Bailing out SABC shouldn’t be business as usual

Six months ago there was cause to celebrate that no single political force could prevail at the SABC. But the downside has been the emergence of a deficit of up to R700-million.

A bail-out by government seems the only solution, but what’s to stop the SABC sliding into the deep red once again? One answer is stable and united leadership; another is an upturn in the economy.

But neither prospect is imminent. The SABC board can be expected to fight staff and parliamentary attempts to oust it, and court action can drag on for years. For its part, the economy is not going anywhere fast, so even a new board would have to go for government support.

The result: State funding for the SABC is not only likely; it’s also likely to be more than a once-off.

For years, the African National Congress (ANC) policy congresses have complained to no avail that the SABC’s forced addiction to advertising is bad news for broadcasting. The current crisis means that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel will finally find himself forced to put public funds on the table.

Good or bad thing? Reputable institutions such as the Canadian and Australian broadcasting corporations are totally funded from state revenues, without compromising their independence. And no one suggests that South Africa’s courts are government lackeys because they’re paid for from the fiscus.

But for a public broadcaster to withstand becoming a paid government broadcaster, it has to be well insulated against any political influence that comes with state funding.

Multi-year grant periods are optimum. Politically neutral expertise is needed to evaluate the broadcaster’s budget requests. Editorial independence and monitoring mechanisms have to be beefed up.

And what’s also important is that, alongside state funding, the SABC should keep on receiving some of its revenues directly from the public.

At present, the domestic TV licence fee is widely unpaid, and costly to collect. It’s also a regressive tax (the poor pay the same as the rich). But many countries successfully load licence fee collection onto electricity bills, and also allow exemptions for the poor.

In Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and much of Eastern Europe, more than 50% of public broadcast income comes from licence fees.

In the Czech Republic, the public broadcaster is nearly 90% funded by licence fees, and only 14% by advertising. One authoritative study has found it to be the only Eastern European broadcaster to have raised the quality of its output in recent years.

The value of a direct public contribution to the SABC is that it reinforces a legitimate sense of citizen ownership and entitlement. This would be even more the case if licence fee revenues were earmarked for defined public services (like news and documentaries).

With these provisos about state and licence funding, getting the SABC onto a new financial diet would potentially be a plus for public broadcasting. But there’s a danger that it could also lead to complacency and inefficiency.

It would be a travesty if public money turned the SABC into a branch of the bureaucracy, looking to state grant and licence fee tax for its next meal and accordingly keeping its back to the public.

In contrast, a broadcaster that was focused on public service could emulate its counterparts in the Czech Republic and France, which have increased their total audience share.

Admittedly, this trend is unusual in an age of multi-channels and audience fragmentation. But it can be done if a public broadcaster meets needs that private broadcasting doesn’t.

To do this, a public broadcaster needs defined deliverables as a precondition for its revenues. Its performance must be driven by its board and enforced through licence conditions applied by the regulator.

A differently funded SABC that showed no change in programming would simply be a swamp for grants and licence fees. The worst of all worlds would be if the institution also continued to be as commercial as its private-sector competitors.

What South Africa really needs is a public broadcaster that provides distinctive public service, rather than one that chases audiences for advertisers using cheap American commercial formulas as bait.

A non-commercial, but nevertheless businesslike, SABC should compete with private players not for advertising, but to be the top provider of public services — including non-profitable services such as minority languages.

In this scenario, when the economy eventually improves, most advertising should then migrate towards private broadcasters. Certainly, if the SABC is going to get serious state subsidies going ahead, it needs a cap on the amount of advertising it may carry.

The SABC’s current travails cry out for a response that goes beyond resolving the leadership issues and fixing its short-term finances. The crisis opens space for a new funding model to transform the fundamental soul of the corporation.

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