Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Best Things in Life aren't Always Free: The Rise of ETV

One of the reasons that companies, and even governments, were keen on getting into the television broadcasting business in Africa is because it was believed that Africa growth market for mass media. This proved to be incorrect. The main form of mass media in Africa then and now is Radio, followed by the newspapers, of which many were owned by Thomson.

Why did the Italian government offer the installation of a television station to the nation of Ethiopia for free? The benefits for them would have been broadly the same for any other government. The Japanese government helped fund the NEC bid for Pakistan television with the intent to win bids to supply the equipment. Similarly, the federal German Government gifted a transmitter to the Sudan and the British government also made a similar gift to Singapore as a token of goodwill. Under these circumstances, how could TIE and Thomson hope to compete?

TTI (& TIE) turned to the UK government for subsidies. They also attempted to sweeten deals by collecting revenue from licence fees, selling the stations advertising through TIE’s Sales subsidiary, and arranging manufacturer credit and loans for the host nation. And all in addition to offering cheap, accessible programmes, swiftly.

Thomson as the leading consortium member responsible for setting up ETV had tried to arrange a loan of £70,000 from the National Provincial Bank (who handled the Ethiopian Emperor’s private account) who sought permission from the exchange control section of the Bank of England who in turn required permission from the exchange control people at the Treasury who rejected the loan without appeal because “the grant of a loan to an overseas body would contravene the exchange control regulations”. T
he news was not well-received as Thomson had already promised to secure the loan on behalf of the Ethiopian government this obviously didn't go down well.

A few different solutions were proposed by the British government. These included allowing a loan for Thomson to buy foreign currency on the exchange. However, the idea of purchasing of foreign currency was rejected by Thomson because of the high commission fees and a lack of willingness to pay interest on payment to themselves. The national Provincial Bank also rejected the suggestion. The idea of Thomson writing off the £70,000 had itself had been considered but Thomson was contractually committed to establishing a television service in Ethiopia, a contract they went to great lengths to win, and it was in the interests of the British government that the project went ahead.

The Ethiopian Emperor's eventual decision to go ahead with Thomson was down to the extra services that Thomson could offer: A tailor-made station to be able to suit their budget (although a lot of stations were of the peg due to the unpredictable nature of the decision makers), training of staff, help setting up legislation and supply of programmes through TIE. Last but not least was the fact that the Emperor wanted the television service up and running in just three weeks in time for the anniversary celebrations of his coronation. Something the Italian government certainly wouldn't have had the experience technical know-how or connections to have been able to acquiesce. It wasn't free but it was working debt that through sales of advertising would hopefully pay for itself whereas the Italians would have given no help with the administration of the station or starting the television service running. So a mixture of long term planning and a customer is always right attitude saved the day.

The Municipality Building in Addis Ababa
Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil, the station in Addis Ababa was up and running in just three weeks, and at that time held the record for being the fastest television station to be put together in the commonwealth. Housed in the Municipality Building with an initial transmitter strength of just .01 KW. Various corners had to be cut and ex-Thomson equipment was imported from the Thomson station in Kenya. The rest were flown in from London. The first transmissions were on the 2nd of November 1964, and so Ethiopian TV began putting out roughly three hours of programming a night with about half of it local programming, the rest imported. Originally all local programming was live until the studio managed to obtain a second hand and well used VTR.

The station's yearly income was £80,000 a year and local programming cost them £350 per half hour to make. An episode of Bonanza cost them £20. They also got a few free from the French Embassy in Addis Ababa, a French edition of Panorama every fortnight. Most evening though you could get Star Trek, UFO, Rawhide, Robin Hood, Dr. Kildare, The Defenders, Espionage, Flying Doctor or Land of the Giants in English with subtitling or dubbing. On average 60% of the programmes TIE supplied to their clients were US material and the rest British. Although, The Avengers didn't go down well with a large section of Ethiopian TV viewers were not keen on Steed's Judo practising female companion. Ethiopians had a strong sense of social responsibility and commitment to educational programming. Steptoe and Son were also frowned upon as was a football match that included scenes of rioting at half-time which fell victim to the censor's scissors. Canned content accounted for up to 75% of airtime in the early days with 25% of programming going out live.

From that auspicious start, the current landscape is quite unrecognisable. This is most likely due to the Marxist uprising 1974 which potentially means Ethiopia could have negated any recall of BBC material. Only transitioning to colour broadcasts in 1979, ETV only imports two percent of programmes currently and the quality of television is some of the worst in the world. Ethiopia only ever purchased Doctor Who up to and including The Chase although omitting The Time Meddler.

The current home of Ethiopian Television in Churchhill Road
Based on what I have written above I wouldn't dismiss anything being found in Ethiopia but unless there is some great unknown then I don't see how exactly anything would return from here but I am sure there is plenty of scope for a return of some sort.

Crazy Speculation:
In Ethiopian culture, it's deemed extremely impolite to turn down an offer. They take this to such an extent that when people were submitting bids to set up television they signed with Thomson but everybody else continued to think that they were in pole position to win the contract for some time after. Is it, therefore, silly to suggest that possibly they didn't want to screen Doctor Who anymore but through social custom and incompetent staff they continued to receive material that they weren't going to use? They settled the cost of programming on an annual basis along with the consortium fee, so it could have gone undetected for a while.


The Universal Eye: World Television in the Seventies by Timothy Green (May 1972)  Available on Amazon

Files from the National archives: FO 953/2203