T&T Carnival 2021: Virtual or cost-effective?

It’s official, Carnival in T&T in 2021 is not on. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect industries, and the regulations promulgated to restrict large gatherings and coerce safe behaviour towards suppressing the spread of the disease are not going to see an ease up in the first quarter of 2021.

People noted, with consternation, that the NCC was not doing any virtual carnival events in 2021. The virtual experience, a pivot and an increasingly pervasive norm for event-audience engagement, is not on the cards for the NCC.

NCC chairman, Winston ‘Gypsy’ Peters further said, “TT can’t have a virtual Carnival, as that was an oxymoron.”

“We are not planning any virtual events the way that the private promoters or whoever are planning…If we are having something virtual, it is not doing anything for anybody other than the people who are putting it on…So Carnival to the NCC is much more than it is to private entities who just are putting on an event and calling it virtual and doing whatever to make money for themselves.”

Interview with T&T Newsday. 29 December 2020

What these statements represent is a lack of will to innovate the experience. People experience events through their senses. Take CPL cricket, for instance, people can either listen to commentary on the radio, watch it on TV, or watch it live in person: sounds, sights and sounds, or all the sensory stimuli — smell, touch and taste too — to make the experience real. Liming is food and drink too. The annual Carnival experience needs all the senses to make the experience the “must-do” in the Caribbean among festivals and cultural experiences. And here is where we can innovate the sensory experience. Now is the time!

With no mass gatherings, how people play mas’ or engage with the Carnival in 2021 with pandemic precautions prevalent is inspiration for fine young minds existing locally, thinking collaboratively and selling internationally. Examples abound of Carnival related virtual shows (Erphaan Alves’ Grateful, HADCO Phase II’s Another Phase) and in-concert fetes (Sekon Sta’s Sekon Sunday LIVE, Fatima Strive On and a gamified Soka in Moka Uploaded). Lack of political will, lack of money or lack of inspiration should not prescribe the NCC’s role. But then again.

Colin Lucas, NCC CEO

There is continued insistence by some stakeholders and social media commenters that the NCC should pursue a virtual experience, but as noted by Gypsy, money is the problem. To reiterate, the problem is vision! It’s not that the NCC did not see a space for virtual events. Back in early October of 2020, not long after the PM said, “Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago in 2021 is not on,” NCC CEO Colin Lucas noted that, “…in a virtual framework, NCC stands to make a lot more money because you have a lot of streaming rights.” He discussed the pay-per-view option, adding “we had been having discussions with some of the stakeholders. We even had a couple of preliminary discussions with people involving the (virtual) technology so it would not be a difficult ramp up if and when we decide virtual is it.”

This reconsideration of views from October to now, from the CEO to the Chairman, points to the reality of the flawed business model for Carnival management, innovation and possibly curation here. Money is a problem, and a big one at that, but the sole dependence of the State teat for survival and development financing seems to flatten out-of-the-box thinking, investment and confidence in the product.

The Report of the Public Accounts Committee looking into the expenditure and internal controls of the NCC from 2010-2018 noted: “The NCC stated that most of the operational challenges experienced since its inception were as a consequence of not getting the Commission’s remuneration on time.” Debt accumulation is the result. In response to a question asking whether “the fact that the NCC lives in debt constantly from year to year, does that tie your hand in terms of getting the best value for money?” Gypsy sarcastically, or possibly sincerely replied, “My hand, my feet and my brain.”

Public Accounts Committee public meeting into the NCC. Apr 10, 2019.

As noted before on this blog, the NCC received approximately TT$1.78 billion in subventions to run Carnivals and the organisation in the last decade, 2010-2019. More importantly, 97% of NCC’s expenditure is via Government subvention! Revenue to the organisation beyond some private sector sponsorship is via venue rentals, concession fees and ticket sales. And that is just, on average, $5 million against a $178 million expenses payout per year.

2012 and 2017 income/expenditure figures not available online.
YearIncome TT$Expenditure TT$Gov’t Subvention TT$
20104,475,795121,449,346122,114,889
20118,011,048142,726,455122,988,070
2012unavailableunavailable236,352,279
20133,648,198221,945,923197,082,778
20147,526,380225,147,671170,632,086
20156,698,277358,606,725312,396,077
20169,267,098243,483,932230,200,317
2017unavailableunavailable168,048,663
20186,050,995105,050,198108,964,491
20198,509,105222,755,157118,140,263
Source: Ministry of Finance

Despite the desire by Lucas just 3 months ago to capture “a lot more money because you have a lot of streaming rights,” it is known that in the past, this idea of commercialising television rights has not paid dividends. Former NCC CEO in 2012, Clarence Moe, in response to a Joint Select Committee (JSC) member’s question on television rights commercialisation said:

Clarence Moe, along with NCC chairman Patrick Arnold and deputy chairman Don Sylvester (r-l) at the Joint Select Committee’s investigation of the operations of the NCC in 2012. Photo by Nicole Drayton. Courtesy T&T Guardian.

“They said that most events now, the revenues to be generated and the profits to be made are not made at the gates, it is made under TV rights, Pay-Per-View and so on. And, for several years even up to 2010, we made an approach to have it broadcast Pay-Per-View all over the world working with CNMG and it has not proven to be as successful as we would want it. There were a number of issues. One is the technology, in that people were able to capture the signal send it onto their own feeds and do all sorts of things, because live streaming is where it is at.”

