Sunday, April 8, 2018

GRTS's Ebrima Sillah: Government has never interfered with our programming or with our private independent producers

The Director General of the Gambia's Radio and Television Service (GRTS), Ebrima Sillah, said in telephone conversation that the government of Adama Barrow has never interfered with the programming of the independently and privately produced television programs such as "Kerr Fatou" of Fatou Touray and "Gis Gis" by Ansu Jack.

Mr. Sillah was responding to recent postponement of an episode of Kerr Fatou's weekly interview program that was to feature some mayoral candidates for the highly heated Kanifing Municipal Council campaign after the CEO of Kerr Fatou took to Facebook to air her frustration at the eleventh hour postponement of last week's installment of her popular interview program. 

Programs similar to Kerr Fatou's are privately and independently produced for television and partially paid for by private and state owned enterprises.  These independent producers are for-profit ventures that rely on sponsors who, in turn, expect their advertisement to enjoy air time.

So whenever the program they sponsor is postponed and not aired, it affects their bottomline.  From the standpoint of the independent producer, it is bad business when they cannot stick to their part of the contract with potentially severe legal and financial penalties.

The Director General of GRTS was unaware of the fact that his staff did not send a written notice, at least 72 hours, as they are required to, to Kerr Fatou notifying her of the need to postpone last week's instalment.  He did not hesitate to assure us that he doesn't have the power to cancel any show for whatever reason and he has not experienced any interference from neither his ministry nor State House.

However, the Director General did say the municipal election season has posed a daunting challenge for the national broadcaster.  GRTS is required by law to provide 10 minutes for airtime for each candidate which will require more than three weeks of airtime to cater for the hundreds of candidates.  Instead, what GRTS has opted for is a town-hall set up for each of the 117 wards and even this compacted formal requires large blocks of airtime.

The pre-election challenges are not limited to GRTS as our inquiries have revealed.  Independent producers like Kerr Fatou are experiencing similar logistical challenges that could easily be construed as being partisan when they cannot get all of the candidates - like in the KMC race when two candidates were not available - to participate in a debate.

During my conversation with Fatou Touray, she revealed that the company's lawyer has written to GRTS.  Although Mr. Ebrima Sillah was not aware of it, he welcomed the initiative and looks forward to a meeting with Kerr Fatou next Tuesday to try and reach an understanding on how to move forward from here on out.  He is confident that an amicable resolution can be found next week - a meeting that will try to resolve all other outstanding matters with the ultimate objective of cementing a durable partnership that will be mutually beneficial to both parties.

Our wide-ranging conversation with the Director General covered GRTS's business model which has transformed the organization from publicly-financed to self-financing.  This important fact is lost in the public conversation.  GRTS does not depend on public resources from the budget but does benefit from a subvention from GAMTEL through its telephone business operations for its revenue.  The other important and growing revenue center is through its business with independent television producers which, according to the Director General.

A synergy does exist between GRTS's business model and a growing private independent television producers whose role, as a source of revenue, can only grow as the public broadcaster transitions from analog to digital before 2020.  When GRTS is digitized, it will not longer be in the transmission business which will be privatized.  GRTS will also be extending its broadcast time to 24 hours.

When these developments are realized within the next 24 months, they will transform the broadcasting landscape beyond recognition, and with it, its core business which will be developing program content.  GRTS will have to rely increasingly on independent producers like Kerr Fatou to feed a national television network that will be broadcasting 24/7.  In preparation for the transformation, GRTS will be piloting a new app and developing five dedicated channels to cover the National Assembly, sports, religious and entertainment.