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Chiahemen: Poor Planning, Bureaucracy Made Nigeria Miss Digitalisation Deadline

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Mr. John Chiahemen

Mr. John Chiahemen

GOTEL, a digital station, a few weeks ago debuted on Direct to Home Satellite platform (DTH), CONSAT Channel 195, as the first ever station from the Northeastern part of Nigeria. In this interview, the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of GOTEL, Mr. John Chiahemen spoke with The Guardian’s team of MARCEL MBAMALU (News Editor) and VICTOR GBONEGUN on the station’s journey so far, its successes, as well as, the challenges of Nigeria’s media industry.

What brought about the digital broadcasting station, GOTEL?
TV GOTEL is part of the communication group set up by former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, in the small town of Yola, Adamawa State. It started with A.M and FM radio stations, all of the same GOTEL and later the TV arm was added. The television started in 2009, in the same location in Yola, and was broadcasting to audiences around Adamawa and its environs. The proprietor has a vision to grow media and is also very passionate about education.

Over the years, the station has served its locality, but he wasn’t quite happy with the management and the limited vision of the station. So he invited me in 2013 to join the group of consultants who advised him on two things: first, to turn around the media company into a thorough, well-grown business concern and to build an international news channel in the image of the likes of Aljazeera, in Nigeria.

So, I brought in a team of international experts; we were four initially. The first job was to help train GOTEL staff to understand the ways of modern media. Then we started laying the infrastructures and designs to launch the international channel to be named GOTEL Africa, which was to be based in Abuja. Due to the fact we had a deadline, the international station was given a broadcast satellite license, which was to be reactivated by May 20, 2015.

We raced against time to get the satellite channel on air. When the elections came around, they gave us a lot of materials to work with; we sent people around in the build up to the elections, build a lot of content, and developed a broadcast loop. A broadcast loop is like a station broadcasting in any single day but there is an eight-hour loop of contents like documentaries, special programmes, talk shows and so on.

The only thing we didn’t have was live news because we did not yet have a studio. So we started designing the studio, having acquired a well-appointed place in Abuja.

Eight new international experts were brought in addition to the initial four. We started producing in Abuja, from a temporary space waiting for the studio to be built. But as it was being delayed, and we already activated the license by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), I decided that we couldn’t keep a team wasting in Abuja, doing nothing. We took the international station back to Yola. We decided to work on a new strategy to build a national station out of the existing GOTEL, which was broadcasting just around Yola.

We decided to turn it into a channel that can go national. So we worked on training the staff and recommending some new improvement in equipment in Yola, which were okay when they were built but not good enough for a first class national broadcasting outfit. We knew it was going to compete with the likes of Channels Television, AIT, and Silverbird. So we needed to put in place equipment that could match up or even surpass what they were doing.

The pace of modernisation was slow though. But at the end of the day, we did something; we turned around the channel in Yola to a state that has been accepted on the CONSAT (Continental Satellite) platform owned by the group that runs TVC.

The station started broadcasting from Channel 195 on CONSAT since March 25, 2016, as the first ever station from the Northeastern part of Nigeria to be on the Direct to Home satellite platform (DTH). This is the first time any station from Northeastern Nigeria will be on that platform. It thus means, we will be seen by subscribers on CONSAT all across Nigeria, Europe and all across the Middle East, because CONSAT is broadcasting to its subscribers who use cable-bound small dishes to beam about 67 television channels. The footprint of the satellite they have, UTELSAT, is in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Western Europe. So GOTEL has now gone far beyond what the visionary, Atiku Abubakar, had intended and I am very proud to be part of taking it beyond the borders of Nigeria, beyond the confines of Adamawa. That is a reality today.

Your success more or less would depend on the success of CONSAT; don’t you see this as a challenge to gain a wider market?
What we have done would be a catalyst for CONSAT to grow rapidly because we are its entry to the North. CONSAT is now predominant in the South and is growing slowly. But it has a good marketing strategy, such as allowing subscribers get the decoder for free, all they have to do is to subscribe on the decoder. So, it is attracting a lot of people even from neighboring countries of Ghana, Benin, and Cameroon. They are coming to buy CONSAT decoder even though the station is supposed to be broadcasting within the territory of Nigeria.

People come here and are given a Nigeria address, a Nigeria phone numbers; they buy, subscribe and take a decoder. This is just to emphasise the fact that the marketing strategy is quite attractive. We have no doubt that they would grow.

When we advertise GOTEL, we are also advertising CONSAT. CONSAT is just the first of the platform that GOTEL is going on. This is just the groundbreaking first step. We are in talks with DSTV to be on their GOTV-DTT platform. DTT is Digital Terrestrial Television-region. So people don’t tend to invest too much on dishes and so just have a small antennae just like you have with STARTIMES.

We are negotiating with STARTIMES, as well. We just wanted this as a proof of concept of what GOTEL looks like and then we can be on others, including DSTV. Now, DSTV is doing an audit of its capacity. All these carriers have capacities and limitations; they just can’t take every channel. Once in a while, they do an audit of their capacity to see if there is space to be filled. Sometimes they off-load others. DSTV may likely audit and see if there is any station they can upload and so we are hopeful on that platform.

Where would GOTEL be in the next one or two years?
The programming appeal is that GOTEL is going to be the first TV channel coming up in the Northeast and our programming strategy is to portray the rich cultural heritage of the Northeast and the North in general. This is something that is not very well known. We know all the things and see life in Lagos, but we want to project life in another part of Nigeria with its historical splendor, the rich culture, the freshness and the language. We have Hausa programmes. Now we have proofs of titles on them. The Fulfuda, I think, is the only station in Nigeria that you can see a talk show where the language of the Fulani is used.

