by Larry Smith
The question of what to do with the state-owned Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas is once again on the front burner.
In a previous article we traced the evolution of Bahamian television (read it here) and set the stage for a look at the future.
Fact is, we could have had cable TV here in the early 1960s, but it was blocked for political reasons. With a population of only 130,000 back then, the high cost and impracticality of a national TV station didn't make sense to some, but it was insisted upon by politicians and intellectuals - ostensibly to protect our cultural identity.
So we had to wait until 1977 for the government to implement TV, and privately-operated cable television was withheld until 1995. To make things worse, ZNS TV did little or nothing to promote Bahamian culture, but a great deal to promote Bahamian politicians.
The people who started TV-13 were all trained in Canada, where broadcasting was set up along the lines of the BBC, which was the United Kingdom's sole broadcaster until 1955. That authoritarian model fitted in nicely with the inclinations of our local politicians, but the British and Canadians were more scrupulous about fairness and diversity.
According to it's charter, the BBC is to be "free from both political and commercial influence and answer only to its viewers and listeners". A $4 billion budget is funded by license fees and programme sales. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was also a monopoly until the mid-1950s. It is funded by government subsidy supplemented by ad revenue.
But things went a little differently in the United States, where radio was fully commercial by the 1920s and television by the 1940s. In fact, there was no US government involvement at all until 1967 when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by Congress. As a private non-profit it gets a yearly government grant on the order of $400 million - but most of its funding comes from private donors.
And, like the British and Canadians, the Americans legislated "strict adherence to objectivity and balance" and outlawed government interference in broadcasting.
Today Bahamians can watch hundreds of digital channels via cable or satellite. And since ZNS runs mostly old movies and foreign soaps, the question that naturally comes to mind is, why do we need it? And more to the point, what value do we get for the $13 million plus a year we spend on it?
The answer for some, is because Bahamians must be able to watch Junkanoo on TV, as well as special events like state funerals, parliamentary openings or political conventions. But Cable Bahamas has a community channel and a parliamentary channel that also do these things - at no direct cost to the taxpayer. In fact, the obligation to do them is written into its license.
Charles Carter, the former ZNS boss whose private radio station now packages news, and other shows, for Cable's community channel dvertising on Cable 12, says he supported privatisation even while he was chairman of the Broadcasting Corporation (from 1982 to 1987).
"I argued publicly for private broadcasting and a specific public broadcast status, similar to the CBC, for ZNS. There is a cultural and educational role that can best be served by such an entity that should be editorially independent and responsible, by charter, to the total community. It should be funded by grant and its programming content should reflect the needs, concerns and expectations of our developing society."
This is essentially the same conclusion that the Ingraham government came to in the 1990s, but balked at implementing because of the political and financial implications. Mike Smith, who chaired the BCB from 1994 to 2000, said a 1996 study recommended downsizing ZNS, selling off 104.5FM and running TV as a public affairs service.
"But money was a big problem," he told me. "The severance package would have cost over a million dollars and the government would not agree to pump any more into ZNS, so we ended up simply transferring some staff to other agencies. Back then ZNS was spending $13 million a year and earning less than half that amount."
Retired journalist Nicki Kelly, who spent two years on the ZNS board in the early 1990s, recalled that the station's financial condition "was so precarious that it was touch and go every month whether there would be money to pay the staff, let alone the pension plan, national insurance, utilities and all the other expenses.
"On top of that, there were the flagrant abuses by staff who thought nothing of running their own sideline businesses on Corporation time using Corporation equipment, or the clever ruses to run up overtime, or later the coterie of female broadcasters who saw themselves as entrepreneurs and were heavily engaged in running their various enterprises while working for the Corporation."
These descriptions probably still apply, but we don't really know because the BCB hasn't provided audited statements to parliament since the year 2000 - and that report wasn't tabled until 2003.
Sir Arthur Foulkes was BCB chairman from 2000 to 2002 when the last "comprehensive evaluation of ZNS" was undertaken. He told me that "the study was done in collaboration with Canadian consultants and dealt with everything: finances, viability of commercial TV, radio, equipment, staff, etc."
The conclusion was that maintaining a multitude of state-owned radio stations in a privatised market was unnecessary and costly, so they should all be divested except for ZNS 1, which would continue as a national public radio service.
Meanwhile, TV-13 would become a public affairs service funded by government grant, with local programming encouraged by offering seed money to independent producers. The consensus was that 300,000 eyeballs scattered over several islands was not a big enough market market to fund TV commercially, especially as the country's two biggest industries - hotels and offshore services - didn't need to advertise here.
But the 2002 general election intervened and, again, nothing much happened. Broadcast journalist Carlton Smith summed it up best when he spoke at a media seminar last year: "Many felt that with the coming of private broadcasting, the Corporation would be forced to change. But more than 12 years later ZNS remains a state-run organisation that, despite the intentions of any government, cannot work in the public interest."
So the question is, what do we do about that?
Well, perhaps we should consider whether we need ZNS at all. Even if it could be detached from direct government control, it would likely turn into a broadcasting version of Bahamas Information Services, another pointless agency whose employees trot behind government ministers to produce "official" news of dubious value.
So if that's the objective, why not just merge ZNS with BIS, producing a single bureaucracy with no ambiguity about what it's supposed to do. Then we could set about the task of redefining the role of BIS.
To recreate ZNS as an authentic public affairs service would require strict legislative guarantees of autonomy, and the station would have to be operated by a genuinely independent authority, with a cross-section of community representation. The right managers would have to be found, and a massive firewall would be needed to deter interfering politicos. Frankly, it's hard to see any Bahamian government acceding to this.
If we retain ZNS, the question of finance arises. And there are really only four options here - advertising sales, license fees, donations or tax subsidies.
Since we have ruled out ad sales and there are likely to be few donors unless and until a reconstituted ZNS proves itself, we are left with public funding in one of two ways. The government could allocate a yearly contribution for ZNS, as it does for other government departments. But without strict guarantees, this would only deepen political control.
An easier approach would be to add a tax to Cable Bahamas' monthly subscription. Most of the 90,000 households in the country are served by cable, so a $5 a month fee could generate over $5 million a year, which ought to be sufficient to operate a slimmed-down ZNS.
And at the risk of stating the obvious, why don't we just mandate Cable 12 to cover important state functions and cultural events, disband TV-13, and license private stations? Wendall Jones already has approval in principle for his public affairs station, which will come on stream as soon as new broadcasting regulations are in place. And it is rumoured that Debbie Bartlette may also get a license.
But unfortunately this debate will soon be overtaken by events, because the government has hired a Canadian consultant to advise on a huge investment to replace TV-13's old technology with new digital equipment. That means funds may be allocated before the way forward has been properly and publicly charted.