How Do You Solve A Problem Like The NTA

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I was raised watching the Nigerian Television Authority – NTA. 

On Sundays, especially after church, there was Tales by Moonlight. At night, there was Newsline – with a host that now pops up on Twitter to celebrate Nigerian diaspora success stories. For a young Nigerian, my first exposure to the history and legacy of military rule was watching the Oputa Panel hearings on NTA. 

There were other television stations – spare a thought for DBN and Minaj – but none really held the appeal as Nigeria’s public broadcaster. It is why I had a fairly wincing experience recently when I watched the NTA’s coverage of political declarations and observed what this great example of our country’s culture has turned to. 

For many Nigerians, the NTA is the easiest and most accessible form of television. This is common around the world – public broadcaster providers are usually subsidized by the government so that it is much more affordable. It is similar to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Canada and, if you can believe it, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States. These institutions are funded by the taxpayer to make it easy for citizens to enjoy public programming and provide an avenue for the government to ensure necessary information is conveyed. It is what qualifies as necessary that is important. 

The NTA in its present form began operations in 1977, although it was the successor to different attempts at creating a public broadcaster for Nigeria. In 1959, the Western Nigerian Government Broadcasting Corporation was created and became one of the first broadcast stations on the continent. Other stations such as Radio-Television Kaduna (1962), Midwest TV (1972) and Benue- Plateau Television Corporation (1972) came up before the merger of all these state television broadcasters into the NTA. 

The average programming schedule for most public broadcasters covers news and culture – to varying degrees. Culture would involve commissioned documentaries or series showcasing history and knowledge-based segments to promote the country. A well-lauded initiative of the NTA in its formative years was the cap on foreign programming at 20% – even though this was at a period when it was cheaper to get the rights to air them than to commission locally produced series. This meant that a generation of Nigerians grew up with content produced by domestic entertainers and creators. Many famed series originated during this period – Village Headmaster, Checkmate, and New Masquerade – to name a few. It would also involve entertainment that celebrates the country’s literature and national sporting engagements. Pete Edochie, while a pillar of Nollywood, is famous for originating the role of Things Fall Apart in the NTA’s adaptation, and national teams are often followed when the NTA shows them. Any issue around this will largely revolve around the amount of investment and curation it has.

The biggest challenges that the NTA has faced are the reduction in funding and the overbearing influence of the government of the day. The government controls the funding of the station, which augments some of the funding from advertisements and commissioned documentaries, and requests to cover events. However, successive governments have cut funding to the NTA and that has reduced the robust programming that once made the broadcaster the platform that launched the careers of many famed creatives and entertainers. Considerable investment has yielded little or no value, with most of the funding going into bloated personnel costs for the over 100 stations that are around the country but are barely functioning optimally.  There has also been poor management for improving its independent revenue generation. The UK government charges a TV Licence fee, which television owners have to pay annually to access terrestrial television. Granted, it is an added cost in a country that is already difficult to live in, but the added funds help the BBC fund its programming and also make it accountable to the viewer – who can no doubt refuse to pay and focus on digital streaming options if the institution becomes less responsive to its needs. A growing appeal that other stations have is objective news coverage. 

The NTA’s once near-monopoly on television coverage has significantly changed. A TV audience share analysis from Q1 2017 shows that Channels (14.2%) and AIT (13.9%) have the most viewership among channels broadcasting in Nigeria, with CNN coming in fourth. Meanwhile, the NTA’s stations account for less than 5% in the same metric. Admittedly, there is no survey or data to support the reasoning behind a rise in viewership for other channels, but there is to explain the drop in the NTA’s appeal. A survey commissioned after the 2015 elections showed that 52% of respondents reported dissatisfaction with the station’s coverage, with 83% agreeing that the coverage of the election was unfair. When asked for their reaction to the coverage, the major factors cited were a lack of balance and fairness (35.8%) and a partial and partisan bias (48.1%). The 2015 elections are an important milestone because it marked the first time an incumbent was defeated while seeking re-election in Nigeria. 

The results of the survey are hardly a surprise. Decades of military rule turned the broadcaster into a tool of government propaganda. Successive coups and government policies were announced by broadcasters. The reach of the station meant that it was one of the fastest ways to disseminate information and it is a tool that has been used by governments that have devoted considerable funds to a ministry responsible for information and communication, despite the presence of regulatory bodies. Sensitization of government policies is important, but in a democratic dispensation, the expectation is that all voices are heard and that there is robust debate on the state of affairs in Nigeria. One would expect that the stifling of free speech and dissent would not be tolerated in a post-military era. 

The sad reality is that for a lot of Nigerians, the NTA is still an instrument for government propaganda. Pre-2015, under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the station focussed on the activities of the party. Rallies and activities of party chieftains were prioritized and government statements were taken as gospel. But, since the change of power after the elections, the focus became the All Progressives Congress (APC). The NTA was one of several stations that adhered to government instructions not to cover the #EndSARS protests, despite it being the biggest story in the country. In recent weeks, the television station focused on the vice-president receiving an award from the Nasarawa State University and the declarations of several APC chieftains for president. This is news, no doubt, but it is most definitely not worthy of the attention of an institution like the NTA when there are more urgent areas of focus.

In many countries, because there is stronger accountability, the public broadcaster has to adhere to accepted rules of fair play. When news is covered, there should be a proper balance and effective coverage. Some countries, such as France, have rules which stipulate that equal time is devoted to each party and focus when covered on television. In the UK and Canada, the stations are independent of the government – whose only influence is through the appointment of several members of the agency’s board and through budgetary allocations. This means that the corporation is able to cover politics in an objective manner by criticizing the government where necessary and effectively checking issues as applicable. In Nigeria, to get a more balanced opinion of the news, people often revert to other stations or even foreign-owned channels that are able to do so without government interference. 

Understandably, it helps that because the UK and Canada are parliamentary democracies, it’s easier for opposition legislators to be involved in its oversight since the supervising departments or committees are in parliament. But there are ways that Nigeria can ensure that there is a fair balance in coverage. For starters, legislation can be made to provide for independent directors whose expertise in the industry can be utilized to make it both profitable and neutral. This would make it less dependent on government funding and enable it to function as a modern-day station. Funding could also be directed towards ensuring the coverage of more cultural activities, bids to stream sporting tournaments, and also diversifying ways of reaching citizens – through dedicated and themed channels and even radio stations. 

In other countries, tax-payer-funded coverage has evolved. From digital streaming to well-updated websites and even functional mobile apps. But if our public broadcaster does not get sufficient investment and better direction, it will soon become a relic of the past and that will be a terrible situation. The NTA should be the last line of defense against a generation that is currently being raised to disregard the state and forget our history. 

This leads to one of my current fears – raising children on the BBC.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a researcher and development analyst. His research focuses on politics, governance, foreign policy, and state-society relations. He has degrees in International Relations and African Politics from the University of London.

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