Lately I have been spending some time researching about StarTimes, a Chinese pay-TV operator that has a considerably strong presence in several African countries. I talked about StarTimes at theICA Conference in San Diego in 2017, and I have been working on a book chapter on the role of StarTimes in China's media development strategies in Africa. Toussaint Nothias at Stanford University asked me to write a short piece that presents to a general audience some of this research. This was published by the good folks of Africa Is a Country. Below is the extended version of the post.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) decided back in 2006 that June 17, 2015 would be the deadline by which countries in Europe, parts of the Middle East and Africa would need to have migrated from analogue to digital television broadcasts. The date was not chosen arbitrarily—it was made to coincide with that of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Despite growing evidence of increased use of digital devices to access online media, television remains a staple in the media diet of millions of Africans and the transition from analogue to digital, which optimizes the use of frequencies, has been presented as having the potential to diversify the choice of audiences across the continent.
With the ITU deadline long gone, in Africa, only a limited number of countries have been able to switch off analogue television signal completely (e.g. Mauritius, Tanzania, Rwanda…); many others have only managed to partially implement digital terrestrial television or DTT (e.g. South Africa, Cameroon, Namibia…); and, a few are just beginning to explore ways to get the migration started (e.g. Burundi, Chad…). As in so many other infrastructure projects over the last decade, governments in the continent have turned to China to find affordable options to complete the switchover. And one company stood out in the crowd: StarTimes, which has been involved in the process of digital migration in over half of African countries.
After several decades of residual influence, the presence of Chinese media and telecommunication companies in Africa has grown over the last ten years as part of Beijing’s “going out policy”. Not only operations have increased, but they have diversified. Once exclusively focused on propaganda work through Radio Peking and the like, today, Chinese corporations and State agencies are involved in five types of activities: content production, as in the case of Xinhua, China’s State news agency that provides content to many local media houses; content distribution, like the television soap operas that have been popping up on Africa’s public broadcasters since 2012; infrastructure development, led by telecom giants Huawei and ZTE; professional training at Chinese universities and Party institutes; and, direct investment, such as the 20% acquisition of South Africa’s Independent Media by a group of Chinese investors.
StarTimes’ operations span across all these types of activities, covering all aspects of the digital television sector. The company builds and updates broadcasting networks; it manufactures and distributes the boxes needed to watch digital TV; it acts as a signal distributor, often through public-private partnerships with national broadcasters; it provides payTV services through satellite and DTT; it creates, buys and/or dubs content that it then distributes through its multilingual television channels; and, it trains personnel hired locally in the thousands. In some countries, StarTimes has a quasi-monopoly in all these activities; in others, it presence only covers one or two
StarTimes: an oddity in China's mediated engagements with Africa
As opposed to other (relatively) well-known actors in Africa-China media engagements, such as CGTN Africa (formerly CCTV Africa) or China Daily, both of which are under direct supervision of the State and/or the Party, StarTimes is a privately-owned company—although it benefits from a particularly close relationship with the Chinese leadership, presumably built by its founder, Pang Xinxing, while working in State-owned media companies in the 70s and 80s. Pang is often seen travelling alongside high-ranking Chinese delegations in the continent and has openly met with two dozens of African heads of state and government. Take the case of São Tomé and Príncipe, a country with whom China had no diplomatic relations from 1997 to 2016. Less than a year after the resumption of relations, Pang was in São Tomé to close a deal that would see StarTimes leading the digital migration in the archipelago.
This cosiness with political elites, paired with an opaque corporate culture, has brought resentment towards StarTimes’ operations in multiple countries. In Kenya, when StarTimes was selected as the one of the only two signal distributors for DTT, all major commercial TV stations protested vigorously. In Zambia and Ghana, StarTimes has had to face court battles over public tenders. And, in Mozambique, the fact that it went into a business partnership with the late Valentina Guebuza, the daughter of former president Armando Guebuza, has put StarTimes at odds with many.
StarTimes’ big selling point has always been its affordability—and this applies to all potential clients. When selling its services to governments, it is often able to offer the lowest bids alongside long-term low-interest rate financing provided by China’s Exim Bank. At the consumer level, it offers some of the lowest prices for pay-TV, it provides relatively inexpensive decoders and, more recently, has begun free satellite dish installations in rural communities where DTT was out of reach. With this multipronged strategy, in 2016, the company claims to have reached 10 million subscribers.
Two crucial elements set StarTimes apart from the other pay-TV providers in Africa, namely Naspers’ DStv (South Africa) and Vivendi’s Canal+ (France): the nature of its relationship with the Chinese government and the type of content it provides.
When digital television was in its infancy, it was often predicted that it would have a transformative impact worldwide. The increased space for new channels would bring about new voices—it would democratize the airwaves, was a commonly used catch phrase—and it would contribute to break the hegemonic dominance of US-based corporations in the media sector. The reality seems to be much more meagre. As media scholar James Curran has been recently arguing, most of the projected transformations (diversification of capital, plurality of points of view, empowerment of minority groups…) have not taken place.
The case of StarTimes presents quite a few challenges to our understanding of media flows and contra-flows. StarTimes does indeed bring a distinctively new voice to Africa’s television industry—that of China, but this is not a free-flowing voice, but one that operated under the constraint and supervision of China, a single Party State. With its growing footprint in Africa, be it through StarTimes, CGTN or others, China is now capable of making itself heard, in ways that it did not manage to do in the past. And, yet, within China, African voices, narratives and stories have barely no space in the media.