Recently it was put about that a request had been made for a loan of $500 million from a foreign power to put the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), on a par with Cable News Network (CNN).
To those who knew something about these matters, it was a joke, worthy of a hearty laugh.
The history of television broadcasting in Nigeria is fraught with highs and lows, culminating in the behemoth and emblem of “federal might” known as NTA.
The first television station in sub-Saharan Africa – Western Nigerian Television (WNTV), opened in 1959. In 1962, Radio Kaduna Television (RKTV) was established. Midwest TV was established in 1972, and Benue-Plateau Television (BPTV) followed in 1974.
NTA was founded in 1977. By May of that year all the State television stations had been merged under it and rebranded Nigerian Television (NTV).
Apart from News, in which it essentially acted as the voice of the government and party in power, in an era when the audience had no alternative, it spawned the production of local content and gave a wide reach to “network” programmes such as “Village Headmaster”, “Tales By Moonlight”, Cockcrow At Dawn” and “Mirror in the Sun”.
Incidentally Olopade Obisesan was the inaugural Chairman of WNTV – the outlier, and Vincent Maduka was the General Manager. Perhaps in recognition of their pioneering status, they continued in those roles when NTA was formed.
NTA has served as a factory for the grooming of talents in the areas of News, as well as Creative Arts. Newscasters such as Ronke Ayuba, John Momoh, Sienne Allwell-Brown, Cyril Stober, Bimbo Oloyede, Ruth Benamesia-Opia and Sola Omole cut their teeth there, becoming household names across the nation.
If there is going to be a Nigerian “voice of Africa”, it will not be NTA, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars government borrows to plough into it. Some things simply cannot be bought, and in its organisational flaws and limitations, NTA resembles the Nigerian nation itself
Over the years, NTA has grown ever larger, and ever more entrenched as a parastatal of the Ministry of Information. From glib smart “faction” disseminated under the rubric of such programmes as “Verdict 79” in the era of Walter Ofonagoro and NPN, to frank falsehoods and disinformation under the brutal dictatorship of Abacha, the great possibilities, and serious dangers embodied in an all-powerful NTA have been demonstrated to the Nigerian public.
Deregulation came. Channels Incorporated, founded by John Momoh, an alumnus – yes, of NTA, began broadcasting in 1995. Africa Independent Television (AIT) came on board in 1996.
Over the years, the need to “tell the African story” has become more and more compelling.
In 1996, Al Jazeera started to broadcast from Qatar. It gave the people of the Arab world the feeling, for the first time, that there was a station with the reach and content to tell their story. Al Jazeera is now a smooth, sleek organization competing for viewing audience, not just in the Arab world, but everywhere.
It is logical that that the “voice” of Africa should come from Nigeria – the “giant” of Africa. It was at least part of the reason why John Momoh set up Channels, and why Dokpesi set up AIT. It has also provided part of the justification for the huge additional investment of government in NTA, year on year.
Nobody has yet achieved the status of “Voice of Africa”.
As we speak, the “local” channel that is most avidly watched by Nigerians in the diaspora is Channels Television.
Cable News Network (CNN) was founded by Ted Turner in 1980 as the first 24-hour news operation in the world. It is the international gold standard in independent broadcasting.
CNN has state of the art digital facilities, top of the range human resources, with a private sector organisational structure, and a rugged, independent credibility acquired over the years.
A verbal exchange at a recent event to mark the golden jubilee of “Village Headmaster”, brought out in bold relief the need for new thinking in, and about, NTA. After the nice speeches from Christopher Kolade and the incumbent DG of NTA at the event, the talk shifted to a panel discussion and audience interaction on the topic “Drama as a tool for national development”. It quickly became obvious that there was a sense among the younger generation of actors and producers making waves in Nollywood and on Netflix that the “old breed”, represented by government and the NTA establishment, were dismissive of their talents and accomplishments, and not willing to acknowledge them. Kemi Lala Akindoju (actress/producer “The CEO”, “Fifty”) complained they were thumbing their noses at them, despite their massive home-viewership and international recognition. There was no talk of mentoring or collaboration.
NTA facilities, she said, were lying fallow all over the country, and yet they would not allow private producers to use them. She mentioned Funke Akindele, the creator of “Jenifa” and its spinoffs, and how she had single-handedly built her own studio. Such “private” efforts should be celebrated and embraced, instead of being scoffed at for their character’s rotten English. In any case these were the Drama the Nigerian people preferred to watch, instead of expensive government sponsored NTA productions. NTA, she concluded, belonged to the people of Nigeria, so why the “us and them” mentality?
If there is going to be a Nigerian “voice of Africa”, it will not be NTA, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars government borrows to plough into it. Some things simply cannot be bought, and in its organisational flaws and limitations, NTA resembles the Nigerian nation itself.
That “voice” would have to be independent – a Channels, or TVC, or Arise, massively raising its game, or a conglomerate arising from them, or a totally new cable network that has learned from the errors of its forebears.
NTA needs to do a wholesale strategic rethink and reset its objectives to return value for the resources the Nigerian nation has plowed into it since 1977. Listening to artistes and productions being celebrated by the majority of Nigerians in 2020 and helping them instead of putting them down may be a good beginning to that journey.