Georgian Broadcasters Fear Digital Switchover

Many small operators say they may not manage to change their systems in time.

Georgian Broadcasters Fear Digital Switchover

Many small operators say they may not manage to change their systems in time.

We Georgian broadcasters fear that, with little more than four years until the switchover to digital television, we will not have the time or resources to prepare.

The government has committed to switching to digital broadcasting by 2015, but it has currently no plan for doing so or put money aside to help it happen.

It made the commitment in 2006, when the International Telecommunications Union and the European Union agreed that Europe would complete the change by 2015 at the latest.

The digital future is compulsory for broadcasters and audiences, who may both be forced to pay the cost of the new equipment. So far, the only step Georgia has taken was an international conference in Tbilisi at the end of November.

Many smaller broadcasters say they may not manage to change their systems in time, especially since there is currently no set model for how digital television will work in Georgia, and therefore they cannot even begin to prepare for it.

“We broadcasters must know by what model the authorities plan to fulfil this obligation, so as to prepare for it in the right way,” Gia Tevzadze, manager of Zari, a regional broadcaster in Western Georgia, said.

“Television companies cannot prepare without a concrete plan: the model and the parameters are unknown for us to begin to change over. As it is we are completely in the dark. If we continue to keep moving this slowly then, in 2015 we will just have blank screens instead of digital broadcasting.”

Even foreign broadcasters are beginning to be concerned by Georgia’s failure to draw up a programme for changing its system.

“This is a lengthy and difficult process and one of the biggest problems today that I see is the absence of a plan in Georgia. The problem might be who’s going to broadcast the digital signal. The creation of a free market for this is one of the most important preconditions for the change over to the digital format,” said Boris Bergant, president of the Board of the South East Europe Media Organisation, at the conference in Tbilisi on November 29-30.

Officials remain calm, however, despite our concerns.

“Our aim is to acquaint ourselves with the experience of other countries in this direction, to learn from their mistakes and achievements and then draw up our own plan,” said Irakli Kashibadze, head of the department of information technology at the economy ministry.

“In 2011 we will continue our consultations with experts and draw up a formula, so we can with the minimum of pain transfer from analogue to digital broadcasting.”

Broadcasting has been at the forefront of political battles in Georgia in recent years, with channels regularly divided along political lines and some broadcasters traditionally sympathetic to the opposition have told me they fear being squeezed out of the market by the switchover.

“The commission for regulating communications and thus the authorities are already trying to give the functioning of digital broadcasting to one monopoly that they like. Us independent channels are unpopular with the authorities, and will turn into just television studios whose content might not even make it onto the screen,” said Nino Jangirashvili, head of the Kavkasiya company, which broadcasts to Tbilisi.

The authorities have not calmed her fears by their refusal to rule out that Georgia might have a monopoly broadcasting the digital signal to the whole country.

“To prepare the infrastructure necessary for digital broadcasting, several million dollars are required. Sadly, the television media companies in Georgia are not currently very developed. Therefore it might prove hard to find even one [company to invest in],” said Irakli Chikovani, head of the National Committee for Regulating Communications at a meeting with regional television companies.

Georgia’s state-owned public broadcaster, which estimates the expense of installing digital infrastructure at 20 million US dollars, said it could bear the cost itself.

However, Levan Gakheladze, chairman of its supervisory council, said he did not know if it would be allowed to do so, since the government was yet to rule whether a creator of programmes could also be their broadcaster. “Maybe the production company will not have the right to be their provider. Without a concept from the government we cannot prepare as we should,” he said.

A further problem is how ordinary citizens will afford the change-over. Most Georgians have no clear idea of what digital television means or how they will need to adapt to it. This is particularly serious outside Tbilisi, where wages are significantly lower. Many Georgians still use black and white televisions and, without a subsidy, it’s hard to imagine how they will afford the new equipment required to receive digital signals.

Gulisa Kharabadze, a friend from the mountain village of Chkhepi in the western Imeriti region, bought a new television five months ago on a two-year-instalment plan, and was shocked to learn she will soon need another.

“I have to struggle to save the money from my salary, but I really wanted a good television. If I have to change it in a few years time, that means I spent all this money for nothing,” she said.

Nino Chanturaia is a member of the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters.

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