Clarence Moe. 11th Meeting of Joint Select Committee inquiring into and reporting on the NCC. 20 April 2012

Television signal pirates did the NCC in. Eight years later, reporting of figures for television rights for foreign and local broadcasters is still not reflected in the budget documents detailing NCC accounting. In fact, one reads in the 2013 JSC report on the NCC that, “the NCC does not have any copyright…all moneys that relate to intellectual property which were received from broadcasters go directly into the interest group (NCBA) as they negotiate with the various artistes.”

What is the value of those rights? In the past, exclusive rights for TV broadcast of major Carnival events and non-exclusive streaming rights were negotiated with State-owned media network CNMG. Back in 2013, it cost CNMG $1 million to broadcast the main Carnival events, “with little hope of commercial returns,” and way too short to make any impact on the NCC’s subvention reduction. It’s been hiccups ever since with streaming in flux, into 2015 and beyond.

The NCC, hamstrung with debt, is not in the same position as those private sector promoters associated with the Carnival events mentioned earlier. The continued tardiness of the NCC in reporting and accounting, and its project management challenges paint the organisation as redundant in a 21st century world that sees leveraging of broadcast rights as a primary revenue source action. The Object of the NCC “to make Carnival a viable national, cultural and commercial enterprise,” has fallen short every year, as reported. The Public Accounts Committee report of 2019 on the NCC stated, “the NCC cannot continue to run Carnival as a loss making proposition and a tax payer burden.”

It was not a difficult task, seemingly, for the Cabinet to approve ZERO dollars for “transfers to Carnival bodies” and “grants to regional bodies” for Carnival 2021 — down from a collective $43 million in 2020 — when the Budget documents were being compiled and prepared for parliamentary approval in September/October 2020. COVID-19 was the easy catalyst to scuttle the festival, as managed by the NCC. The replacement is now in the hands of others.

Caesar’s Army Facebook

A number of the top Carnival bands/brands and fete promoters gathered back in December to plan something. Caesar’s Army let the cat out of the bag early, creating intrigue. These cultural entrepreneurs have already innovated the Carnival experience towards the fete aesthetic over the Carnival show; towards the mardi gras away from the kambule. The Socadrome™ and branded merchandise rule the roost, and allied music and IP rights are being exploited and commercialised. Their profits are also taxed, and the sights and sounds associated with this modern mas’ are utilised as selling points for the country. Win, win! To make a mas’ in these times of COVID-19, one has to be agile, and one has to be cost effective. To keep the crowd interested and engaged, even socially distanced, a determined baulking at new ways of experiencing Carnival is not the way to go. This is a new normal!

The NCC has opted out of the virtual Carnival experience in 2021 to instead curate a static historical Carnival broadcast. It suggests, through its Chairman, preservation over presentation. One can hope that going forward, an innovation towards an all-encompassing experience, for all the senses, on all platforms real and virtual, becomes a part of the NCC’s new engagement with the Carnival special interest groups and anyone else, after this novel coronavirus is a memory. 100 years of Carnival is a museum piece, 100 virtual Carnival experiences are masterpieces.

Courtesy TTT

© 2021, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

3 thoughts on “T&T Carnival 2021: Virtual or cost-effective?”

  1. Cancellation of carnival 2021 makes sense given the ravages of the corona-19 pandemic. What is perplexing, is limiting planning options to host select virtual carnival events. I agree with the perspectives expressed by “T&T Newsday 29 December 2020”. In addition, creative options should not be limited by real or imaginary obstacles such as virtual vs cost-effective considerations. In fact, an effective management approach would have to consider those factors as part of a larger process of budget, program and operational planning. As a central organizing principle however, the focus should be on efforts to ensure the survival and growth of T&T’s carnival in spite of the corona-19 pandemic. That would be a reasonable formulation informed by a larger strategic agenda.

    Think for a moment, what if the pandemic persisted unabated over the next 5 years? Would we surrender to fears and doubts, however rational, thereby risk foregoing the opportunity to adopt creative measures to maintain and advance the musical steel industry in T&T? I suggest that most people would likely not support such a response out of concern that it will set back the advancement of T&T ‘s carnival and more precisely the development of T&T’s musical steel industry. Needed at this juncture, is a robust proactive management team effort that would consider the big picture guided by a long range strategic approach. Surely, a creative management team would be able to explore and embrace new technologies and execute effective operational approaches to ensure cost-effective virtual presentations, featuring select carnival elements such as panorama, calypso competitions, big-5 concerts, international steel orchestra competitions, etc. I acknowledge the complexities involved in planning and organizing such events; but that scenario, with all its challenges, demands the emergence and performance of an of effective management team.

    A strong management team approach is never intimated into submission by the presence of challenges and obstacles, they confront and overcome them with courage and perseverance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is an insightful commentary and a good starting point to do a deeper dive into the many interlocking issues of how the NCC and other organisations in the cultural/creative sector are fulfilling their remits. This needs some fearless, great minds who know and can lead. But to the more immediate issue of Carnival – this is our flagship socio-cultural event that has spawned significant economic activity. In its highest form of celebration, it’s about the soul of our country. Yes, we won’t be able to have the eye candy (and $$commerce) of the bikini and beads bands with their wee-wee trucks and exclusion ropes, but we have real possibilities here. We can and should curate any number of events for locals (caribbean) audiences and lovers of culture, in the digital space. Culture is not about commerce first…..it’s about our cultural confidence, our swag, our creativity which when packaged and shared, allows us to earn and generate revenue. Hopefully, the message will resonate and cause the NCC and even some of the bigger players in the media and live event sector, to step up. This is about vision…..

      Liked by 1 person

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