Public Interest versus Economic Imperative: State-Owned versus Privately Owned Television in Jamaica

Public Interest versus Economic Imperative: State-Owned versus Privately Owned Television in Jamaica

Marcia Forbes PhD

Jamaica Jubilee Conversations

To have participated in one of the five Jamaica Jubilee Conversations hosted as a part of this island’s celebration of its 50th Anniversary as an Independent nation was an honour. ‘The Evolution of the Media Landscape in Jamaica’ triggered many memories and led to this article.

Sale of JBC TV (and most of JBC radio)

It was a fiery sale! Some say a fire sale. Jamaicans had long exhibited a love/hate relationship with the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC). They wanted it to do well and to exceed expectations. It did try and in some instances succeeded. Many did not want it sold. In mid-1997 at the time of its sale to Radio Jamaica (RJR), the government-owned and controlled JBC TV was acknowledged as the national station.

Enter CVM TV

CVM TV, owned by a group of private investors, was never allowed that status of being the national station. The ‘C’ in its name represented CTS (Community Television Systems – a misnomer for a mostly ‘film’-making and equipment rental service owned by Abe Dabdoub). The ‘V’ stood for Videomax, a spin-off from Gerry Grindley’s advertising agency, the ‘M’ for Mediamix, Lennie Little-Whyte’s then booming media house.

CVM had been granted an island-wide free-to-air TV licence in 1991. It eventually started transmitting in 1993 and was immediately dubbed a ‘cable-clone’. CVM TV aired some of the most loved foreign fare. John and Jane Doe lapped it up. It was a cost-effective, quick way to kick off the station since foreign movies, soaps, comedies and other such types of ‘canned’ programmes could be purchased comparatively cheaply.

A ‘Young’ General Manager for TVJ

By the time I came to JBC TV at the time of privatization as its ‘young’ General Manager, and a woman to boot, CVM had gained stride. After only four (4) years it was ‘kicking butt’. JBC was now second in what was effectively a two-horse race. LOVE TV, licenced about one year after CVM and positioned for the Christian community, was barely making an impact.

On its acquisition, Lester Spaulding, then Managing Director and Chairman of the RJR Board of Directors, an accountant by training, detailed the JBC TV financials. He was distraught. What some saw as a ‘steal’ at J$70 Million for JBC TV and 2 radio stations caused him great agony. He graphically described the TV station in words which stayed riveted in my mind. This station is “piss-pot poor”, Spaulding said.

Local TV Programmes for a ‘Chicken Coop’

At the first RJR Annual General Meeting right after the purchase, Spaulding took a proper ‘telling-off’. JBC TV was described as a “chicken coop” by an irate male shareholder; that comment joined the “piss-pot poor” one as riveted in my mind and motivation to succeed. Shortly thereafter the station was renamed, rebranded and repositioned as Television Jamaica (TVJ). It, however, held on to the status inherited from the JBC as the country’s national television station.

Balancing the ‘public interest’ demand with the economic imperative of turning a profit was a tough task. To satisfy TVJ’s strategic positioning as the national station required a steely focus on local content. As noted earlier, compared to purchasing canned foreign programmes, producing local content is expensive.

Defining ‘Local’

In beefing up local content, attention was first turned to Prime Time News. This product was to me the station’s most important local product and was being badly beaten. CVM had planted itself ahead of JBC TV with its news products. Whether or not the survey figures showed this, since by coming at 7pm TVJ’s news had a natural advantage over CVM’s 8pm news, we knew it. And we intended to fix it!

Beefing up Prime Time News included introducing short features such as the ‘Business Report’ and ‘Financial News’. There was strong opposition to the producer and host of these features. I was out on a limb but stood my ground. ‘Sports Commentary’ with the inimitable Bobby Fray was a much easier sell to the team. Another strategy was to ask RJR to send me Michael Sharpe. Know to be a ‘road-man’ Michael would help to capture late night news events, something the old JBC TV was extremely weak at.

To my horror, in conversations with the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission I realized that the definition of a local programme can be quite skewed. The news products, critical to any station’s brand/image and which required substantial financial and human resources were not regarded by him as ‘local programmes’. Then too, independent producers scoffed at in-studio products as not ‘real’ local programmes.

We’ve come a long way in defining local content. Hardly anyone would now dispute that locally-produced news and in-studio products are real local content/programmes. Between 1997 and 2003 TVJ introduced a slew of local content. In fact this was one hallmark of the station during those heady days. I remember writing one Minister of Information to highlight how well the station was doing in featuring local and working to break reliance on foreign fare.

Public Interest v/s Economic Imperative

What Lester Spaulding and the shareholder described in their respective inimitable, pejorative styles in 1997 is now (arguably/inarguably) the brightest ‘gem’ in the RJR ‘crown’. TVJ demonstrated that a privately-owned television station can carefully walk the tight rope between public service interest and economic imperatives. When I demitted office, TVJ was the market leader and in profit position.

However, as media and audiences evolve and the ‘Wherever, Whenever, Whatever Model’, driven by technology (the Internet and social media in particular) and changing societal and individual expectations become more deeply embedded, free-to-air TV, like TVJ and CVM, must review and revise their approaches. The rope is even tighter and the possible fall more catastrophic. Shareholders want return on their investments. Viewers want content now, in live and living colour, not delayed or diluted. Many media houses will die. A few will fly.

August 4, 2012
Marcia Forbes, Ph.D.