Viewers of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (nbc) were last week treated to something not seen since the 1990s: the dreaded ‘test card’, the round image featuring colours, monochrome patterns and the broadcasters’ logo, indicating that transmission has ended at 9PM and will not resume until the following morning.
I may be a time traveler, but this piece of 90s nostalgia did NOT make me happy.
As a media educator, the prospect outlined by nbc board chairperson Sven Thieme, of up to 156 employees losing their jobs, is extremely worrying.
The nbc’s funding from central government has been reduced steadily for at least the past five financial years.
At a press conference, Thieme said coverage of elections in November would also be affected if at least N$385 million were not provided by the Government.
The timing of this announcement is, shall we say, striking. The nbc is likely to win this round, and strong-arm the government out of at least some money, because the alternative - leaving election coverage at the mercy of privately-owned newspapers, will never be acceptable to any politician.
Longer-term, though, the nbc must ask some pointed questions of itself.
A public service broadcaster is very important in any democracy.
The idea is that - unlike most newspapers which depend on advertising for financial survival - a public service broadcaster is not beholden to big business.
A privately-owned newspaper or commercial radio station is often only interested in audiences with money - how could you sell advertising if your listeners couldn’t afford the products being advertised? But a public service broadcaster, not bound by this, can and should reach the poorest and most remote areas of the country.
Also, because it traditionally was funded by TV license fees, or by small-scale donations, a public service broadcaster is not meant to be in bed with government either.
Of course, based on this, the nbc is not fully a public service broadcaster, as it accepts both advertising and direct state subsidy. Also, its board is appointed by a Minister, whereas the standard model would have it appointed directly by Parliament, with public hearings or other opportunities for citizen input before directors are selected.
But nothing is perfect - what is true is that the national broadcaster aspires to do public service broadcasting, and in some ways, it does succeed in that.
Is The Namibian going to publish in Ruwangali and Setswana, if the NBC goes under? Is the Windhoek Observer going to give airtime to all presidential election candidates? I doubt it, and as commercial organizations, they should not be expected to.
That being said, how can we save the nbc?
For one thing, the days of TV license fees covering the cost of a public broadcaster are coming to an end. A TV is no longer a required item for the middle-class lifestyle. Many people watch Netflix or Showmax on their laptops, tablets or even mobile phones.
A levy on all mobile transactions or internet connections, implemented by the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN) would be one way to fund the nbc.
Perhaps a concession to the market can be made by setting up an independent division, which makes solid-gold-guaranteed hits with commercial producers - that’s after all the way that Dancing with the Stars and The Great British Bake Off raked in huge amounts of cash for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The elephant in the room, however, is the nbc’s editorial independence from government. Despite the test card, the nbc was very popular in the early to mid 1990s. Shows like Channel One, Open File, the National Chat Show, and Open Line served to hold decision makers to account.
If nbc wants the support of advertisers and audiences and for the public to pay their TV licenses and appreciate the tax money spent on it, they’ve got to show enough bottle to demand at least a modicum of independence.
And if government really wants nbc to break even, they have to give it that freedom.
Hugh Ellis, when not catching up with On the Street or Body with Maria Nepembe, is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow his blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com or take in his Instagram feed at ellis.hugh