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Regional Television: A Realistic Option?

The pressure for greater representation of South Africa’s official languages on television brings regional broadcasting, with its seemingly obvious potential, to centre stage. Within the framework of our nation’s democratic principles, the case for regional television is a persuasive argument in that it promises a solution to linguistic representation a deliverable our national broadcaster is battling to realise.

But adding regional broadcasts to the South African television environment offers a conceptual challenge when one begins to weigh the economic viability against democratic ideals. Then there’s the historical challenge: a regional television model catering to the specific needs of linguistic and ethnic groups resurrects some profoundly disturbing skeletons from the apartheid closet.

Clearly, asserting market segmentation around language and ethnic differences would imply revisiting the scheduling format from the apartheid era. It would mean alienating groups and making assumptions about cultural and language insulation. In such a scenario, fulfilling one constitutional mandate could become antithetical to the ideals of the Constitution itself.

The economic reality accompanying this solution is problematic in that to simply segment the regions across a language/ethnic demographic gives no consideration to the economic infrastructure of the created target markets. A supply of language diversity to meet a constitutional demand does not make for entertaining, informative or educational productions that satisfy the audience.

And there are still more problems. How would one go about recruiting the talent? Are there enough writers, directors and producers to create productions that speak to the interests of particular language groups? Does a market exist to meet the supply-demand ratio of the content being produced for the target audiences?

So the larger issues remain. What model is sustainable for a South African context? How do we take account of our history and fulfill the aspirations of public broadcasting in an economically viable manner?

India, a country riddled with as many (if not more) complexities around languages and representation, has found some creative solutions.

As in South Africa, India enjoys the success and the extensive footprint of radio broadcast to rural populations. While it is accepted in India that the effectiveness of radio can’t be translated to television due to cost and the level of training required, the development of regional television was premised on geographic boundaries that offered greater potential for inclusion of different ethnic and language populations. The rationale is that community radio services the language needs of particular groups while regional television operates on a broader scale of province or state, to represent the interests of communities in that region (not simply determined by ethnic or language divisions).

Such a model has been successfully realised by the French and English groups of Quebec in Canada. The United States offers a further example in that regional television is financed from within the state or county, with additional support from local businesses.

The above is vital for fostering a regional identity that can transcend language/ethnic divisions and create an environment for promoting the production of local content. The implications for socio-political empowerment and economic development for the region are immense, and such a model can be economically viable because often the hours of broadcast are limited and the running costs of the broadcast footprint are proportionally more manageable.

Regional television broadcast stands to be an option if we can stretch the horizon of our definitions of ‘regional, linguistic and ethnic.’ While legislation has been vital for ensuring that the principles of democratic representation are being adhered to, audiences still have the final say.

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