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Digitalisation: Content is the King

By Maxwell Loko

For much of its early history, television broadcast came into the home via electromagnetic signals broadcast over the airwaves to rooftop antennas. Then, in the 1970 (in advanced countries), consumers had the option of taking down their antennas and getting their TV from signals carried by coaxial cables. A few years later, another possibility opened up when Earth orbiting satellites began to beam microwave signals to recurring dishes. And, of course, the most recent addition to this list is the internet.

The two men who developed television in the United States could not have been more different. At age 16, Philo Farnsworth diagrammed his ideas for a television system on the Chalkboard in front of his somewhat amazed high school teacher.

Farnsworth worked at developing his new device, which he called an image dissector, and eventually patented it in 1930. in contrast, Vladimir Zworykin was an organisation man, working first for Wetinhouse and Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

By 1928 he had perfected a primitive Camera tube, the iconoscope. Picture quality of the early television was poor, but technical developments during the 1930s improved performance.

As technology changes – so changes the world. The transition from analogue to digital television is another land mark accomplishment that in the long run will benefit all television viewers and broadcasters. Television as we know it is about to change.

Why the transition to digital?

Granted, most people couldn’t care less how their television signals gets to them. Rooftop antenna, cable, satellite, internet – it doesn’t make any difference as long as the picture is clear. Television is Television. Beyond that however, analogue television service is the traditional method of transmitting television signals and has been the standard broadcast technology since the inception of television as we noted earlier. Analogue is not as efficient as digital television. It uses up much more valuable spectrum than digital and only allows TV station to transmit one channel at a time, using the same amount of spectrum, a digital signals lets station broadcast multiple programmes at once. Analogue is also susceptible to interference and “snow” making a picture less clear.

It is in recognition of the above that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialised agency of the United Nations for the information and communication technologies (ICT) of which Nigeria is a member, resolved in 2006, that all countries in ITU Region 1 made up of Europe, the former Soviet Republics, Africa, Middle East and the Islamic Republic of Iran), should transit from analogue to Digital Broadcasting Services by 17th June, 2015.

After this date, analogue broadcast services will not be protected from interference. The reason for this decision is because in these countries this band (UHF Band IV and V) is heavily used and broadcasters have deployed equipment which need time to be depreciated.

The Nigeria Presidential Advisory Committee stated that in its report to the Federal Government as follows “The digital terrestrial broadcasting plan for ITU region was established following the conclusion of the Regional Radio Communication Conference (RRC-06) in Geneva in 2006, RRC-06 established the digital terrestrial broadcasting plan in the 174 + 230 MHz (VHF Band 111) and 470 – 862 MHz IV and V bands. However, in Nigeria, the transition to Digital Terrestrial Television will be implemented in the 470 – 806 MHz band. When the existing analogue television services in band 111 transit to digital broadcasting in the upper UHF bands, the former frequency band will be available fort the introduction of T-DAB and DVB-T services.”

What are the implication of digital broadcasting?

Traditional Over-the-air broadcast TV for instance, is regulated differently from the cable, satellite, and internet. Their particular means of transmission influences the types of programming that each carries. More importantly, broadcast cable, satellite, DTT and internet TV area all coping in different ways with the digital revolution, the transition to digital broadcasting will usher in a new era of broadcasting in Nigeria and analogue Switch off will impact the entire broadcasting industry chain.

The traditional broadcast television industry is in a state of change. Networks and local audiences continues to shrink, and advertising revenues are dwindling as competition becomes stiffer. On a more positive note for the broadcasting industry, even with the competition from the internet and other new media, the Nigerian people continues to watch a lot of TV. And even though their audiences are declining, the broadcast network are still the best means for advertisers to reach a large audience in a hurry.

Contrary to popular opinion and public sceptics, Analogue switch off will impact the entire broadcast chain positively: From Government, Broadcasters, Network Regulators, Manufacturers, and Viewers.

Apart from providing the required policy and regulatory framework for digital broadcasting, the process will provide the government the opportunity of generating additional revenue from frequencies which will be available for auction (eg. The USA, realised billions of dollars in revenues accruing from freed spectrum).

According to Kindem and Musburger, “Digital Technology has increased the speed, efficiency and television production”. For broadcasters, it is expected that there would be cost effectiveness in infrastructure management. However, as earlier mentioned, due to increased programme offering and the emergence of new broadcasters, traditional over-the-air broadcasters will face the risk of increased competition which will shrink their market share and consequently reduction in advertising revenue.

The viewers at the bottom of the broadcast chain will derive more digital dividend than other stake holders. In contrast to analogue eras, Digital Television offers viewers more programme choice, portable and mobile television reception as well as enhances picture and sound quality.

