Ten new TV channels -- and 10 new problems

South Africa’s television landscape is being redesigned right now, but there are significant problems and wasted opportunities.

At the centre of the process is the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), which this month issued two important documents:

The driver in all this is that digital broadcasting allows for more services—whether TV, radio or data—to be delivered via the airwaves. A single digital signal, known as a Multiplex (or “Mux”), can carry eight TV channels instead on one.

The importance of digital migration is partly what prompted this week’s government announcement of a review of our public broadcasting law.

When the move commences in earnest over the next year, existing analogue TV broadcasters have to pay for a parallel version of their programmes to go out via digital signals. That will continue for probably four years until the bulk of South Africans get the kit to receive the new transmission in a viewable form.

This lengthy dual transmission doesn’t apply to MultiChoice’s DSTV, which is already digital (and delivered by satellite). Icasa’s new regulations focus only on the terrestrial TV broadcasters and allocate them to digital signals as follows:

  • Mux 1: for public broadcasting (and one community TV channel). This means the SABC would be allowed to use this digital platform for three or four new TV channels in addition to its current three that it will need to put out here.

  • Mux 2: for commercial free-to-air TV. In this digital space, e.tv will be allowed to add two or three new channels alongside its existing one that must go up.

  • Mux 3: for subscription TV. Here, M-Net can have up to four digital channels in total. Icasa is offering the carrot of yet another channel, if M-Net shifts all its subscribers on to digital in the space of a year, and thereby frees up analogue spectrum that it currently occupies.
Icasa also says it will license one more subscription digital TV service on Mux 3, once M-Net becomes exclusively digital.

Add all this up, and you have 10 possible new TV channels coming on stream in the next four years. Contrary to reports, none will be allowed to be high definition during this time. But Icasa does require that those on the first two Muxs must have audio soundtracks in three South African languages when it comes to local content.

Wait—there’s more. Icasa’s draft frequency plan envisages another two Muxs that are dedicated to broadcasting to cellphones. The regulator says it will issue licences in this realm ahead of the Fifa World Cup in 2010, although it gives no extra detail at this stage.

So we can expect 10-plus new TV offerings. It sounds pretty hunky-dory, but there are also serious down-sides:

1. The allocations for SABC are provided as if there was nothing broken about the broadcaster’s business model. Yet with the financial woes at Auckland Park, it’s likely that the SABC won’t be delivering any new digital channels for several years yet.

In other words, digital “real estate” will lie fallow, and meanwhile no one else will be able to put their content out there. There will be little incentive for audiences to splash out for digital gear that will simply replace 3-analogue SABC with 3-channel digital SABC.

2. No audio broadcasting is permitted on the Muxs—meaning that SABC won’t be allowed to use its extra channels for digital versions of existing radio stations. That’s a lost opportunity for TV sets to double-up as digital audio devices.

3. The lack of competition is a problem. The existing players are being rewarded with new channels as compensation for them having to pay for both analogue and digital signals for many years. While understandable, that nevertheless also consolidates their strength against new entrants, who will be allowed to join only after analogue comes to a final end.

Stakeholders unhappy about this are would-be black-empowerment broadcasters. There are also the three new subscription TV broadcasters (not yet launched) who have been given technology-neutral licences—but now face only one being allowed to go take on M-Net on Mux 3 during the transition phase. The others will have to stick with the dying terrestrial analogue system and/or costly satellite digital.

4. There are weak public-service obligations laid down for the new channels. To get a licence to use the channel entitlement, the broadcasters will need to motivate their new offerings to Icasa in terms of language offerings and programme diversity, but there are no minimum standards to be met. The result could be lots of re-runs or cheap imported programmes on the new channels.

5. In deciding whether the incumbents have acceptable offerings for their allocated channels, Icasa has an inconsistent set of criteria. For SABC’s extra public channels, a Public Value Test is prescribed (based, most likely, on a BBC practice).

As the NGO Media Monitoring Africa argues, the Public Value Test should rather be applied to all new proposed channels—albeit in varying degrees. After all, the airwaves are public resources.

6. Icasa provides for only minimal public consultation around new licences for the channels—limiting this only to proposals by SABC for new public channels (as distinct from new SABC commercial channels). Again it would be better for this provision to be applied to all new channel proposals.

7. Icasa’s rules are silent about the Set Top Boxes, which most South Africans will need to convert digital signals to show on their existing analogue TV sets (until people eventually upgrade to digital-capable sets). However, it’s government policy that these boxes should be operable across different competing broadcast services so as to avoid lock-in to one based on incompatible boxes. It’s also policy that these decoder devices should have a return-path capability. These important points need formal regulating.

8. There’s also silence in Icasa regulations about possible conditionalities on new digital services. Known as “Conditional Access”, this phenomenon needs regulatory guidelines—like under what conditions a receiver can be cut off, or given access to simulcasts in different languages, or pinpointed for targeted data streams, etc.

9. Icasa has decided that the Mux operators will be the signal distributor, rather than the broadcasters. This leaves it unclear as to whom the digital frequency is assigned. For instance, could a broadcaster lease out unused bandwidth (for data purposes, for instance), or is that the prerogative of the operator-distributor who wants to maximise signal usage?

10. What’s also problematic is a lack of clarity about the “digital dividend”—a phrase that refers to airwaves that are vacated as analogue transmission drops off. Icasa says it will use some spectrum freed up by M-Net for a fourth multiplex. For the rest, however, the regulator says it will wait until the very end of the transition before allocating “dividend” frequency to purposes like cellphone use, broadband wireless or return-paths for interactive TV.

But from another point of view, prioritising broadband wireless much earlier would bring South Africa into a dynamic but parallel universe to broadcasting.

The point is that people with broadband internet access can call up what programmes they want, rather than be force-fed what’s being broadcast out to them. The prospect of 10 new broadcast channels is an advance on where we are, but it also pales when compared to the range of audio-video content available on the web.

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