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SABC on steroids

The South African Broadcasting Corporation is almost too bulky to run and now it’s going to get even bigger. The 900-pound gorilla gained formal approval from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) last week to put on extra weight. Thus, implementing government policy, the regulator has given the green light for SABC TV 4 and 5, pending funding — probably from Parliament.

The new channels will be exclusively in African languages, each emphasising regional characteristics — Nguni for the coastal provinces and Sotho for the inland parts of the country. The new channels will help enrich the services on offer for mother-tongue speakers who also received other good news recently when Icasa radically increased the amount of time for their languages on SABC 1 and 2.

But a question to be asked is whether the SABC is the appropriate home for the two new channels. The answer is: It is not.

When the original idea was mooted by the Communications Department two years ago, the government wanted the new TV services to report directly to it. After a substantial public outcry, Parliament agreed to treat them as public, rather than state or governmental, broadcast services — hence the rationale to house them within the SABC.

Could the channels have been set up in the private sector instead? Some people would demur, arguing that purely African language channels will struggle to be commercially viable for investors. Advertisers have proved reluctant to reach most African language audiences — especially minority ones — given the legacy of low buying power associated with these speakers.

On the other hand, money is being made on SABC’s isiZulu-language Radio Ukhozi, which is the country’s largest station. This service rakes in the ads by compensating for the low income of its listeners by the sheer force of their numbers.

It is therefore not a foregone conclusion that the new TV channels will never attract revenue from commercials. So the argument for the new services to be public ones should really be based on something other than monetary reasons. Besides the language issues, a host of other public service rationales would then need to be spelt out.

Icasa has recognised that the new stations can generate at least some of their own revenue and has accordingly decided that they can carry advertising. But this is where the vision of SABC 4 and 5 becomes exceedingly troublesome.

A major argument by private and community broadcasters in South Africa is that they face unfair competition from the SABC. The response by the corporation and the government is that state grants and TV licence income will not go to commercial SABC stations — only the public service ones. For example, public income will support only SABC 1 and 2, but not 3. (The business model is that the commercial stations should cross-subsidise the public service, not vice versa.)

Yet this seemingly fair solution does not deal with two critical objections.

Firstly, it’s not just the SABC’s commercial stations that compete with other broadcasters. All the SABC stations ‒ whether public or commercial ‒ carry advertising. The new TV channels will be two more mouths to feed, and the SABC management will hardly hold back on selling advertising for them. The knock-on effects will be felt by all media vying for part of the advertising pie. Newspapers, wake up!

In the meantime, if every SABC station ‒ including TV 4 and 5 ‒ are chasing ads, what does that mean for public service programming in the form of children’s, educational and cultural content? What about experimental shows where audience appeal is not known in advance?

The second objection to the current model is that the SABC, through its large number of outlets, can bulk sell advertising across all of them. With the two new TV channels, the broadcaster will have an even broader portfolio to pitch to advertisers.

It can even promise marketers the opportunity to offer their wares simultaneously across all five channels — meaning that channel-hoppers won’t escape the message. Compare that to e-TV with just a single channel to sell to those seeking to match consumers and commercial messages.

In other words, with two new channels, the SABC gets a shot of steroids. However, whether in practice this cumbersome corporation can take full advantage of this extra muscle, remains to be seen.

The diseconomies of scale are a real possibility.

And it is not at all certain that the SABC board, already troubled by the corporation’s high leadership turnover, can cope with the extra responsibilities.

What all this signals is that more creative solutions ought to have been sought to indigenous language broadcasting, rather than compounding various problems by setting up SABC 4 and 5. For example:

  • There is no intrinsic reason why South Africa should have only one public broadcaster. If the policy is that South African public broadcasting should try to pay its way through advertising, why not have two public broadcasters competing with each other? That could lead to more efficiencies on the one hand, and reduce SABC’s market dominance on the other.

  • There is also no reason why some African language programming could not have been contracted out to community or commercial operators — with Parliament paying them the subsidy that is now expected to go towards helping the SABC cover the shortfall.

The point is that if the public broadcaster is a major player in the commercial game, why not enable the other broadcasters to be major players in public service and indigenous language provision? You don’t have to be state-owned to deliver public service programming, although you may need a public subsidy if it is unprofitable to do so.

In the newspaper world, the government’s policy until now has been to complement existing commercial players with support for new grassroots, and especially indigenous language, publications. To promote this, the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) was set up as a partnership between the government and commercial media.

The MDDA model spreads diversity rather than consolidating concentration. But now it is being ignored in favour of fattening the SABC — whose plate is already overfull.

The prospect of SABC 4 and 5 points away from the country’s interests in a plurality of media owners, in fair competition, and indeed, in public service programming in whatever language.

Re-thinking the whole initiative is in order.

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