• JIS News

    Information Minister, Senator Burchell Whiteman emphasised today (March 18), that recent amendments to the Broadcasting and Radio Re-Diffusion Act, is to ensure that, “we do not protect one set of operators or enterprises at the expense of another”.
    In an interview with JIS News, the Minister pointed out that changes to the Act, which seek to expand the categories of licences granted by the government to include special subscriber television service, independent programme providers (subscription only), and other independent providers, was reflective of the “veritable explosion of new media in the country” over the last 17 years.
    The amendments, he noted, were pursued in light of the growing number of Independent Programme Providers (IPPs) on local cable stations, as the initial Act, when drafted in 1997, did not take such stations into account.
    He explained that the government took the decision to grant the independent providers with the legal status to generate advertising revenue, but only under expressed conditions, among them, that 70 per cent of their programming in their first two years of operation were local content. Minister Whiteman pointed out that given the increasing number of “independent programme providers who want to get their product out for the benefit of the Jamaican viewer and also for the benefit of the international market, where we are gaining greater strength almost daily, the legislation which was passed in the Senate on March 10, dealt specifically with recognising in legal terms for licensing purposes, the independent programme providers who provide a channel and programming, which is now aired or broadcast/transmitted on cable system”.
    With the existing major television stations already producers of local content, and the independent programme providers seeking to follow suit by generating their own localised programming for the public, the Minister said the government was looking to broaden “the opportunities for local producers of local content to get their product out in the public view, and this is basically what this (the amendments) is about”.
    The changes to the Act, however, have left the Media Association of Jamaica (MAJ) dissatisfied. The association is contending that the amendments would now open the advertising market to independent providers, which would impact negatively on the financial and production aspects of the established media.
    In an open letter to Minister Whiteman, which was published in the press, the MAJ noted that, “the decision to allow advertising on cable television (subscriber television), will lead to an erosion of the revenues of media in general, and in particular radio and free-to-air television. We fear that in addition to job losses, investment in the industry would also decline, and the quality of local programmes, which are already produced at a loss, would suffer”. Senator Whiteman told JIS News that while he fully understood the concerns of the MAJ in relation to the impact on their advertising revenue, the recent amendments and past actions have offered some level of protection to those already in the media business as well as to those which are relatively new on the media landscape.
    “I also believe that some entities will find the competitive environment very challenging and not all entities will succeed,” he said.
    “Now in this market economy, which we operate in, there is a role that government plays in terms of creating an enabling environment. We believe that what we have done provides opportunities for all, but we also expect that all the competitors will have to perform in such a way as to ensure they can protect their share of the market,” he added.
    The Minister said that advertising revenue was growing and remained responsive to product and to demand, “so those who have had a 10-year, 15-year, 25-year head start on the newcomers should by now have protected their base; those who are coming in new, will have to show something new and creative, different and exciting, and operate in such a way as to attract some of that advertising, and already we have seen signs of it”.
    He explained that it was important to make a distinction between cable operators and independent programme providers, as there was a tendency on the part of some to confuse the two, or lump them together. Mr. Whiteman said cable operators have government-approved licences to operate in different zones across the country, while the independent programme providers (which are channels offered by cable operators), would have to meet requirements to qualify for licences to advertise. The criteria include 70 per cent of local-based programming on the stations within their first two years of operation; a combination of broadcast themes such as news and information, youth programming, recreation, sports, music, arts and culture, food and fashion, health, religion, education and lifestyle; and 14 hours of new, unrepeated hours of programming each week.
    The Minister said that while the requirements appeared to be “a very tall order”, following discussions, the targets were deemed to be achievable.
    He added that cable operators are also allowed the opportunity to advertise as under the terms of their licence, the operators typically have a community access channel on which they can in fact, advertise.
    “In terms of the existing cable operators who own a licence and are free to take these independent programming channels on their system and send them out to us, they are allowed for advertising purposes, one community access channel, which is the channel they operate and take responsibility for, through which they provide services to the community in which they operate,” the Minster explained.
    “They are allowed advertising,” he noted, “but any other channel, they can operate, but they will not be allowed advertising on those, so they have to make a decision how they structure their community channel in a way to make it appealing enough, and of good quality enough, that they acquire the advertising revenue to make it work”. Senator Whiteman said the gradual shift in technology from massive towers and major equipment for transmitting to cable systems over time, has to be acknowledged.
    In keeping with this reality, he told JIS News that, “the regulator has to ensure that there is equity, but in effect, those who have invested a long time ago and invested in a more expensive technology are inevitably going to feel that they are being squeezed by new technology and new policies, but then again, that is how the world works and we have to move with it. So I hope that the whole sector will look at this issue realistically, both in terms of their bottom line and profits as well as how we can serve the population”.
    He said one of the intentions of the government is to call for the provision of Internet service, and add-on services to the consumers through the new technologies and the cable systems.
    “This is certainly something which is beginning to happen, and which we expect to accelerate in time. And so we need to look then, at all the different add-on services which can be provided by these new technologies,” he added.
    Mr. Whiteman stressed that the government has never prevented the MAJ from applying for cable licences. “That is something which needs to be borne in mind, and it is still possible for them to apply for cable licences, either as a conglomerate or as a single entity,” he noted.
    He said discussions would continue between the government and the MAJ, and also other stakeholders in the broadcast business, including cable operators and the association of independent programme providers. “I think that all these sectors will continue to be in dialogue with the government, with whoever the Minister of Information is, with the Broadcasting Commission and so help in the whole evolution of what is a very important sector for the country in terms of Gross Domestic Product and the impact on the social and psychological life and well-being of the country, so the dialogue will continue,” the Minister said.