Interview with Paul Falzone: Digital Democracy vs. Digital Divide

Published on October 26th, 2016 by Paul Messaris. Filed under Digital Media, New Technology, Politics

Paul Falzone is the Founder and Director of Peripheral Vision International (PVI), a consulting firm devoted to fostering the development of media for social change. Currently operating primarily in Uganda, PVI is involved in the production and distribution of edutainment programs for audiences in East Africa. With a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School at Penn, Falzone is an award-winning producer of film and video, in addition to having conducted research on the uses of visual media for social advocacy.

In this interview, Falzone talks about the role of digital media in the work that PVI has been supporting in Uganda, with a special focus on a program called Newz Beat, in which the news is delivered by rapping ann9uncers. The program’s existence has been made possible by the availability of relatively low-cost digital equipment, used by the program’s creators to achieve a high level of technical quality. In that sense, digital media have broadened the range of participants in Uganda’s media system. At the same time, though, the distribution of Newz Beat is hampered by the limited reach of Uganda’s electrical network and the scarcity of digital screens in people’s homes. In response to this obstacle, the Newz Beat team has developed a system of physical distribution via DVDs that are exhibited on TV screens in public places.

PM: In what ways is News Beat a reflection of the development of digital technology for the creation of audio-visual media?

PF: To the casual viewer in Uganda, Newz Beat is a big budget production, taking place on a slick, glowing set. The reality is somewhat humbler.  Newz Beat is recorded in front of a plain white wall covered by a green “chroma key” sheet.  The futuristic desk that the anchors sit behind is a folding plastic table also covered with a green sheet.  This “virtual set” liberates the media producers from the physical constraints of the television studio and allows them access to any visual they can imagine (or more accurately, to any visual they can download from the internet).

In the old days of celluloid film, cameras were bulky and difficult to use.  Film had to undergo expensive processing that could take days.  Filmmakers had to “shoot and pray” that the film was not damaged or put in the camera incorrectly and ruined altogether. Lighting was mathematically estimated based on light readings rather than seen in real time. Sound was captured separately, which came with a whole separate set of challenges. By comparison, Newz Beat’s producer, Shadie, films the program with a digital SLR camera.  It shoots in all quality of light and provides him immediate access to the footage.   Its digital storage is so cheap as to border on free. Within only a few hours, Shadie has filmed all of the “raporters” (rapping reporters), downloaded the video to his laptop and is headed back to edit the footage, where the real impact of the digital revolution is even more apparent.

PM: How affordable is the editing equipment that he uses?

PF: Though it has come down radically in price over the years, new professional editing software in the West can still cost a thousand dollars or more.  But virtually all of the software one encounters in Uganda is bootleg.  Even the high end hotels will often be running pirated copies of Windows in their business centers. Yochai Benchler once wrote that “Property is a hindrance, not an aid, when peer production of a public good like information is possible.” Whether you agree or disagree, the fact is that open and easy access to software is a boon to producers of media working on tiny or nonexistent budgets. And it allowed Shadie to overcome the last obstacle to becoming a mediamaker.

PM: What are the challenges involved in the distribution of Newz Beat?

PF: The dark side of digital democratization is a deepening digital divide, particularly in the developing world.  Newz Beat provides us an entry point to explore this tension. After years of postponing, Uganda finally switched from an analog to a digital television signal in late 2015.  This switchover required home television users to either buy a digitally compliant television, a costly decoder or a monthly digital television subscription. While the digital switchover has created more bandwidth for television networks to create more channels, it also seems to have actually decreased the number of people who can receive these channels, because of the extra expense.

Newz Beat can (and does) post its output to YouTube, Soundcloud and Facebook, while also distributing through mainstream broadcast channels, but if most of the audience isn’t online, what is the point? Newz Beat’s raporters can translate the news, but how do they translate transmedia distribution systems in a context that is not only largely pre-digital, but pre-electrical?

PM: How has Newz Beat dealt with this problem?

PF: In response to the challenges of distributing via traditional media, the Newz Beat team has created an approach to distribution that can be described as “parallel broadcast” or “parabroadcast.” In Uganda, ambient television is the primary televisual medium and can be found in buses, bars, restaurants, beauty salons, shops and small pirate cinemas called “bibanda” where customers pay about ten cents to watch action movies and music videos on television screens. Since its launch, Newz Beat has been distributed to more than 35,000 of these screens, many in the most remote regions of the country, via a straight-to-DVD program called Crowdpullerz that bundles Ugandan music videos with Newz Beat, Public Service Announcements and other social content.


Paul Messaris teaches visual communication and digital media at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

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