Nigel Parsons, Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Continental Broadcasting Service (CBS), owners of Television Continental, TVC, and Radio Continental in this interview tells Godwin Ifijeh about the organisation’s readiness to go digital and its growing role as Africa’s voice in international broadcasting
Continental Broadcasting Service (CBS) has become such a huge and diverse organisation in a short time, how has it been running such a fast paced media organisation?
I have managed Aljazeera English, which is bigger and I have done four or five other smaller launches. What is different about this one is that it’s very much an African project for Africans. Unlike say Aljazeera, we can go and take people from the BBC, Sky, CNN or whatever; it was not so here, we had to train everyone from scratch. It was a bit more challenging and much more satisfying. You couldn’t just take people from a national broadcast here because they had that mindset, which you cannot change. So, many of them are young people we trained by ourselves. However, what has worked more for us here is delegating authority, it’s very important that people learn to delegate. When I came to Nigeria I found that most organisations were like kind of pyramids; nobody wants to make decisions until they got to the very top. Here we’ve got a very flat kind of management where everyone in every department has responsibilities and makes their own decisions. As long as they are getting eight out of 10 right they are doing a good job. Basically, I am the team builder, but everybody looks after his or own department.
What are TVC?
Before TVC, there was no pan-African channel. So, the big foreign channel just parachute in whenever there is a disaster. As it were, 99 per cent of the news coming out of Africa was bad news; there was no positive news. It’s changed slightly now because CNN has Voice of Africa, BBC has Window on Africa. But no one was really doing a true African eyes, the bad things that were happening everywhere and the good things. As it is, we want to report the good, the bad and the ugly. We will criticise what’s wrong, and praise what’s right. That is why a lot of our programmes are celebrating the amazing things that are coming out of Africa- the culture, environment, music and so on. So, it’s a far more balanced view on Africa and it gives Africa a much more positive image in the outside world, we ‘ve got extensive distribution in the United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the USA. So, what we are doing in the way we are reporting Africa is not only being seen by Africans, but also by people outside Africa, who are beginning to realise that there is another side to Africa apart from famine and war.
What would you say are your major challenges in trying to tell the story of Africa from the perspective of Africans?
I think the major challenges have been, as I’ve said, training people up to the right standard and leaving all the baggage of old style of journalism behind. It’s one challenge that is not really a kind of a pan-African identity. I have noticed some people in Nigerian are very much interested in what is going on in Zimbabwe or Mozambique, but you do have lots of things in common on the programming side, which we do. It may be environment, health, women issues, music, and dance- all those things you do have in common, which is why we have gone for the excellent programmes that we have. We are the first of our kind. We couldn’t get trained hands from anywhere else so, we had to train everyone and we’ve done it and we have a great product.
TVC has three channels; what are they all about?
One is an entertainment channel, however, it does have news and discussion programmes, but it has lots of light entertainments like movies and kids’ programmes. Then we have the domestic news channel, which is really aimed at Nigerians and Nigerians in the Diaspora. And then there is a pan-African channel, which is probably the most ambitious in some ways. We are going up against the big international channels and within the industry, we’ve received dozens of awards. We are competing against the likes of CNN, BBC and companies from Asia. So, we must be doing something right. Within the industry today we are recognised as the prime pan-African channel.
You won the best station of the year award recently. How do you plan to sustain the tempo?
We are the first channel of our kind, so, we are market leader. Already, there are other people coming on to the market. Our job is to keep pushing up to the next level, to stay ahead of the pack. We want to be the best channel for Africa. That is where we are at the moment. We are leaders of the pack now; our job is to hang on to that.
How are you preparing to meet the June 2017 deadline for the digital broadcasting migration ?
Already, everything here is high definition. Our infrastructure, our cameras, everything, and we are already sending out digital test signals. So, we are ready .
In line with your pan-African outlook, what are you doing to consolidate your position in Nigeria and to further extend your reach to other African countries?
We are carried on other platforms in East Africa, South Africa, Zambia and Ghana. They are usually secondary platforms like Zuku in East Africa; of course, it’s not as big as DStv. The demography of the average DStv subscriber is different from your own Zuku subscriber. It’s just like here; the DSTV subscriber is different from your Star Times subscriber. So, it’s very important now that we are on DSTV to expand across At the moment, we are consolidating, as our commercial position improves we will look to expand our bureau network. At the moment we have bureaux in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra and London. We were in Egypt, but the military government kicked us out. But we remain in South Africa, East Africa, West Africa and Europe. We will look to expand our network with time.
Why were you kicked out of Egypt?
There was a group of the Muslim Brotherhood that were kind of surrounded in a mosque by security forces and we were the only crew inside the Mosque to cover the incident and interview the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian authorities didn’t take kindly to that and they asked us out, we were, however, not the only ones that were kicked out. They closed down our office and revoked our operating licence.
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How well equipped is TV?
Today, we have about 57 digital cameras, 10 OB Vans and we have correspondents across the states of Nigeria, in New York and London.
Where do you see TVC in the next five years?
In five years time, we want to own as many platforms as possible. Already, we are being approached by other international broadcasting organisations , they are asking us to partner with them in Africa. We have picked up dozens of awards both in Nigeria (we are Nigeria’s channel of the year) and outside. We are competing against the big established channels like CNN.
Can you tell us about yourself?
It’s a very long story, but to cut it short, I went into journalism because I dreamed of becoming a war correspondent until I got sent to Vietnam and I decided this is not really what I wanted l to do. I did work as a journalist till the early 1980s and became a desk editor for a Switzerland worldwide channel, EBC, where I had my first start up in 1988 precisely. It later changed name to CNBC. I got really interested on how companies work and are set up. I did one in Switzerland, another in Italy. I was Editor-in-Chief of a Middle East Broadcasting Service, which became Ararabiya. The big one was Aljazeera English. The opportunity to do the first pan-Africa channel was tempting. So, here I am and it’s been a great journey, I’ve enjoyed every minute here. I have been to Europe, Middle East and Africa to launch channels, but this, Africa is the most challenging and certainly the most satisfying, because everything was from the scratch here. I have learnt a lot about the country and the people. Before I came here I was very nervous because Nigeria from the outside was very scaring. I have come to realise that it’s a country full of vitality and I think this is a project that reflects what is possible here.