WHETHER the SABC has jumped the gun by opting to launch its new 24-hour news channel on a pay-TV platform like MultiChoice’s DStv, instead of waiting for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), is one of many questions that have been raised ahead of the channel’s planned launch next Thursday.
Media experts have been alarmed by the announcement and believe it raises concern about the future of DTT at a time when the digital roll-out is already long overdue.
"What message are they giving about DTT? Are they trying to tell us that DTT won’t work? Why couldn’t they wait?" says Carol Mohlala, co-ordinator at SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition.
"Once DTT is up and running they will have 15 extra channels that they didn’t have before, and from what we can see they don’t know what they will do with them. Surely they could just have their 24-hour news channel there? Now that will be in the public’s interest."
South Africa’s move from analogue broadcasting to digital has already missed several self-imposed deadlines.
The DTT migration project is seen as a key national project that is expected to yield an array of benefits for the country. These include better picture and sound quality, more TV channels to provide greater choice for consumers, and capabilities for enhanced applications such as electronic programme guides.
The country has until 2015 to complete its digital migration. Failure to do so will mean the analogue signal will not be protected against any interference by the International Telecommunications Union.
The SABC is one of the state-owned entities involved in the migration process, along with Sentech, the South African Post Office, and the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa.
With the public broadcaster’s ongoing financial and governance issues, Ms Mohlala says the SABC also needs to be very clear about what being on MultiChoice entails.
"As a coalition, we have always requested that the SABC must be clear about where the funds for anything come from. In this regard, Treasury refused to give them extra funding for more channels, so where is the money coming from?" she says.
Kate Skinner, independent broadcasting researcher and SOS working group member, says the embattled broadcaster will be paying off the final tranche of its R1.47bn government guarantee this year and surviving off its present funds will be difficult.
"The SABC is a public broadcaster and it shouldn’t be competing in the pay space," Ms Skinner says. "All South Africans should be able to access their content. Putting the channel on DStv will only encourage people to switch to pay options. To survive in this competitive market, it will have to broadcast distinctive, professional, independent and trusted programming. They are struggling with this with their present channels."
However, the SABC is confident it is ready.
"Why else do you think we can announce we are launching if we did not have all our preparations in place?" says spokesman Kaizer Kganyago.
Mr Kganyago says the point of launching the channel is for the SABC to fulfil its mandate as a public service broadcaster and not to compete with others in this space. The target audience would be the South African public.
Broadcast, Electronic, Media & Allied Workers Union president Hannes du Buisson says it is morally wrong for the public broadcaster to launch this channel.
"They speak of their public mandate but I have a strong feeling that they may be in breach of the Broadcasting Act and possibly their licensing agreement with Icasa (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa).
"It boggles the mind that they are using public funding to broadcast on a platform that the majority of the people who pay TV licences can’t reach," Mr du Buisson says. "They are supposed to be free-to-air and to broadcast in multiple languages, but one presumes that once they are on DStv, the news will only be in English — which is against their mandate."
In 2007, the SABC launched the 24-hour news channel SABC News International under its then news chief, Snuki Zikalala. It opened numerous bureaus around the world including in Washington, New York, Jamaica, London, Brussels, Sao Paulo, Harare, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya and China.
However, it failed to secure an exclusive channel to broadcast on and two-and-a-half years later, after spending millions of rand, the project was dumped.
It is for reasons such as these that Wadim Schreiner, a media analyst at Media Tenor, believes the SABC is not up to the task as it faces tough competition in the 24-hour news space.
"Personally I don’t believe they will be ready to launch by that deadline," he says.
"A launch that large requires a board and a strategy, especially since it’s such an expensive undertaking. Possibly something will be launched on that date, maybe as a pilot to a full-blown 24-hour service, but 24-hour news services are very expensive.
"The biggest challenge I foresee, though, is whether they will be able to convince viewers that their offering is better than eNCA’s or Gupta TV. We can already see in terms of current viewerships that SABC is losing out to e.tv."
The SABC could face further competition with the announcement from Sabido Investments, owner of e.tv, that it will launch a new free-to-air service in SA.
Sabido Investments CEO Marcel Golding has said the service will offer local and international business the opportunity to broadcast free-to-air channels. Some experts in the industry have speculated that 24-hour news channel eNCA might move to this platform.
Added to the mix is a new player set to enter the field in the form of Africa News Network 7, run by the Gupta family.
Given the growing number of entrants in the field and the ongoing governance issues at the public broadcaster, the SABC is going to have to pull off something spectacular to prove its sceptics wrong.