Re-shaping public interest broadcasting

Although the transition offers the possibility of more broadcast channels, the assumption thus far has been that these channels will simply be divided up amongst existing broadcasters. In some countries existing broadcasters (both public and private) already struggle to fill the channels they have: often airtime is simply sold off to those who can afford to pay. Therefore key policy questions are: who will get access to the new channels created? Will new players be allowed to take up these opportunities?

In financial terms, Government-run broadcasters are particularly vulnerable as most do not have the resources required to fulfil their “public interest” mandate and rely heavily on advertising in what are increasingly competitive markets.  It is currently assumed by policy-makers that the Government-run broadcaster is responsible for meeting any “public interest” mandate but the evidence of existing practice does not necessarily bear this out.  

Therefore the digital transition offers a moment to reflect on both what African public interest broadcasting might be and what business models might be used to underpin its public interest purposes. Potential options for discussion might include among other things: revitalising the public interest mandate of existing Government-run broadcasters; opening up broadcast television more widely for community use; and privately run regional stations with clear public purpose license targets.