Friday, February 06, 2009

As the Week Draws to a Close in Accra: The Rise & Fall of Gateway Broadcasting Services (GBS)

Many Africans will remember the day when they woke up to the news that popular pay-TV Gateway Broadcasting Services (GBS) had gone “into liquidation”.

In fact, quite a number will remember the day of infamy when they would indefinitely be deprived of pay-TV. In a country where there remains a yawning gap between the rich and the poor (I like to delude myself we have a middle class sometimes!), the difference between paying for GBS and the still well-known DsTV was always going to hurt.

The Monday after the news of the liquidation, I asked a couple of work colleagues who subscribe to DsTV how much they pay a month; my jaws almost dropped to the ground. Although it varies depending on the bouquet you want, if you want a comprehensive one, with Africa Magic and whatnot, you will be hitting some GHC70-GHC80/month. That’s half of someone’s salary right there—if not *all* of it. Truth be told, it was less guilty paying for GBS, as the cost was half DsTV’s! There was some sense of satisfaction that you were part of the “masses” that wanted pay-tv, but were put off by the ridiculously-prohibitive cost of the competition.

When GBS broke out in late 2007, it immediately created two categories of viewers—those with a passion for football—and those with a love for movies and news. From the very start, we would belong to the latter; after all, sports is big on Metro TV, so why pay some twenty Ghana cedis extra just for instant gratification? I quite remember the sales people being profoundly troubled when we indicated we didn’t want sports—just movies. Obviously, it would have meant more profits per month for them; but we were steadfast. So it was that with the start-up of G-PRIME and a handful of stations, GBS would grow up slowly and surely. Here’s how I captured their entry on my Ghana blog in an entry of November 2007: “*There's a new satellite service provider in town, and I'm sure DSTV isn't too happy, even if it's enjoying its current monopoly like no-one's business. I heard on the radio yesterday that it's slashed its prices to GHC139 (US150) as start-up for its decoder, satellite and whatnot.

Meanwhile Gateway Broadcasting Services--owned by a Brit, Julian McIntyre, -- has been on the African continent for the past six months and in Ghana for almost a month. It really has been giving people's TVs a new life!;-)

It has fifteen channels, and is aiming to get a "G-Africa" by the end of the year, where it will show African movies only. I am happy to see that 2006-launched NBC hit HEROES, which started airing on the UK's terrestrial station BBC2 only this year is in its 13th episode on G-Prime, which is the major channel by GBS that features movies--both classics (as in popular 80s and 90s films) and otherwise.

Having been brought up to be awakened to the sensitivities of the underdog--whether putative or not--I am happy to say that though there remain some serious catching up by GBS over DSTV, I for one am not going to run to DSTV any time soon!*

Inherent in that entry post was not only a happy man content that there was finally competition to the run-of-the-mill, but someone who was content to see a wide variety of movies on television, without having to wait for “foreign movie” on Metro TV on Saturdays, or go out to get a DVD—a categorically more expensive enterprise!

But GBS would be more about movies; it was also about news: SKY News; AL-Jazeera; BBC World News were the top three. While the latter two are on our terrestrial channels free-to-air every day, Sky News was a must-watch, especially if you wanted to catch up with news in Europe and Britain.

GBS Meant Much to Sports Fans
Even though I never cared for the sports, I acknowledged fully that it was always going to be difficult talking about GBS without whispering “Premiere League”. The sports meant that it had a serious competitive edge over its rival DsTV. You could argue that its success was largely predicated on that edge—and sometimes at the expense of its movies and series. That some movies would be repeated some five times in a month left one to wonder about the variety they claimed they had. Still, with the new segments that came along in May 2008, who could argue much. This is what I wrote in my entry of May 2008: “*After the three new channels -- G-Series; G-Africa; KidsCo -- "arrived", I next had a question for the ages: how on Earth did GBS procure Lipstick Jungle, which is an entirely new show on NBC in the States? How on Earth, when the show started airing only earlier this year?

It's clear that those are some of the insider secrets that only GBS staff would know--and would not be willing to divulge--no matter how hard I tried to interrogate them;-)

I have to say that G-Africa has been the bomb in the sense that it's exploded in our senses and--my God!--our minds and whatever else it can explode into. Sundays these days are to die for, 'cos there's only one station we tune to--and that's G-Africa. You've got your series and your Nollywood movies all vying for our attention--and plenty of attention they get from us!!! … I've had enough now--it's simply good! In all seriousness, it's hard to believe that you can even get a monthly subscription as low as GHC11.00!! (Circa $US11.00)

Friends and acquaintances comparing DsTV to GBS have great basis of comparison in the sense that the former offers its proverbial so much more. Question is: how much MORE TV can I watch?? I struggle even with these 17 stations that GBS offers in that I cannot watch even half of them regularly. We generally watch SKY news to catch up news in the UK; G-Prime; and MGM.

It’s clear from that entry that beyond the excitement, GBS was promising in many respects. Given that hindsight is always 20/20, the post-mortem of their demise has been captured in some business papers in South Africa thus: “Pay- TV service provider GTV collapsed under a financial overstretch arising from overspending, cheaply priced subscriptions and content promises it could not honour.”

Lessons for the future
If we forget about the honouring for a second, I believe what we should be asking ourselves is how on Earth, as an update on the press release in one of the dailies reveals, did the GBS Ghana crew no nothing about a possible liquidation until a good TWO hours on that fateful Friday 29 January, 2009? Even if we are to take their word for it, what can this new government offer on liquidation laws to ensure that one does not experience such abysmal behaviour by corporate investors in this country?

Secondly, what protective measures are there to protect the consumer from any company—let alone a communications one—filing for bankruptcy? Laws are on thing, but this mess that GBS has left behind screams for regulation—and I cannot think of any other government agency to provide guidelines on these than…the National Communications Authority (NCA).

Is anyone listening?
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