The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the federal agency that regulates — and strangulates — the broadcast industry in Nigeria, always gets away with murder. If you ask me its major contribution to the development of broadcasting in the 21 years of our democracy, I can only remember the frequent imposition of sanctions on broadcast stations for violating some rules and regulations, mostly political, with the NBC usually trying to please the government of the day. They have also been granting licences to governments and individuals to operate radio and TV stations. I almost forgot: they licensed PayTV services. Anything else? I honestly cannot remember much.
Meanwhile, have you tried to apply for a radio licence before? They will tell you there is no available frequency at your location of choice, only for you to hear that someone up there has just been granted a licence for the same location! Even when you are asked to do feasibility study as part of the licence application process, you are ordered to use the services of ordained consultants who will charge you to high heavens. If you go and get consultants elsewhere to do the feasibility, it will be rejected for not meeting “NBC standards”. What exclusive standards does the NBC have — if not that there is a cartel business in its backyard? You and I know very well that this is a racket.
If you want to set up a national TV station in Nigeria today, NBC will ask you to pay N500 million as the licence fee. You heard me right: N500 million for a piece of A4 paper! You have to bear in mind that it is not as if the basic infrastructure is on the ground to make you deliver optimal service. Our terrestrial broadcasting is still stone-age, even though we like to boast that we set up the first TV station in Africa in 1959. South Africa that started in the 1970s is now light years ahead of us. Only God knows for how long the NBC has been talking about implementing “digital switch-over” to allow us see clean pictures on our local stations. Maybe it will happen tomorrow. Or in the next century.
I ordinarily would not bother writing about the NBC because of my low opinion of the agency, but recent events have so nauseated me that keeping quiet can only upset me more. On March 27, 2020, when the attention of the world was directed at fighting the coronavirus, the NBC quietly released the 6th edition of its broadcasting code. Most of the provisions that I have read so far are as deadly as the coronavirus, even though some might appear asymptomatic for now. To add insult to injury, Prof Armstrong Idachaba, the NBC acting director-general, said the code was meant to develop the broadcast industry in Nigeria. NBC developing the broadcast industry? I missed the joke.
There are many problems with the code. The attempt to criminalise exclusivity, for a start, has sent key industry stakeholders into disbelief. According to the code, the holder of content rights must share with other platforms. So if Jason Njoku’s iRokoTV buys the rights to Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, for instance, NBC is telling us that the streaming service must sub-license to Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife TV “by fire by force”. If iRokoTV and EbonyLife TV cannot agree on a price, then the almighty NBC, sitting on its judgment throne in its Abuja office, will tell EbonyLife TV what to pay to iRokoTV. Can you beat that “innovation”? That is how NBC wants to develop our broadcast industry.
For a football fan like me — and one who has an idea of how PayTV works in other countries, such as the UK and the US — I cannot make any sense out of section 6.2.8 of the code. It states: “Exclusivity shall not be allowed for sporting rights in the Nigerian territory and, in furtherance thereof, no broadcaster or licensee shall license or acquire foreign sporting rights in such a manner as to exclude persons, broadcasters or licensees in Nigeria from sub-licensing the same.” This is silly, pardon my French. I don’t know who came up with this idea, I don’t know what the NBC is driving at, I don’t know the motive, but anybody who knows how sporting rights are sold can only laugh in derision.
The selling point of PayTV is to offer what the competition cannot give. When HiTV secured the rights to the English Premier League in Nigeria in 2007, that became its selling point. HiTV began to offer football on a level that other broadcasters could not. This exclusivity was its major, if not only, marketing edge. As part of the package, HiTV gave terrestrial stations one match to show free of charge every week. If this obnoxious NBC code had been in operation then, HiTV would have been forced to sub-license the EPL rights to DStv and other PayTV services in Nigeria. What then would have been its marketing edge or selling point? HiTV would have been brought in dead.
The NBC says it wants to promote competition through its new code, but it will only succeed in killing it. A rational investor will hold back. Free market economies thrive on respect for intellectual property, product differentiation, innovation and the right to charge a fair price. Why should I use my brain to create competitive contents when I know that the NBC is there to breastfeed me? Why should I go the extra mile to invest in acquiring rights to top-class contents when I can just fold my arms and wait for you to do all the hard work and then you will be forced by the NBC to share with me? Why should I pay you a fair price when I know the NBC will determine that by its own fiat?
Legally, it is the content producer — and not the NBC — that determines who to share content with and what price to demand. That is what the Nigerian copyright law says. The NBC is trampling on the territory of others. Its legal advisers deserve some flogging. More so, it sounds quite funny that the NBC does not appear to recognise the fact that a licensee acquired the rights in a competitive bidding. After paying a competitive price, the licensee is now forced to share with its competitors at a regulated price. That is automatically an erosion of the value of the original rights. You labour for somebody else to enjoy the fruits. That is how the NBC wants to develop our broadcast industry.
I believe the NBC consultants should have done more work before unleashing this cold code on the industry. It ignores several realities. When rights to a live sporting event are being auctioned, for example, it is not guaranteed that you will be granted the right to sub-license. Now if a licensee approaches the rights owner and asks that a sub-licence clause be inserted in the agreement, this leaves the licensee open to a further hike in the fee. The rights owner is not an idiot. The moment he knows you want to sub-license, he will assume you are going to make more money. So the fee will go up substantially. Sadly, it is the NBC that will ultimately decide what the sub-licensee will pay you!
Njoku was particularly angry with the code. He tweeted: “Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in making exclusivity illegal, compelling sub-licensing of content & regulating price, are effectively turning the private enterprise into state property… If implemented this 100% destroys PayTV in Nigeria… it makes zero sense for @irokotv @ROK_DSTV @NetflixNaija @irokotv @africamagictv @FilmhouseCinema @SilverbirdTV @SceneoneTV or any other platform or independent production house to invest in local content… No consultation, no thought… This our champagne socialism & zero input style of policymaking is the reason Nigeria is stunted in everything. I invest billions (of) naira in content then I am compelled to share with everyone else as NBC sets the price… Ridiculous.”
In modern times, stakeholders are usually carried along when industry rules are being made. In telecoms, for example, I know that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) consults widely with stakeholders in making the regulations. The world has moved beyond dictatorial handing-down of regulations that have industry-wide implications. It is very clear that the NBC is working to an answer, probably driven by someone who has an axe to grind with some operators. That is the only way I can understand the novel coronavirus the NBC is introducing into the regulation of our broadcast industry. NBC is now seeking to consult — months after rolling out the code!
In fairness, the NBC claims to have good intentions. The objective of the code, we are told, is to enthrone fair market competition, with special consideration for new market entrants. According to Idachaba, the code will protect and promote the local broadcast industry from “monopolistic” and “anti-competitive” behaviour. The code, he said, will stimulate advertising revenue into the broadcast industry and grow the local creative industry. These are, no doubt, lovely objectives. What I can’t see clearly is how the provisions of the convoluted code will achieve these good intentions — except in NBC’s dreams. But the road to hell, according to our elders, is paved with good intentions.