The strategy of GOTEL is first of all to move from here and to have the different types of licenses that also give us a chance to spin off several different types of channels, especially specialised channels that cater for education, rural folks, among others.

It is better to open up the media to discuss the issues of girl-child and the rest. We are already doing that on GOTEL. You see women talk about them clearly.

What are the factors that make a channel or station go off air?
Television broadcasting is a very expensive business. It is not a business you expect to start making money immediately. There is a lot of cost involved, especially the news channels, because people have to travel to where the news is. And if you are getting news from agencies, you have to pay them. You have to invest in the communication equipment.

A lot of people start because it feels good, and it is a good thing to have, but sooner or later, they discover that they cannot keep up with the cost involved before they started making profits. You have to be able to take a lot of losses before you are able to break into a lot of profits.

How big can the pay TV industry get?
Right now, there is no upper or middle class family that does not have self-subscribed Pay TV. This is because the terrestrial channels have not proven to be good enough. So there is room for that variety and choice. People want choice and what the pay TVs offer is just that choice.

What are your concerns over price of Pay TV skyrocketing?
The cost of subscription is actually going down. I just gave you an example that CONSAT gives away free decoders. All you have to do is to subscribe and in fact, there is an option that goes for N1, 000 a month.

How would you assess Nigeria’s handling of the race to digitisation?
It’s just poor planning. I would think this because some small countries that don’t have the resources of Nigeria have done it. Tanzania was one of the first to do it and if we have a problem getting it right as a big country, then there is a bigger problem to deal with. But we have bigger resources than these people.

The NBC can make a lot of money from digitisation. They should be able to drive themselves as a commercial enterprise. I think the problem is that NBC operates like a government agency. NBC should be a thoroughgoing company that generates its own money independently and do things without depending on government.

It was all over the news how much MTN paid for 700MHZ license that is now a bone of contention. It costs billions of naira for that license. The whole point of digitisation is to migrate the broadcast media away from that band wave/frequency, which is supposed to be occupied by commercial ventures such as telecommunications. The license for terrestrial TV license is nothing, just N10m. This guys are paying billions for license and so if you migrate from a space that is being occupied by the premium space, they only have to move NTA, AIT and the others from there.

Why can’t Nigeria ask the operators to migrate?
It is organisation. It is just the paralysis of governance.

What is your background in the media that makes you stand tall to these challenges?
I started my career in NTA in the late 1970’s, and rose to be one of the top news people in the station in the 1980’s. That is where Reuters noticed me and they hired me in 1982 for international service.

In 1984, I had my first international assignment in Nairobi. I was on African Desk between 1984 and 1989. That was at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. I was the desk editor, and was editing stories from South Africa, Kampala. I did a story of changes in Nigeria as well. When Babangida took over, I was on holiday, but I had to drop my holiday to cover for Reuters. After several postings to France, Cyprus and Coted’ivoire, where I was the Deputy Bureau Chief for the whole of West Africa and Central Africa, covering 24 countries on the height of civil wars in Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Congo Brazzaville, and the rise and fall of Joseph Kabila.

By the time I had done 28 years for Reuters, I said I have been out of Nigeria for too long and wanted to come back so that my family can also know the country. It was good timing, a new civilian government was taking over in 1999. So in March 2000, I was posted to Nigeria as the Bureau Chief. That was the first time Reuters had a Bureau Chief in the country. So I came in as expatriate for three years during Obasanjo’s regime. When the three years was over, I was moved to South Africa as Bureau Chief, covering South Africa and nine other countries. Later on, I became editor, Africa, for Reuters.

At the end of 2008, I didn’t want to move to any other post, so I took early retirement to concentrate on consultancy. I still do training for Reuters.

What is your take on the challenges of journalism in other countries and in Nigeria; are the challenges really the same?
The challenges are not the same, absolutely not. In the first place journalism started from there anyway. The handicap in Nigeria is the training. There is a big shortage of skills. Having said that, the Nigerian media have come a long way.

Whichever ways you want to look at it, whether print, broadcast, radio or television, they have broken new grounds and are doing things that you will wonder about.

A station like Channels Television is now viewed across the country and other parts of the world, same with AIT, and your newspaper, The Guardian.

The media industry can be profitable commercial enterprise. We have our challenges in Nigeria, where journalists must rise to the calling of their profession, and must be guided by the truth and independent thinking—that is what is lacking.

What do you make of the challenges posed by social media to the print media?
The social media is there; but I always say that the problem created by social media, such as the ability to recycle a story in one minute is double edged. A good story can travel far, so also a story that is not correct. It can be propagated by social media and can multiply, like a virus, to track it back is very difficult. That is why people still use traditional media because it is trusted and tested to filter and balance and confirm.

Traditional media becomes a kind of last resort for confirmation of stories. People still trust it because they know where The Guardian, for example, is printed. They know the editor, and they know who is the news editor. If they are aggrieved, they could go there. It is not so with social media. There is no control; sometimes, its anonymity places you in favour of traditional media.

Do you think social media should be regulated?
If you ask me if social media should malign someone and get away with it, I will say they should not. You can call that regulation! They should be able to account for what they do that is not right. It depends on what you call regulation. In what sense; is it to censor, or the fact that you must not print this or that? They just have to be held responsible for their act. To me that is regulation.  THIS IN NTER

THIS INTERVIEW WAS RECORDED AHEAD OF GOTEL’S SCHEDULED DEBUT ON CONSAT ON APRIL 1 2016


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