Wanted: A Pan-Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation


This article by Saieed I. Khalil appeared in The Stabroek News. (Saieed I. Khalil is an eighteen year old third year economics major at the University of Guyana)  

“The way we communicate and who communicates for us significantly impact on our development as a society” – Emille A. Giddings, University of Guyana Economics Graduate

The concept of a regional broadcasting service has long been mooted. In a 2011 report on the state of affairs of the regional integration, published by the University of the West Indies Institute of International Relations, one of the recommendations for the movement’s revival read “Effective communication must come to the centre of everything that regional institutions do, along with the establishment of a Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation with the kind of public service remit – and comprehensive coverage across the internet, radio and airwaves – that characterizes the BBC.”

After years of a state monopoly on Guyana’s broadcast spectrum, its (the spectrum’s) liberalization was seen to be the opportune time for the shaping of a local media landscape with a regional focus and flavour. The allegations of allocations mostly to recipients with close ties to the ruling party, the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) and the setting aside of a terrestrial television frequency to carry a 24-hour rebroadcast of the Chinese state-owned CCTV, however, have fuelled concern that the authorities have missed that boat.

With the possible exception of the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), a Barbados-based consortium of media outlets across the region, there is no concerted attempt at a region-wide dissemination of Caribbean content across the print and electronic media.

An inconspicuous intrusion
The Caribbean television broadcasting industry is dominated by privately-owned commercial broadcasters and cable operators, which bring a vast array of channels from around the world to local audiences. For reasons which lie in simple economics, this preponderance of commercial interests in broadcasting has played a significant role in stunting the generation of locally produced Caribbean fare.

For one – as media professional Terrence Farrell contended at a 2010 media symposium- these operators find it cheaper to purchase American-made content, produced and distributed by what is easily the world’s largest film industry, Hollywood, than to undertake the risks and significant startup and development costs associated with commissioning the production of local fare. In many instances, too, local broadcasters pirate the signals of foreign broadcasters and rebroadcast their (the foreign broadcasters’) content. It is surmised that since the individual Caribbean island markets are relatively inconsequential, it would not be cost-effective for foreign broadcasters to pursue legal action against the offenders.

Secondly, private operators simply supply content in response to existing demand forces in the market, thereby reinforcing existing cultural tastes and preferences instead of reshaping them. As a result, Caribbean folk get off today on Hollywood fare much as they did in the pre-Independence era.

This proliferation of foreign content has real social, economic and political implications for the region. Of particular economic concern is the subjecting of Caribbean consumers to incessant doses of commercials glorifying everything from foreign-branded cantaloupes to cat food. This has reinforced local buyers’ preferences for imported products much to the detriment of local producers.

“This revolution will be televised”     
There is clearly scope, therefore, for a regional public service broadcaster, a Pan-Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation of sorts.  A public service broadcaster, as the term suggests, is concerned with disseminating content that is in the public interest, such as documentaries, news, art and educational programmes. To be fair, some private operators do produce content that is in the public interest. In what is a classic case of market failure, however, because such content generates tremendous benefits to society for which private operators cannot reap compensation (a phenomenon economists call “positive externalities”), private producers do not produce enough of that type of content to meet society’s needs.

As part of its remit, a Pan-Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (PCBC) should, as per the UWI-IIR’s recommendation, play a strong sociopolitical role in the integration movement by the production and dissemination of information “about every Caribbean territory into the homes, schools and businesses of every other.” The prevalence of an information deficit across the 15-member Caricom bloc has led to the persistence of deep mistrust, petty jealousies and even fear among Caricom citizens. A recent court case of a Jamaican national suing the Barbadian government for sexual abuse at the hands of immigration authorities at Grantley Adams International Airport and an ongoing trade war between Jamaica and Trinidad over the actual origins of cement exported by the latter are but two public manifestations of what is a deep undercurrent of intra-regional hostility and xenophobia. By edifying Caricom peoples about each other, a PCBC can rectify these information asymmetries and nurture a political environment for regional cooperation.

A PCBC must also serve as the catalyst for a sociocultural renaissance throughout the region, by acting as an outlet for regionally generated audiovisual content, such as films and music videos. Apart from being a distributor of regionally generated content, a regional public service broadcaster should serve as a focal point for the production integration of audiovisual creation processes – bringing investors, writers, filmmakers and other creative workers together from across the region.  Ideally, the PCBC should act within the framework of a well-defined cultural policy – similar to an industrial policy – to build a vibrant regional creative audiovisual industry.

Who’s picking up the tab?
By its very nature, a public service broadcaster – ideally operating synergistically in a public-partnership with the CMC – depends on some measure of government funding. For one, it is not reasonable to expect a public service broadcaster to compete with private operators for already narrow advertising revenue streams. Regional public service broadcasting is loosely classified in economics as a “club good”, which means that though additional consumers can access it without reducing the benefits accruing to current users, non-paying beneficiaries can be denied access to the good. To tap into the benefits offered by a PCBC, therefore, Caricom nations need to be a contributor to its operations.
How, exactly, can regional governments finance such a project? Terrence Farrell suggests that such contributions can flow from portions of lotto proceeds or revenues from taxes levied on alcohol and cigarettes.

Of course, the big question is, as always, how much is to be contributed by whom. In the case of TeleSUR, a regional satellite public service television broadcaster serving a number of South American countries, Venezuela, whose late President Hugo Chávez initiated the project, chips in roughly 50% of the entity’s budget while other states who are part of the network contribute smaller percentages. Might any of the Caricom nations be looked upon to play a similar role of leadership? Trinidad and Tobago, for its part, has made clear that it will not be the “region’s ATM.”

Jamaica and Barbados, Caricom’s other two MDCs, with their recession-rattled economies are hardly in any financial shape to initiate such an undertaking. That leaves Guyana, which, for all the talk of its being among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, has always been relatively generous when it comes to the furtherance of the international and regional causes it espouses. Significantly, the country’s government has invested in certain content-distribution platforms which could have regional applications: the establishing of a satellite educational channel, the Guyana Learning Channel and a publication press, the Caribbean Press, which is presently merely titular in its regional focus. Both point to the Guyana government’s investment in assets that might be leveraged to serve the regional good. Of course, regardless of who contributes how much, the fundamental issue must be one of transparency and independence. In a column for the Trinidad Guardian, regional economist Norman Girvan proffered that contributions be made into an independently run fund, identical to that of the trust fund for the Caribbean Court of Justice, to insulate the PCBC from political influence

Regardless of its being publicly funded, however, the Pan-Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation must earn its keep. It must make itself relevant to Caribbean audiences and strive to access a broad regional viewership through a range of platforms including radio, television and internet.  To this end, the PCBC must produce high quality programmes that will appeal to audiences for it is only when it accomplishes this will it be able to play its role as an engine of regional integration.

For the original report go to http://www.stabroeknews.com/2013/features/in-the-diaspora/06/03/wanted-a-pan-caribbean-broadcasting-corporation/

2 thoughts on “Wanted: A Pan-Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation

  1. What an articulate, analytical young man! Excellent proposal! In spite of all the discrimination Guyanese face when they travel in the region (and it is real), he still dreams pan-regionally. Thank you for sharing. Readers may also be interested in Christopher Laird’s TEDX Port of Spain talk on the dreams of West Indian Federation and media:

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