NBS) merged with TTT and an entity bearing the name International Communications Network (ICN) entered the landscape. In 1999, ICN became the National Broadcasting Network (NBN), which eventually became Caribbean New Media Group (CNMG) in 2005.

Admittedly, that’s a rather long, intriguing story stripped down to the bone and I am sure there will be those who will chime in with other perspectives.

The main difference, in 2017, is the fact that the current administration has apparently come to conclusions about a way to proceed on the basis of a wider variety of considerations.

These include submissions arising out of substantial public consultations of over two years ago, an eminently sensible report from the Helen Drayton Board, calculations related to likely political fallout, and a measure of improvisation, in part evidenced by the fact that Sweet 100.1FM’s winning format will not meet the local content criterion set by the TTT mandate.

If the objective of the new enterprise, which comprises both radio and TV, is principally to provide a viable platform for local broadcasting content with minimal emphasis on a financial surplus and public service broadcasting at the centre, then what is Sweet FM doing in the mix? The TalkCity format appears much better suited for what the government is talking about.

The prospect of a formal avenue for broadcasting local film productions, on a professional basis, is nevertheless an exciting development that has already been embraced by many in the field who are ready to roll.

Why could this not have been extended to music and radio productions as well?

For one, this can have the effect of easing the pressure on commercial stations to yield to regulatory coercion in the form of local content quotas which are antithetical to the principle of free expression and certainly constitute a restraint on trade.

My opposition to this is well known, for I also do not believe that taste can or should be legislated.

The other point is that local content should be expanded to mean Caribbean content. It is true that under the CSME exemptions are possible, but we are signatories to an international treaty which essentially asserts the principle of equal treatment for goods and services from within the Caricom system.

An expanded creative marketplace will make for healthier competition and provide a more diversified product bearing the TTT stamp. The same should hold for state radio, especially when it comes to musical programming.

I am also at a loss to understand why the funding mechanisms proposed by the Drayton board have apparently not been seriously explored. True, legislation would need to be amended. So, let’s do it.

The board had proposed the use of levies on the revenues of the Telecoms Authority (TATT) and the National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB) “to support the acquisition and production of original content.”

In Jamaica, for example, the Broadcasting Commission has on its own suggested that a percentage of revenues from substituted advertising by cable operators, a portion of annual licenses and the proceeds of fines imposed by the Commission be used to finance a Local Content Production Fund.

Another significant omission I have noted would be the opportunities presented by the world of digital media. Here is a chance to monetise an increasingly-prolific growth pole in the creative services industry using the vast potential of the virtual world.

There is also a lack of clarity on the integration of GISL functions as expressed in specific programming terms.

This is a potentially murky area. Not one single political administration in our past has been able to resist the temptation to convert official state information into nakedly partisan content. I would suggest the planners take a close look at how the Parliament Channel does its business. It is a best practice model, in my view.

I also hope that the new body takes the advice of the Drayton board by adopting a policy that eliminates all political advertising on state media.

For one, political parties are not in the habit of paying their bills, especially if they have won and believe they own the place, and there will always be the vexing problem of the allocation of air-time for paid political programming.

Finally, I have great concern for the plight of CNMG employees and the manner in which those who will not be retained are treated. This is an area on which we all need to keep a close eye, particularly in relation to proper industrial relations practice and legislation.

I will return to the wider question of TTT next week.


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