The NTA experience

It was in the light of ITU’s resolution that the NTA in 2009 initiated a joint Venture between NTA and Beijing StarTimes group. This gave birth to what is today known as NTA-Star TV Network (StarTimes). You will be correct, if you describe it as a strategic partnership which time has come. The core objective of this partnership is to provide an innovative and technology – driven digital public service pay TV in Nigeria. Two years on, it is a success story. Today Nigerians have a credible alternative in the digital satellite pay television sub sector in Nigeria. NTA is now capable of streaming different thematic Contents (8 in all) on the Network simultaneously, using the same infrastructure – NTA News 24, NTA Sports 24, NTA Knowledge, NTA Entertainment, NTA Parliament, NTA Hausa, NTA Igbo, and NTA Yoruba.

Today, Nigeria can proudly say courtesy of this partnership, that we are indeed on the right path towards the transition from Analogue to Digital Television as obtainable in other countries of the world. The technical standards currently in use by Startimes are DVB-T2 MPEG-4 and the CMMB (Mobile TV).

Content

The possibilities for digital broadcasters in the digital era are limitless. It is expected that more channels would create activities in the supply end of content. This is likely to stimulate demand for local content production thereby creating job opportunities at all levels of Content creation including Camera Crew, editors, post production etc. Twenty-four-hour of transmission a day multiplied by approximately 500 channels and multiplied by 365 days a year will give us an idea of the magnitude of Content requirements.

The Challenge in NTA today is no longer having specialised channels to meet individual/society expectations, but how to fill these multiple channels already created with compelling content. The digital era of course would require new skills, specialisation, and style of Content development and distribution.

Radio

For Radio, the major models of digital radio management technologies are digital broadcasting (DAB) also known as Eureka 147, and the Digital Radio Media (DRM). DAB and its improved version (DAB+) have many benefits which includes:

  • Robust Audio delivery;
  • Lower Transmission Costs;
  • Efficient use of radio spectrum;
  • Fast re-tuning response time (low zapping delay) among others.

Trends, convergence and broadband

Broadband is a term used to describe high speed internet connections, such as those with a cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL). A broadband connection makes it possible to send video over the web.

Emerging and changing digital technologies have affected the production and distribution of content of both Radio and Television. According to Liwhu Befiang, “Digital technology has began to blur the traditional distinction between media technologies, thereby bringing them closer together in convergent mode”.

The convergence of Radio, Television and satellite has aided the re-birth of broadcast networks. Music and other forms of radio content can be distributed inexpensively to several stations. As a result, one “Network” can provide very different service to its very different affiliates. Satellite has another application as well. Many listeners now receive “radio” through their cable/satellite TV in the form of satellite delivered DMX.

Like other content providers, traditional television broadcasters are increasingly supplying their programming to call phones, I-Pad, YouTube, etc. The number of subscribers to mobile video is still relatively small, but it is growing.

In a recent Digital Conference in Beijing China, Engr Yomi Bolarinwa; Director-General (NBC) shared his thoughts on digital migration and revealed that at a recent Marketing Conference in Lagos, certain astonishing revelations of survey showed the power mobile phones has over our lives today. 90 per cent of mobile phone owners keep the phone within one meter 24/7 (Morgan Stanley). 60 per cent take the phone to bed with them. 33 per cent would rather lose their wallet than their phones (Nokia global survey) on the average, and we look at our phone phones more than 150 times a day. (Nokia Global Survey)”. He concludes that “mobile Digital Television will play an important role in the lives of consumers, because it offers the convenience, simplicity and immediacy of live broadcast on portable electronic devices”.

Challenges

Some obvious challenges or constraints that face digitalisation may include those associated with costs. There is no doubt and from experience in the NTA, the process is capital intensive. There is also the constraint of digital divide which Bustamante in a paper argued that “digital divide is not just the simplistic division between the digitally connected and non-connected as commonly assumed”. Digital divide appears in the division between levels of purchasing power, re-enforced cultural knowledge and codes; between those who possess strategic competitive information against those with more superficial and escapist knowledge” simply put, it is difficult for various citizen of those digital compartments to benefit equally from the digital revolution.

Conclusion

Digital switch over will require that those who would be eventually licensed to provide this service make significant investments to upgrade and digitise their network. While it is expedient to note that the ASO (1st January, 2015) is around the corner, it is important to caution that further investment by broadcasters on analogue transmitters and equipment is fool hardy and a total waste of resources.

Broadcasters on the analogue terrestrial platform need to play a significant role in managing the transition process lest they lose their audience and their livelihood. Early preparation is impressive.

One of the greatest challenges Broadcasters will face is the issue of Content generation. There will be an urgent need to generate extra content for the additional channels created by transition to digital broadcasting. Compelling and relevant Content will form an important determinant in the uptake of digital broadcasting services and broadcasting industry will need to increase the level of investment in Content acquisition or production in order to be relevant.

Maxwell P. Loko is Managing Director, NTA Star TV Network, NTA Headquarters, Abuja

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