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Funding GBC; More Conversations

Amin Alhassan
Director General of GBC Professor Amin Alhassan
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COMMENTARY ON FUNDING GBC; MORE CONVERSATION – BY PEARLVIS KUADEY, VIDEO JOURNALIST

Does the conundrum of funding the GBC, bring the Public Broadcaster at some level of crossroads? Right from the genesis of Public Service Broadcasting, one of the sacred principles has been to offer all citizens universal, equal and unimpeded access to broadcast content. To understand the beginning of public service broadcasting, it is useful to look at the history and founding of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC for example. The BBC was the first Public Service Broadcaster and is still probably, the most prominent and respected across the globe. The people who advocated establishing the BBC as a public service corporation believed, that broadcasting needed to serve the public interest. The case of Ghana is no different.

Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, GBC was founded and structured to be the mouthpiece of all the people of the country, irrespective of political, religious, ethnic or cultural affiliations. For more than 50 years, GBC as a public service broadcaster commanded the attention of large audiences and had significant power, respect and influence.

To fulfil its mandate, GBC has benefited from TV licence fees and direct financial support from the State. State support has always been a thorny issue and for some time now, this subject has been in cold storage.

By the year 2000, the broadcasting space in Ghana had been transformed. Rather than the public service broadcaster, the GBC, taking a commanding chunk of the media space, the case is different, because broadcasting is now a global market place, made up of new channels, mainly owned by private citizens or companies, with commercial driven focus and benefits. With the arrival of this new competition, GBC is facing plummeting audiences. Not to mince words, GBC over the years has been edged to the periphery, with a steep plunge in audience shares. Regardless of where one stands, an objective mind could see a fractured and fragile information receiving society and this is the time to mend the rift.

There is no better time for GBC to lead this new charge than now. An appropriate time for us all to understand why there is a need to reinvest in public service broadcasting is now. The challenge for most public service broadcasters is to ponder on how to convincingly, cleverly and strategically insert themselves into a competitive private sector-dominated global media landscape.

The defining task is how to take the Public Service Broadcaster values, such as, truth, accessibility, independence and professionalism and fuse them into the new market context.

The success in a competitive global market-place suggests that if you put the public interest at the heart of what you do, and if you are providing real value for people, they will trust you and want to use your service.

Unlike the private media, GBC has a legislated obligation to be geographically accessible; have national appeal; pay attention to the needs of minority groups, such as people living with disabilities; contribute to creation of national identity and compete on the basis of good programming, content, bring divergent views and cultures for national cohesion and development, rather than in numbers or ratings. GBC reaches millions of Ghanaians, in their own local languages and with over 17 regional radio stations and seven (7) television channels, GBC is in pole position to project and defend the interests of the public than any other media organisation.

As a Public Service Broadcaster that relies on the trust and financial support of the public, GBC has in recent years strategically positioned itself, by providing programmes on religion, culture and tradition, arts, politics, documentaries, news and current affairs that would never get a run on commercial free-to-air television.

The Ghana Learning Channel which is dedicated to educational activities has become every student’s favourite channel – from pre-school to high school.

The GTV Sports+ Channel continues to be the reference point for sports. The Lifestyle Channel, formerly GTV Life has brought in new life and style to entertainment programming.

Since GBC was not established to deliver an immediate commercial return, over the years, it has been able to develop and nurture talents. In fact, many of the renowned broadcasters in the country cut their teeth and had their immediate and humble beginnings at the GBC.

This means, that the impact of GBC as a centre for human resource development and total national growth and harmony cannot be downplayed. Comparison has been made with the BBC, that if GBC is to move in the same direction as the British Broadcasting Corporation, then TV licence must be strictly enforced. The problem with this view is that, our culture is totally different from that of the British, thus TV licence as a major source of funding for the operations of GBC cannot be achieved. While there are effective enforcement and checks and balances to that effect in the UK, same cannot be said with Ghana. People who pay TV licence do so because they expect the state broadcaster to give them value for their money. For instance, an educative health sponsored programme being aired cannot be stopped mid-way, because the President has a new cabinet to announce.

This is just one of many scenarios, that make it difficult for a Public Broadcaster to compete favourably with private commercially driven stations. Many are the programmes that the GBC will air free of charge, due to its nature, which the private or commercial stations will not. Public service broadcasting must not act as an arm of the government. It must be impartial and independent and more broadly, support local culture, democracy and development. But how can this be achieved when the state funds almost all your operations. In recognising the many challenges facing the state media, the current management of GBC has to re-think and re-strategise to be relevant. Technically, with no TV licence to fund its operations, the new mantra of GBC, of moving from bureaucracy to business is a very bold step. This move is seen in some quarters as taking a step from the core value or mandate of a state broadcaster, since it will now be in direct competition with other commercially driven stations. Some neutrals and critics believe, that if guaranteed and this shift by GBC is successful, it will free GBC from political interference, especially from the State.

There will be more of editorial independence, which will lead to efficiency and attraction. The audience see GBC’s output as pro-government. A more contemporary and unbiased approach would be preferred by the audience. If the credibility of a state broadcaster sinks too low, the station becomes increasingly irrelevant. We must not forget, that the objective of a public service broadcaster is always to try to separate the income source from influencing content and to work to public service values.

Can the GBC’s shift from bureaucracy to business be successful? Public Service Broadcasting is an insignificant item on the government’s budget, compared to, for example, education. However, most people will spend more time watching television or listening to radio over their lifetime, than they spend in a classroom.

GBC can take important steps to ensure that they continue to thrive, first and foremost by making high quality and more distinctive programmes that appeal to audiences, including young people. The rebranding of the GTV Breakfast Show is a testimony to the fact, that re-investment in public service broadcasting is the way to go. In addition, GBC will need to exploit different distribution channels and platforms, so that programmes are easy to find wherever the audience maybe and on the go. From time to time, there have been suggestions that funding via taxation and the fiscal budget of the state should replace the TV licence fee.

The costs of the licence fee collection and problems of evasion are often put forward as arguments. The strongest argument against such a development is the risk of closer ties to political decision makers and the increased dependence it can lead to. If that is the case, why not Parliament pass a law that can give a negotiated or agreeable fund for a specific period, like five years, for the state broadcaster to use for its operations?

With an evolving consumer attitude, coupled with a more individual on demand user behaviour eroding the willingness of citizens to pay collectively through the licence fee. Won’t this new legislation be a game changer? What about the suggestion of amendments to sections of the Electronics and Communication Act, 2008, to the effect that some percentage of regulatory fee be channeled to finance the public service broadcaster? Replacing TV licence with a telecommunications charge, payable by telecom and broadcasting service providers to finance the operation of the state broadcaster can be looked at. It is never easy to introduce change. The expectation of a negative response cannot be allowed to influence legislative decisions, nor can it be used as a reason not to introduce and implement changes that have the potential to improve the level of public service content and general broadcasting made available to the people.

It is time to have a national dialogue on funding the state broadcaster. Let us all ponder over the significant benefits that this move will bring to all of us and let the harsh tag from now be:#dialogueonfundingGBC- harsh tag#fundgbcnow!

By: Pearlvis Kuadey, Video Journalist.

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