By Flavia Nassaka
An evening of juggling regulators, advertisers, and audiences
What a day it has been! I sigh as I put the key into the lock at my house. The warm air from inside hits me first, competing with smells from the fruit basket and the newly cleaned carpet. I smile in a tired way, kick off my shoes, and slump onto the couch. Instinctively, I reach for the TV remote and loosen my belt as the little, black, 21 inch flat screen blinks into life.
It’s Thursday and the new Christian TV station is airing a repeat of a prayer program. An evangelical pastor is praying for a university student who has been deserted by a boyfriend. She wants him back.
“Summon your lost lover in the most romantic way,” the pastor yells at the girl in Luganda, the local vernacular. It is a comical scene. Not even Sharon Stone can be romantic on screen with tears of pain rolling down her disheveled face. But the desperate girl tries.
“I promise you,” the pastor tells her finally, “You will definitely get your boyfriend back!”
The scene is too much for me. I toggle the remote for another channel. Not sports please. I toggle again – to a rap music scene. I toggle – to documentary on maize planting. It is apparent that Thursday is not good TV day. Finally, I settle for a Latino soap opera with English voice overs.
But my thoughts return to the Christian Station with its boyfriend-giving pastor. The same station also airs a local version of the syndicated American hidden camera reality TV show; `Cheaters’ in which unsuspicious women and men are spied on by their suspicious lovers.At times the show turns quite violent, especially when someone is caught cheating. Not surprisingly, the station hires muscled bouncers to protect the TV crew and equipment.
It is a new show, spawned by the increased demand for so-called local content since more TV spectrum became available when the country migrated from analogue to digital TV broadcasting. It is also very popular.
Although the TV industry regulator, the Uganda Communications Communication (UCC) has since March 2013 not released a report on so-called local content on TV, it would not be surprising if this TV station is ranked highly in the next report.
According to the National Broadcasting Policy, Local content is defined as “content that recognises the cultural and linguistic diversity of Uganda carrying themes of relevance to the local audience and produced under Ugandan’s creative control”.
UCC sets content quotas
In a bid to set standards, monitor and enforce compliance relating to content, UCC set local content quotas on TV stations in 2014 with the objective of promoting national culture, pluralism and diversity and to enhance the employment capacity, identity of the nationals as well as protecting consumers from irrelevant content.
The issue of local content is likely to become more pronounced as the number of TV stations goes up. This likely to happen soon since digital broadcasting makes it easier to operate a TV station as investors no longer have to deal with difficulties of spreading the signal to different parts of the country. More TV stations will lead to more specialized broadcasting becoming a necessity. Statistics from UCC indicate that by June 2014, it had licensed 67 TV stations. However, only 15 of these are operational and only 5 of these, broadcast exclusively in the local languages. The rest air a mixture of Luganda and English programmes. Urban TV, a subsidiary of Uganda’s biggest media house, Vision Group, uses only English.
All TV stations are required by UCC to ensure that 70% of the programmes they air are of local content. The regulator says TV stations need to help Ugandans to get familiar with their culture, learn from it, and carry it on. The local content is supposed to comprise drama (50%), documentary (10%), sports (5%) and children (5%). The requirement has put the TV industry under pressure to find local content.
In a mad rush to attempt to be beat the quotas, many TV stations are engaging in borderline unethical tactics, airing sexually explicit content without adherence to broadcasting guidelines, and duplicating each other’s programmes.
Sunday afternoons are now wedding and marriage ceremony moments on most stations while evenings on weekdays feature comedians or music shows.
Isaac Kalembe, the media relations specialist at UCC is shocked by some of the programming. “There’s still a huge gap on what content to air,” he says.
Abby Mukiibi, a Director at Delta TV, another new television station says finding good local content is complex because programming is based on how each station assesses the needs of the audience. He says this explains why stations package their content differently.
At Delta, the focus is on programming local content for a youthful audience aged between 18 and 40 years old. Mukiibi says Delta’s programming is focused on enriching its audience with skills, knowledge on different ways of making money.
“We want our viewers to have a change in attitude by showing them that they too can be successful, a reason we are focusing on ‘worktainment’ yet others can choose to focus on entertainment or exclusively news” he says. Mukiibi says research by Delta shows that the current generation of young did not get a chance to learn many life skills, including saving and investing and therefore decided to create that opportunity.
Mukiibi is an actor and, he says, Delta has a number of local soaps in the pipeline.
Irene Karungi belongs to the kind of audience that Mukiibi is targeting. She is in her 30s and a mother of a teenager. But she has few kind words about locally produced soaps. She describes a programme aired on one of the local channels.
“It’s full of shocking scenes some of which are aired early when the children are still awake. These are clearly disturbing scenes and this makes us wonder whether this is new programming or there is something wrong,” she says.
She says the poor quality of some programmes pushes her away from local programmes to imported telenovelas.
Mukiibi says he understands viewers’ frustration with poorly produced local content. He says the quality of production is still low for both news and drama and blames it on the lack of basic skills by industry players.
He says getting the best content also requires a lot of investment and since most of these media houses get funds purely from advertisers, they find difficulty in paying for the best content all the time. And the advertisers are not easy to hook either.
Kin Kariisa, the Chairman of Uganda Broadcasters Association who also doubles as the CEO of Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) TV says apart from looking at whether the programme rhymes with the company brand, suits the target audience, and regulator’s requirement, broadcasters are always on the lookout for what will attract big sponsors.
Many stations have resorted to airing foreign soap operas with comic voice overs in local languages. This formula has proved to be a hit at many stations because most viewers do not understand English but are hooked to the storylines. Many stations routinely breach the 30% quota of the airtime demanded by the regulator.
“While we may be mindful of our viewers, the sponsors have a bigger say and what they are interested in are the numbers tuned in,” he says. Without directly saying advertisers prefer to sponsor foreign soaps, Karisa says TV stations are better off airing them than the locally produced content.
According to him, an opera goes for US$20 per episode yet the locally produced soap is sold at between US$500 and US$1000 dollars per episode.
The concern of cost is again raised by Tonny Glencross, the executive editor of the leading independent media house in Uganda, Monitor Publications Ltd. He says local content is costly when compared to international content, where economy of scale reduces the cost.
“The comparison between the two is roughly $400 per hour for international content compared to around $2,000 (or more) dollars per hour local content,” he wrote in a commentary in the leading newspaper, The New Vision, where he was chief commercial officer before moving to Monitor. Glencross also said he doubted the ability of Uganda’s local industry to deliver the required quotas of content.
He wrote: “My conclusion on this matter: It is great to look at Australia, South Africa and the UK and then apply their standards in Uganda, but in real terms, those economies are many, many times the size of ours and frankly, a directive like this will kill the industry before it stimulates it, as most TV stations will go out of business.
“Local content is driving TV audiences; this can be seen from the success of Citizen in Kenya. Local content will also drive audiences in Uganda, but the industry need to grow within its own time and space, within the budgets that allow it to operate.”
Despite such petitions, UCC insists the local content quotas must be met. So far, no station has been penalized for failing to meet the quota, but UCC is monitoring compliance and most stations are struggling to ensure they are not caught out.
In the 2014 UCC local content quota monitoring report, all stations were still far from achieving the 70 % quota. The best performing station, NBS, achieved only 30.4%. It was followed by Top TV (21.7%), Bukedde1 (18.3%), Star TV and UBC at (13.4%), NTV (10.4%), WBS (9.4%), Bukedde 2 at (8.4%), Urban TV (8%) and Record TV (1.8%). Other stations like Channel 44 got 0% as they did not air any of the required contents as per the quota.