2023 Presidency: Lai Mohammed, Toyin Subair Begin Moves To Hand Tinubu The Edge

When the next jostle for the Nigerian presidency kicks off, one man is expected to be crucial to the aspiration of one of those eyeing the top job. He is Toyin Subair, better known for his role as the promoter of the failed pay television venture, HiTV.

Subair will not be gunning for the presidency, but he has been identified by sources in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) as crucial to the aspiration of former Lagos State governor and a big hitter in the party, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

Tinubu, who is yet to deny his widely speculated presidential interest, is a media mogul, a status that gives him the platforms to push his political interests. He owns the ultra-modern Afkar Printing Press situated on old site of John West Publications, founded by Second Republic Lagos State governor, Alhaji Lateef Jakande. Afkar regularly handles printing contracts for governments in APC-controlled jurisdictions in addition to the Federal Government and private concerns.

He also owns Vintage Media, publishers of The Nation titles; Television Continental (TVC) and Max FM, a radio station.

The three platforms are the surviving arms of his mass media empire, which once included National Life, a tabloid; the defunct TVC International, which failed in its attempt to be a pan-continental news behemoth; and Continental Satellite Television (Consat), a subscription television platform that never really got off the ground.  

With Consat struggling and Tinubu keen on having it compete in the pay television market, he hired Subair, whose HiTV had shown promise between 2007 and 2011 when, almost implausibly, it snatched the broadcast rights to the English Premier League (EPL) from MultiChoice to become broadcasters of the world’s most watched football league in Nigeria. It later added rights to the Spanish LaLiga, Italy’s Serie A and the UEFA Champions League, properties coveted by Nigerian pay TV subscribers.

Subair, according to sources, assured Tinubu, who allegedly was an investor in HiTV, that he would get Consat to compete. He never managed that. Consat went the way of HiTV, but re-incarnated as PlayTV, a Direct-to-Home (DTH) platform advertised as home of entertainment, particularly of the Nigerian variety.

The magic expected from PlayTV has also failed to materialize so far, a development sources attribute to lack of compelling programming. But with Tinubu’s presidential ambition on the front burner,  Subair is back at the drawing board with a design that fits into the APC stalwart’s stratagem of controlling the political narrative via the media. 

Subair, sources explained, is better placed than before to make a big impact on the pay television circuit. His political connections, they added, are stronger with the APC in power. He is said to be directing affairs at the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which is under the Ministry of Information headed by Alhaji Lai Mohammed, a prominent member of the Tinubu political family.

Mohammed is allegedly eyeing the governorship of Kwara State, an ambition that is said to be responsible for disagreement between him and the incumbent, Alhaji Abdulrahaman Abdulrazak, also of the APC.

Another source, however, said the Information Minister is not planning to be governor, as he considers himself too old. The source attributed Mohammed’s feud with the Kwara governor to his desire to control the party at the state level and by extension, the government.

A few weeks before the NBC released its Code to a nuclear blast of disapproval from many within the broadcast sector, Mohammed had spoken of the Federal Government’s desire to limit exclusive broadcasting rights.

Sources believed that he was echoing the voice of Subair, who is seen as the drafter of the code which, among other controversial provisions, seeks to outlaw programme exclusivity by compelling sub-licensing to competitors and empowering the NBC to be the arbiter in the event of a price dispute.

At a colloquium organized by Filmic, a group of creative professionals on 3 June, Subair pushed his anti-exclusivity idea with the force of a zealot, claiming that exclusivity belonged in the “stone age”.

Industry sources link the anti-exclusivity clauses to the 2023 presidential race. According to them, Tinubu wants another virile platform in addition to the ones he already has and requires the platform to provide access to popular content as a way of making it widely appealing.

“Subair wants to ensure that Play TV has more compelling content and the way he expects to do that is to ensure that operators with exclusive rights are forced to share with rivals,” said a source.

He added that the service will be offered to subscribers at a bargain basement price (hugely subsidised) to encourage subscription, with the ultimate goal being the promotion of Tinubu’s presidential project.

The source described as a ruse the NBC’s claim that the code aims at creating a level playing field in the sector. He noted that when Subair’s HiTV held the rights to broadcast foreign football between 2007 and 2011, it refused to share the rights with other operators, including cable television service providers under the umbrella of Association of Cable Operators of Nigeria (ACON), which sought to be sublicensed.  ACON was sufficiently distraught at HiTV’s refusal to sub-license that it went to court, hoping to force HiTV’s hand.

Subair’s response to ACON’s anger was to describe the group as “lazy”. He also accused them of an attempt to bully him when they could not do that to MultiChoice, which held the rights for 15 years.

“If exclusivity was bad at the time, he held the rights, when did he realise it is bad?” asked the source.

PlayTV, which has its office at the same one used by Consat within the expansive compound housing TVC, which used to be the site of a campus of the Lagos State Polytechnic, sources said, is also planning to add an Over-the-Top (OTT) service. The proposed addition will be a combination of Ad-based Video-on-Demand (AVOD) and Subscription-backed Video-on-Demand (SVOD) services.

As part of the plan for media domination for Tinubu, the NBC on Muhammad’s instructions is about to issue some regional pay tv licenses and sources say Tinubu cronies and proxies will be the chief beneficiaries. This is another  reason for an NBC Code that will force owners of the rights to popular content to share such rights with whoever demands them. 

Two years after its launch, HiTV started floundering when it was hit by financial difficulties, which resulted in inability to raise funds for the second term of broadcasting rights to the Premier League. Before the bubble bust, Subair was held as an epitome of Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit and was lavishly celebrated by the media. That HiTV’s subscription rate was lower than that of MultiChoice, from which it snatched the football rights, also endeared it to Nigerians, who always believed that they were being fleeced by MultiChoice.

Subair’s HiTV built its brand around football, a huge passion point among Nigerians, and was lustily embraced for those four years. His platform offered little, if anything else, and soon discovered that local appetite for football could not sustain it. When the time for renewal came, the Premier League, perhaps sensing HiTV’s strong desire to retain the rights, decided to sell at a steeper price. For the first year of the second term HiTV, according to Financial Times bought the right for $40million, the bulk of which came via equity. It paid $28million for the first three years. After the payment of $40million, a bank guarantee of $70million was demanded, something that was beyond the young company. That led to the loss of the rights. Scared that the loss of the valuable football properties could be fatal, HiTV entered into a discussion with MultiChoice to have 50 per cent of the matches sub-licensed to it, a request that was rejected.

This, explained sources, was because while HiTV held the rights and MultiChoice sought to be sub-licensed, it demanded that the latter split with it-on a 50:50 basis-the hit programmes on its platform. Perhaps as payback for the rejection it experienced in the hands of HiTV, MultiChoice rejected the demand.

With football gone and little else in terms of compelling programming, the subscriber base, which had risen quickly, began to thin out, naturally affecting finances. The company’s finances were said to have been further affected by Subair’s lavish lifestyle, marked by first class flights and no little partying. Subair denied those charges in a 2016 post on his LinkedIn page, saying HiTV did things by the book, as it had a solid governance structure. He also denied funding his lifestyle with company funds.

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