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Pay TV and the success of Chinese soft power in Nigeria


By Emeka Umejei

The music video for Chris Brown’s Fine China is an interesting illustration of China’s soft power in Africa. There are two versions: the original video, and an abridged version that is used by the Chinese-owned Star Times network, which operates in 16 African countries.

In the original, a Chinese family sits at the dining table. The father instructs his only daughter to stop seeing Chris Brown, but a moment later, Chris pulls up at the front of their house, in his sleek Lamborghini Aventador, and the daughter leaves with him. Her father is a triad leader, and his goons trail Chris to a club, where they attack him. He betters all of them, and rejoins his Chinese lady, who was watching his display of superior martial skill. Exiting the club, Chris is confronted by a much larger, well armed group of attackers. They circle him and the Chinese lady, and Chris, fearing for his life, lets the Chinese lady go back to her father. At this point, another group of well armed men emerge to support  Chris. There’s a standoff, and both parties agree to part ways peacefully.

That’s the original version – in the abridged version, which airs on Star Times entertainment channels, the scene of Chris brown bettering the Triad goons has been edited out, and China ends up looking equal to the United States of America, represented by Chris Brown.

Depending on where your interest lies in the China-Africa discourse, there are various interpretations of this narrative. If you are pro-China, the Chinese lady could represent Africa, already in the comfort of China the father, who is the hero. Chris Brown – standing in for the USA – is the villain, put out by thriving Sino-African relations. He appeals to the Chinese lady with American finesse. This is reminiscent of President Barrack Obama’s visit to Africa, hot on the heels of after the Chinese President Xi Jinping. But the father of the Chinese lady goes on the trail of his daughter, to return her home, and in the long run, both  parties – China  and the US – find they do not need to clash over Africa, or the Chinese lady, and settle their differences, with the US letting Africa go to China temporarily.

On the other hand, if you are pro-US, the Chinese lady is Africa, and Chris Brown – the American hero of the geopolitical landscape – is trying to rescue Africa from a villainous China. Of course China doesn’t want to be portrayed as the villain, and to prevent it, it’s deployed its soft power in Africa to prevent it.

In his book, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick emphasises that China launched its soft power diplomacy in the early 2000s, with a view to changing how the world views China. By extension, China want to influence  how the world views its engagement with Africa. In 2010, its state news agency, Xinhua, started a news service for mobile phones; in 2011, CCTV established its African broadcast hub in Nairobi, Kenya, and in December 2012, Xinhuanet, an online service of Xinhua, launched its African edition.

Star Times Digital Pay TV, a joint venture between Nigeria’s public broadcaster, Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and Beijing Star Group of China, has projected Chinese soft power into Nigeria, and the results so far indicate that the effort is paying off. A lot of Nigerians who held negative views of China are reconsidering their perspectives, with the majority of the people interviewed for this story agreeing that Star Times has reshaped their view of China.

“Star Times has changed my perception of China positively,” Goddie Ofose, President of Brand Journalists Association of Nigeria (BJAN) said. “It is one thing the Chinese has been to do in this country, which is positive.”

John Omololu Olumuyiwa, publisher of TravelScope magazine concurs that Star Times reveals many unknown aspects of China, making the country of great interest to him. “It means it has influenced my view on China,” Omolou said. Godstime Azeke, chief executive of football academy Cross Soccer International (CSI) in Lagos says Star Times has influenced his perception of China because it has a channel dedicated to Chinese documentaries.

Charles Okonji, a graphic designer with Nigeria’s Manufacturing Today, falls among the few who think that Star Times has not swayed their image of China. “China disorganise any economy they penetrate with substandard products and they take to the street to hawk their fake materials,” Okonji said. According to Okonji, the Chinese are not sincere with Nigerian businessmen because they have double standards, and manufacture quality products for some countries but export fake products to Nigeria. “Without close monitoring, Chinese would take over any economy and destroy it,” Okonji said.

The Affordability of Star Times

If Star Times has created a positive image of China in the minds of many Nigerians, it has done so by being affordable. It appeals to the lower class, who constitute the majority, whereas subscription rates for the competition are beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians. For instance, the cheapest bouquet for the competition is N3000 ($19) and its most expensive bouquet is N11, 000 ($69).

