I recently stumbled into a simple animation on my TV screen saying: “Station Under Construction”. About the same time, I came across an advertisement in the Daily Nation featuring a weird logo carrying the picture of the American film actor, Denzel Washington, and other graphics representing what I came to learn later were “Channel”, “2” and “24”. Excited, I told my sister that a new TV channel was about to be launched in Kenya.
Three days after the launch of the public television station, Channel 2, my sister asked me whether the new channel I had mentioned had gone on air. She had been waiting to see the new types of programmes it would present. An ardent viewer of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) Channel 1, she had not noticed Channel 2, yet it sits next to Channel 1 on the TV set programming notches. Apparently, nothing from the newly-launched Channel 2 programmes stood out as she surfed the screen. She was disappointed when I told her that the new channel is nothing but 24 hours of mainly old American movies, documentaries and music videos. Imagine that, American music videos! Stuff that we are used to watching on all the other TV channels, both commercial and KBC.
I was equally disappointed, particularly when I learned that Channel 2 is what used to be Metro TV, a public TV feature channel. In the article “In Battle for Viewers, TV Looking to Niches” by Mwaniki Wahome, which appeared in the Daily Nation last year, I read that “The Metro TV business model was not well crafted and fell short of the programming that was expected… KBC had financial problems and could not manage on its own because this is an expensive undertaking”. Also, that “Metro TV had almost fizzled out until… clinching a deal with a Dubai-based ADL Holdings to form Channel 2, which is expected to inject fresh entertainment menu and marketing expertise”. According to the KBC managing director, David Waweru, the Dubai partner would benefit with 70 percent of the revenue realised by Channel 2 for their investment. Once more, I felt cheated by the public broadcaster, mainly for two reasons.
The first reason: In Channel 2, the responsibility of public broadcasting appears to have been compromised by commercial interests. Public broadcasting should be charged with the tasks of informing, educating and entertaining the public. Hence, public broadcasting should function as a kind of public trustee, ensuring that there is a balance in how the three important services are delivered to the public. Seeing that all television stations in Kenya are heavily leaning toward entertaining the audience, I would imagine that the only other existing public channel should concentrate on the remaining two tasks. Nevertheless, I also realise that given the constraints the new investors in Channel 2 might impose on the type of programming aired on this channel, producers might be limited to airing just what the new funders of the station required them to. (The Dubai partner has pumped 10-million Kenya Shillings in new equipment and will spend more than 140-million Kenya Shillings per year shopping for the right entertainment mix to quench the thirst of their viewers.) In this respect, we might as well regard Channel 2 as just another commercial station. Hence, we can expect this station’s production priorities to focus more on market pressure and economic aspects than on cultural and educational objectives.
But I suppose the producers at Channel 2 feel that they are playing within the rules of the mandate that governs the nature of KBC broadcasting. Currently, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation is required by the Section 38 of the KBC Act to “conduct its business according to commercial principles”, therefore Channel 2’s investments in commercialism appear legitimate by the above act. However, we must remember that in commercial television, the most important aspect of the operation is that production is geared to the making of profit. Whatever sells most determines what is produced regardless of its quality. In fact, even my 15-year old nephew knows this because when I complained about Channel 2 showing old American movies and music videos, he was quick to say, “that is what people want to see”.
He was correct, but I interjected by saying that many more people want to see pornography on the public broadcaster but you just don’t show them that.
Although the audience of liberalised TV in Kenya no doubt presents new challenges to the producers of both commercial and national television as they aim to produce captivating yet comprehensive programming, looking to simple solutions such as recycling old blockbuster American films and foreign charts’ music videos is not necessarily the way to go. In my view, the producers of Channel 2 did not apply themselves in searching for innovative ways that would revolutionalise public broadcasting in Kenya. While the problem of funding is critical to the survival of public broadcasting,
I fear that it is not the real problem facing the KBC TV channels. The greatest problem is lack of vision about how the broadcaster can be self-sufficient without having to sell out to foreigners.
For, seriously, how different would the programming line-up of Channel 2 be from that of the defunct Metro TV if both of them relied on cheap programmes from abroad?
I feel that times have come when we can look for homegrown solutions to solving the public broadcaster’s programming problems. The times when media houses complained that they couldn’t sustain their programming diet through locally produced shows are gone. What is required is that producers of the public broadcaster expand their horizons in discovering the available talent in video production. Indeed, let KBC fully test the feasibility in meeting more than the Raphael Tuju local content quota of broadcasting at least 20 percent and 30 percent of local content in radio and television, respectively.
The second reason: Lack of local content I would like to quote John Doyle, television writer for The Globe and Mail, to sustain my argument:
“A country without a healthy diet of continuing, homegrown drama is lacking in the fi bre of contemporary storytelling. In every country that has even the vaguest notion of a culture and identity, there is a distinct link between the idea of itself and the fi ctive imagination. A country is simply inauthentic if its stories are not refl ected back to itself.”
I could not have put it better than Doyle when referring to the responsibility and centrality of stories in the cultural development of a given society. In modern-day societies, broadcasting is an integral institution, an important means of communicating values and ideals of cultural relevance.
For this reason, entertainment, education or information in television, for example, should be representative of experiences, aspirations or dreams of the society within which broadcasting happens.
Indeed, therefore, the choice the directors of Channel 2 have made in turning the station into an exclusively entertainment channel are fine. Nevertheless, the supposed target audience of this channel, one “not driven by the usual content of news and sports… the youth and women who are young with upward mobility… driven by feature documentaries, soap operas, music and comedies”, according to a KBC director, should be given the opportunity to enjoy a type of entertainment that might be more relevant to their cultural contexts.
Such entertainment would be more responsive to the needs of the majority of Kenyan viewers because it would give them the opportunity to learn more about this country and the concerns of its people. As Arthur Lewis, a former reporter and producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Television News and Current Affairs in Ottawa, says, public broadcasting should be more responsive to the It should be about the public and must therefore reflect all the characteristics that define the diversity of Kenya.
Since commercial television will never be necessarily keen in fulfilling objectives such as I have highlighted above, we are in need of a successful cultural policy on top of the economic policy that makes Channel 2 viable as a relevant, economically stable\tool for communicating our narratives, as these are the agents of our culture. In this respect, Channel 2 would perform its role of a public broadcaster able to offer public services that market-driven commercial broadcasters cannot.
Channel 2 should contribute in forging a Kenyan cultural identity through its programming, but it can only do so by asking: what is the cultural value and relevancy in selected entertainment? In addition, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation must devise ways of soliciting funds from the national budget or raising revenue from other sources such as the sale of KBC-produced programmes. Otherwise, the corporation will always find itself relegated to wooing private funds from commercial enterprises whose main aim is making a profit no matter what. The implications of such dependence equals the current state of Channel 2 – that is it is technically 70 percent owned by the Dubai-based ADL Holdings.
George Ngugi King’ara is a PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Ã¢Â–Â This column first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine.