With the big event just over a week away, Bahamians are fired up about the 2012 Summer Olympics, being held in London, UK. The meeting of world athletes has been a well-deserved time of national pride for our nation, when we have truly celebrated our David-vs-Goliath moments, as we have successfully stood up against tough competitors from countries that have massive athletic budgets.
There is great anticipation leading up to the Olympics as we look forward to watching our team perform, but also because of the diversity and intensity of the competition, even in all of the other sports in which we have no representation.
It is not unusual to hear Bahamians talk just as passionately about beach volleyball (why DON’T we have a beach volleyball team, by the way?), gymnastics and tennis, as they do about track and field, sailing and swimming.
But this year, there will be something very different about the Olympic experience for the armchair athletes at home in the Bahamas.
A few weeks ago, ZNS TV began airing an announcement from International Media Content Ltd (IMC) stating that they held the exclusive broadcast rights for the 2012 Olympics in the Caribbean, and that ZNS was the authorised broadcaster in the Bahamas. The statement further notes that IMC would prosecute any violators, including cable companies, that air unauthorised Olympics coverage.
What does this mean for the average cable subscriber in the Bahamas? It means that the only Olympics coverage you will have access to is what is provided via ZNS TV. All other coverage, to which you have been accustomed for at least the last four summer games, will be blacked out on cable.
Rather than having the choice of several NBC networks (NBC east and west, MSNBC, Bravo), Canadian broadcasters CTV and TSN, and BBC among others, Bahamians will have the singular perspective and viewing experience provided by Jamaica-based Sportsmax and CEEN, along with manually-inserted local commercials from ZNS.
To date, ZNS has proven its consistent inability to deliver the most basic broadcast signal standards. Even when given a high quality signal for rebroadcast, ZNS has the unfortunate knack of being able to degrade everything from sound to colour to clarity in one fell swoop.
This was most recently demonstrated during the broadcast of the live national independence programme from Clifford Park in New Providence on July 9-10, when the same signal feed was handed off to both ZNS and Cable 12. If you switched between the two channels at that time you saw a dark, dull and intolerable picture on ZNS and a bright, clear and completely acceptable image on Cable 12.
This experience is a likely harbinger of disappointment that lies in store for Olympic enthusiasts that are being held hostage by ZNS.
Not only does this deal a devastating blow to the tens of thousands of residential cable subscribers throughout the Bahamas, but it means that the thousands of visitors to our country during the Olympics will have severely limited options in viewing the event. How does this reflect on us as a nation and what impression does this leave them with about us?
Furthermore, cable subscribers have invested their own money in both hardware and subscriptions and they fully expect to enjoy the value of that investment. More specifically, not only is ZNS empirically incapable of delivering a reliable quality signal, but they are further unequipped to deliver a high definition (HD) signal to their viewers. Cable subscribers that own both an HD television and HD set-top box will gain no benefit from these resources as they are involuntarily required to dumb-down their viewing experience on standard definition ZNS TV.
ZNS has every right to pay to secure the broadcast rights for an event. And, having done so, it is perfectly reasonable that they should protect that investment to ensure that they receive value for the money paid by selling advertising space during the broadcasts.
That said, is there any difference between ZNS exclusively securing such rights and any other broadcast entity in any other country doing the same (for example, NBC in the United States and CTV in Canada)? We believe there is. Those entities, while they may have their biases and unique perspectives, have the resources, ability and desire to provide their viewers with a fully adequate and reliable service (in HD, with multi-channel variety, with comprehensive coverage). According to some reports in the media, Cable Bahamas has tried for months to cooperatively work with ZNS to share the rights -- and the costs -- so that both ZNS could benefit, and so that cable subscribers could still enjoy a broader viewing experience. Not only would this have eliminated the limited viewing opportunities, but it would have provided guaranteed revenue for ZNS to help cover the licensing costs.
According to a reliable source, ZNS offered the cable company an opportunity to participate in the deal by paying about half of the speculated $300,000 license fee. In return for the cable company paying that fee, ZNS reportedly would allow them to insert ZNS' signal on every other otherwise-blacked-out channel. [Meaning, when you turn to NBC, you would see ZNS, when you tune in TSN, you see ZNS, and when you tune in CTV you would see ZNS.] If true, such an "offer" only reflects the out of touch and ridiculous point of view that ZNS possesses.
The concern here is less about the breadth and depth of the coverage that IMC/Sportsmax will provide to ZNS, and more about the lack of HD, the absence of choice, and the expected loss of basic, essential signal quality.
There are major inconsistencies present that are relevant in this situation. First is the inability to deliver a quality signal, as already discussed. This lacking is sadly overlooked far too frequently and flippantly. Because of this fact, it seems that the only qualification to win the exclusive contract for the Olympics was the ability to pay (and even that is an assumption). Was there any vetting of the state-owned broadcaster’s ability to actually and adequately supply the service to its viewers? We can hardly think there was such a review.
Second, consumers must be given a choice, and in this point we believe it is the purview of the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority to monitor and determine if adequate choice is being given to consumers.
If ZNS had a proven track record of quality production and delivery of events, there would be no need to coerce television viewers to watch their service. In a truly free and open society, the market decides what is best and what is most desirable. If ZNS was indeed proven to be good enough, and if the local market had confidence in their abilities, there would be far less concern.
For example, if Cable 12 had secured the exact same exclusive coverage from the same original provider, we believe that there would be far less fretting over what can be expected, because viewers would have some confidence in the quality of the end product.
As it stands, the majority of television consumers in the Bahamas have no choice: watch the Olympics on ZNS or get none at all.
Based on the public outcry to date, it seems many people will simply seek another option, no matter what the inconvenience or the cost. What does it say about the perception of ZNS when the market will run screaming to ANY other choice BUT them, and at almost any cost? And ultimately, do those local sponsors that are financing ZNS’ licensing costs truly gain value for their advertising dollars if the viewership has been so significantly diluted as a result?
Finally, we have a major problem with the much-touted “public service broadcaster” of the Bahamas, namely ZNS, commercially competing against private entities.
ZNS is majority financed from the Public Treasury using taxpayer dollars to support its existence. Yet, that very same publically-funded entity is on the street competing against private companies for television production fees and advertising dollars. Such an incongruous situation is shocking and unacceptable in a free market.
Either ZNS must be the public service broadcaster it claims to be, and therefore exist within the bounds of its public budget and abandon its presence in the commercial market, or it must give up its public funding and become a commercially viable creature. As it stands, it enjoys the best of both worlds, while private companies struggle to employ staff and compete against a nearly unlimited budget that those very same companies (ironically) fund.
Ultimately, Bahamians will not be manipulated and will not stand for something that does not serve their needs or desires. We resist such tactics today just as we have in the past. If nothing else, the powers-that-be at ZNS must see this reaction as a wake-up call to the need to change the public perception of the organisation; the only way to do that, is to improve the product that they deliver.
If they can.
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