According to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) website, Star Times has three packages: the Basic Bouquet (32 Channels), the Classic Bouquet (44 channels), and the Unique Bouquet (52 channels). The Basic costs N1000 ($6.5), the Classic N2000 ($12.5), and the Unique N4000 ($25).

“Star Times is cheaper,” Okonji said, adding that “the competition shows old movies on African Magic while Star Times shows more current movies.” He also says the Star Times decoder boots up faster when there is a power failure or change of power source. According to Okonji, more Nigerians are subscribing to Star Times every day, because the Chinese network gives better service than the competition.

Azeke says flexible payment options give Star Times a competitive edge. “I like the repayment flexibility of Star Times. You can recharge your subscription by calling the customer care once you can quote your pin.” According to Ofose, Star Times also offers more variety. “The competition does not have Santata Africa channel, where we can see live wrestling.”

Another subscriber and a journalist with one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, National Daily, says Star Times’ content is “equally beneficial to me as a journalist and to my family in terms of entertainment.” But Leke Adeneye, publisher of the Lamp Journal says he likes Star Times out of “patriotism and loyalty to an indigenous brand.”

There are other Nigerians who think that Star Times is also a quality Pay TV platform that withstands climatic pressure. “I subscribe to Star Times because of the good quality. Even during heavy rainfall, the signal remains and nothing disturbs your view,” Omololu said.

What’s in it for Nigeria?

Maxwell Loko, Director of NTA-Star Times joint venture, says the partnership is aimed at helping the NTA achieve its transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, in line with the June 2015 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) switch-off date for member countries. “The NTA-STAR Joint Venture remains the only hope Nigeria has towards meeting the 2015 ITU’s dateline,” Loko said.

Loko said the Star Times Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) was a solution to the challenges faced by the NTA, which was why it was selected to be a preferred partner. He emphasised that the NTA has eight channels on the Star Times cable network, a development he describes as a marked departure from the single channel NTA offered in the past. But the most important benefit by far, according to Loko, is that it will save the federal government of Nigeria “billions of Naira which would have been spent to digitize the country.”

Ofose says Star Times has also deepened the Pay TV market in Nigeria. “Without Star Times, Pay TV would have been a premium platform but the brand has done well by creating a spread variety and most importantly its affordable nature.”

Historical Challenges of Nigeria’s Pay TV Sector

Although Nigeria was home to the first television station on the African continent, Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service-Television, established in 1959, its electronic media sector was only liberalised in 1992. Nigeria only got her first private radio state, Ray Power, in 1994, which was granted license to operate a satellite station, called Africa Independent Television, about a year later .

Pay TV was not on the Nigerian media radar until Multi Choice launched Dstv in 1994. Nigeria’s first Indigenous Pay TV operator, Frontage Satellite Television  launched in March 2004, with a 25-channel direct to home service, but it struggled to be competitive. There have been other entrants to the Nigerian Pay TV sector, but none of them were able to gain market share until HiTV was launched in 2007.  HiTV was a bold challenge to the competition, but it folded after operating for five years.

Star Times Stands the Storm

Unlike the majority of Pay TV operators that have come before it, Star Times appears to be riding the storm. Their approach to business has been a resounding success, and many Nigerians are embracing the network. “Star Times is presently in only 16 cities with a subscriber base of approximately 1.4 million,” Loko disclosed. To underscore its growth in Nigeria, Star Times TV was adjudged the best Pay TV digital channel provider in Nigeria for the year 2012, at the Nigeria Broadcaster Merit Award in January 2013, where its quest to ensure that that “every home in Nigeria has access to digital television,” was given special mention.

Partnership Favours China

Since 1969, when China and Nigeria commenced trade relations, the balance of trade has been in favour of China. The trend is yet to change, even with the NTA-Star Times joint venture.

“The sharing formula is presently skewed in favour of the Chinese partners, understandably because of their larger equity contribution,” Loko said, while adding that “a review is in the offing as the business makes progress.”

This trend marks all of China’s trade with Africa, and the relationship between Africa and China confirms the long held view, echoed by the late Tanzania President, Julius Nyerere, that it is the “most unequal” of “equal relationships.”

Emeka Umejei is a Postgraduate student at the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, Grahamstown. This project was sponsored by grants from the China-Africa Project of the Wits Journalism.

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