TV content for Batswana by Batswana

This past week, we wondered whether Batswana would watch BTV on Free to Air Decoders instead of DSTV if BTV decide to stop sending its signal to DSTV. I will tell you why.

During the discussions, I realised 'I like things' (o rata dilo) just like many Batswana so I understand why they watch TV from South Africa and dance to music from across the border. That was until I listened to "Away!" by Chef Gustos and Patricia . I realised there is alot of good music in Botswana.

I had just come from training the Malawi regulator and media teams in Lilongwe where we were hosted by Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA). In my luggage was a bottle of Malawi gin. To be precise, I had two bottles. One remains intact to this day, as a souvenir. The other one was consumed a few days after my arrival. But that is a story for another day.

I received a call from AFRALTI informing me I would have the privilege of spending a week training the awesome team from Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA). During the week long training, my eyes were opened and my mind was blown. I had previously trained teams from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. The Botswana experience was pleasantly different. I learnt that the Batswana appreciate fine things yet they have limited local content for their TV, radio and the web that is truly Batswana. The limited local content, I came to learn, is however crisp and of high quality. There seems to have been little incentive to produce Batswana television and radio shows in the past.

It was good to learn that the government of Botswana has a plan to stimulate the production of local content according to the National Development Plans (NDP) No. 11 (2017 - 2023). At the moment, "most of the content the country consumes is foreign based and thus uses international networks to be accessed locally. To change this, Botswana may have to consider ways to stimulate local content and improve capacity to cache international traffic locally". That is the recommendation in the Digital Economy Diagnostic for Botswana published by the Worldbank's Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) initiative.

Botswana has a uniquely low population of 2.3 million people that is served by Botswana Television (BTV), launched in July 2000 as the national broadcaster. There are four radio stations by the public broadcaster and two active private TV stations, although many more have been licenced. BTV opted to use satellite to deliver the signal to the whole country. Many Batswana were already used to satellite television from South Africa's DSTV. The population was also used to foreign content on a foreign owned network. That is however not a sustainable way of growing the content production and broadcasting industry.

The replacement of analogue television with Digital Terrestrial Television has resulted in manynew television broadcasters because it costs much less to set up a digital television than an analogue one. However, only two remain active in Botswana due to many challenges. One of the challenges they face is lack of advertising revenue because many big companies are foreign and spend their advertising budgets in South Africa. They also face the challenge of local television content that is of good quality and affordable. The low population limits the television audience is small compared to neighbouring countries that generate content and have a sizeable television audience.

BTV holds the Key

The fact that most viewers use satellite television to receive BTV and other channels presents a third and more significant challenge. BTV is popular among Batswana and is available on DSTV, hence the people don't see the need to buy decoders for terrestrial TV. The investment by the Botswana government in digital migration and a transmission network is therefore going to waste. The failure of the population to buy decoders has delayed analogue switchoff and limited the coverage of digital TV in Botswana. Only one week has passed since Botswana finally switched off analogue television.

BTV can make the choice to deliver its signal only to the digital terrestrial decoders so as to encourage Batswana to buy decoders. This will create an audience for new broadcasters, employment for the many skilled but unemployed youth who would have a place to sell more of their local content. We can expect many to initially protest the removal of BTV from DSTV but they can be served by watching BTV online.

BoFiNet can support local content

There is need for BTV provide a livestream of its main shows and avail video on demand online. This will however require that Internet access prices be reduced significantly for the population to watch content online. Fortunately for Botswana, the custodian of wholesale broadband is Botswana Fibre Networks (BoFiNet) that is fully owned by the Government. BoFiNet can influence a significant drop Internet access costs and rapidly increase access in unreached and rural areas. This will enable the population to contribute local TV content online and for digital television. BOCRA has made great steps by authorizing Colleges to run FM stations as a way to nature local talent and content. That step is similar to how MACRA in Malawi is funding production facilities in Universities to lower the cost of producing local content.

Why focus on local content?

The disruption of global diamond prices and the COVID19 pandemic that caused as strain on economic activity including Botswana's tourism sector, revealed that the country was vulnerable due to dependency on mining. There is need to diversify the economy. The production and dissemination of digital local content presents an opportunity for Batswana.

The rate of unemployment stands at 25% of the population with youth forming the majority at 70%. For a country with an 88% literacy rate, there is a readily available skilled workforce that may be applied in creative, production, technical and marketing roles related to local content. This will reverse the impact of the global economic downturn and the COVID 19 pandemic that led to an increase in the population living below the poverty line in a country with one of the highest percapita income in Africa.

How else can BTV help?

As a public broadcaster, BTV can catalyse the growth of many of the new content service providers instead of being a competitor. This it can achieve by offering training to content producers, technical and other staff. BTV may also offer subsidised office space within its vast complex to startups for a period of two or more years.

These proposals to BTV and BoFiNet are based on the urgency in digital transformation in Botswana. The converged regulator BOCRA will also need to play a role in encouraging growth of local content by playing an advisory role to licencees and supporting the professional development of their management and staff. Some of the programmes may be offered in partnership with AFRALTI - an ITU Centre of Excellence.

What would local content look like?

What can we expect in form of Batswana local content? Would it be like the many Nigerian movies or South African and Mexican soapies? Would it be prudent to determine what content may result from the bold decisions and investments or should the market be set free to innovate? I would recommend that the people even remote villages to supported to freely express their creativity and preferred content. But for local content to be truly local, it should meet certain broad criteria as may be modelled from recommendations from other jurisdictions. That means it should be produced in Botswana by Batswana by a production company that is locally owned with performers who are citizens of Botswana. It may be best to have it in the local language and with a theme or subject that us uniquely Botswana. The content may not always meet all the criteria but significant progress will be made by meeting most of them.

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