Kwese TV: Govt & the mirage of digitisation

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BY barring Kwese TV, the Zimbabwe government has shown a trademark tendency: for political reasons, it will jealously hold on to a business it does not know how to run. This week, Econet Media announced the rollout of its Kwese TV in Zimbabwe. The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) immediately announced that Kwese was not authorised in the country.
This was not surprising — Government has too much to lose, both commercially and politically. Apart from its refusal to allow alternative voices, the Government has commercial reasons; it holds shares in the dominant player in satellite TV, MultiChoice, and has been planning, but failing, to launch its own digital broadcasting services.
Government has for years been trying to control digital broadcasting. In 2002, it arm-twisted MultiChoice Africa into ceding shares in its Zimbabwe operation to the State. That was just the start. In 2013, when MultiChoice launched GOtv, a satellite service for the low-end market, Government again came knocking, demanding and getting a 30 percent stake in the new venture.
GOtv was “a giant step in the right direction”, then Information Minister Webster Shamhu said at the launch of the service in 2013.
GOtv charged just $6.50 per month for its 26 channels, and was soon gaining market share. Still, Government wanted more. It demanded that part of that subscription fee be handed to Transmedia, to fund the digitization programme.
There was, inevitably, a dispute, and soon GOtv transmitters were knocked off air in January 2014.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the establishment was deepening its foothold in the ICT industry. In 2013, an Ernst & Young analysis of the shareholding of telecoms firm Africom revealed how some of the firm’s shareholders could not be traced at the Registrar of Companies.
It only emerged later that a company that had become the majority shareholder, Fernhaven, was the investment arm of the Ministry of Defence. This only came to light after Anhui, a Chinese partner of Fernhaven in the construction of Longcheng Plaza, went to court to protest the use of the mall as security for an African Export-Import Bank loan to Africom.
Why is this relevant? Because Africom has been quietly involved in the launch of a video-on-demand platform, Nhaka TV. The service, the company said in 2016, would have 34 channels that would focus on “Afro-centric content that is grounded on African heritage”. It planned to buy content and distribute it online, and to ZBC and other platforms. The project never flew.Advertisement

Kwese, in the meantime, was looking for a route into the Zimbabwean market. It was never going to be easy. In 2016, it agreed a deal with ZBC under which the state broadcaster would show the 2016 Rio Olympics and one live English Premier League match every Saturday. 
It never lasted, as Information Secretary George Charamba ordered ZBC to cancel the deal. The government, Charamba revealed, saw Kwese not just as content provider, but as a competitor.
“I have differences with ZBC management’s view to introduce a competitor. I don’t sit here to mould a competitor riding on our national broadcaster’s platform. We don’t work like that. We can’t abuse a national institution by carrying a competitor. Hazviite izvozvo (That won’t happen),” Charamba declared to the Financial Gazette.
Already, Kwese had been denied entry into Zimbabwe.
“We really wanted Zimbabwe to be on the launch schedule for next week. More resources have been expended to getting the approvals in Zimbabwe than in all the countries put together. I remain hopeful that one day the approvals will be granted,” Econet owner Strive Masiyiwa wrote on Facebook in January.
It now appears that, in its impatience, Kwese got a bit careless. Unable to get their own license, they decided to ride on the back of a company, Dr Dish, that already had a licence to offer satellite services in Zimbabwe.
Dr Dish, owned by Nyasha Muzavazi, had been awarded a licence in 2012 to offer satellite services on behalf of My TV Africa. The latter however later lost its content rights for the Zimbabwe territory and migrated elsewhere.
This left Muzavazi without a partner. His company’s attempt to launch BOStv was slapped down by BAZ, which said it was contrary to the terms of his licence.
In 2014, hoping to curry favour and have the terms of his licence altered, he invoked the magic word “ZimAsset”, saying he had confidence BAZ would authorise BOStv “in line with the social and economic interests of Zimbabwe and our government’s economic blueprint, ZimAsset”. It didn’t work.
In the end, it appears, there were two desperate entities; Kwese had the content but no licence, while Dr Dish had the licence but no content partner. It was soon announced that a deal had been struck between the two. This, obviously, would have raised eyebrows at BAZ and inside Government.
This week, BAZ announced that Dr Dish’s licence had, in fact, been cancelled back when it failed to launch services under MyTV. Dr Dish, on its part, insists that its licence, which it says was valid for 10 years, was never cancelled.  
“We notified our regulator that we were partnering with Kwese, and gave them the full details of the channels we were going to bring to the nation, together with a whole host of other technical information,” Muzavazi said this week.
Media and entertainment is big business in Africa. Naspers, owners of DStv, makes annual revenue of over $3 billion from its TV business. Government, and its associates such as those at Africom, obviously know this. They will work hard to keep the competition away, even when they themselves have no idea how to exploit the space.
There is a lot of evidence to show that the Government only wants broadcasting for political control, but has no idea how to exploit it commercially and create real jobs.
The digitisation programme has remained an illusion, the subject of hollow speeches to content creators at endless seminars.
Government claims digitization will create 12 new TV stations, six of which will go to ZBC, which is already failing to run just one station. ZBC does not have enough content to fill its 24 hours, according to CEO Patrick Mavhura recently. This is because it has no money to pay producers for their content. At times, ZBC actually expects to be paid for content, as it did when the local PSL tried to sell rights to the local premiership. The PSL sold them to SuperSport instead.
Even government’s own producers are struggling for an outlet. Zimpapers TV Network, which has piled up many hours of content waiting for a licence, has recently had to sell material to a Zambian TV station, Fresh TV.
Many other Zimbabwean creatives have had to find outlets for their content elsewhere, especially on DStv’s Zambezi TV.
If Government was sincere about promoting local content, they would allow broadcasters to compete, and compel them to buy some of their content from the many talented Zimbabwean creatives that right now have no local outlet for their craft.
Instead, it’s an indictment on Government that central bank now complains that over $200 million left the country in the last half of 2016 to pay for DStv.
It is an industry that could create jobs; real jobs, not the ones made for political promises. Such as those by Information and Broadcasting Minister Chris Mushohwe, who recently claimed digitisation would create four million jobs and rake in $1.5 billion per year.
For perspective; four million jobs would mean a third of the economy working in TV and film, and a four million workforce would also be twice the size of that of Hollywood, a $600-billion industry. As for Mushohwe’s $1.5 billion a year earnings, it is plausible that a third of the national budget would come from entertainment.
But not knowing anything about an industry has never stopped the Government from wanting to control it. It is enough for them just to know there is money in TV, and that nobody else should make it. It is case of “if I can’t have it, nobody else should.”
Broadcasting is a business that the Government will always fight to control, even though it doesn’t know what to do with it, except to keep it to itself.
Above everything, Government does not want independent voices on air. Political control, without economic benefit for all, has always been its hallmark.