Digital terrestrial television supposedly promises many more community TV channels and viewing choices in the future. But, asks Melina Meletakos, what is the situation now?
Those behind community television channels are still uncertain about how they will fit into South Africa’s new broadcasting landscape once we eventually switch over to digital terrestrial television (DTT).
DTT is the long-awaited new format of broadcasting that promises television viewers a greater assortment of channels as well as improved sound and picture quality. The global deadline for the migration from analogue to digital TV is June 2015, but the process in South Africa has been marred by one setback after the other, raising questions about the chances of us meeting this target.
It’s been a decade since the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) began granting licences to community TV stations. However, when The Media tried to establish from various credible sources what is happening now with community channels, there was no certainty and a lot of speculation.
There are seven licensed community TV stations available on free-to-air frequencies: Bay TV (Nelson Mandela Bay), TBN (Bisho-based Christian TV), Cape Town TV, Platinum TV (North West Province), 1KZN, Tshwane TV and Soweto TV. Newcomers Alex TV and Ekhuruleni TV have test licences and are broadcasting on Platco Digital’s free-to-air satellite service, OpenView HD.
Also a test licence holder, Fresh TV (a Gauteng-based youth channel) is broadcasting on Sentech’s FreeVision platform. FreeVision is the parastatal’s trasmission network that is considered a ‘gap filler’ for areas that will be unable to receive the DTT signal because they are too remote or on uneven terrain.
As it stands, community TV stations have been allocated 15% of Multiplex One on the DTT grid, with the remaining 85% being assigned to the SABC. (A multiplex is a band of spectrum across which several digital signals, or channels, will be transmitted, enabling channels to reach homes linked to a set-top box.) Doing the maths, this allocation translates to enough bandwidth for roughly two community stations per province once the final digital migration has occurred.
This is potentially problematic for provinces that have more than two community stations. Gauteng, for example, has Soweto TV, Tshwane TV, Alex TV and Ekhuruleni TV as contenders.
“Do they now rescind licenses? Or are they going to issue new test licenses? It’s a definite challenge for Icasa,” says Johanna Mavhungu, a media researcher and lecturer at the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership (SPI) at Rhodes University.
But Howard Thomas, a media business consultant and trainer, says it’s unlikely that existing community stations will have their licences taken away. “It’s unprecedented for someone to lose their licence because of a change in technology,” he says.
Soweto TV station manager Wandi Nzimande agrees, saying his station, which has 3.65 million viewers, “got the first bite of the cherry” so they are confident that they won’t be affected.
“But it will affect other people who are trying to get into the community TV market. What will happen to other regions and townships that need a voice?” asks Nzimande.
In July, Icasa suggested to parliament that community TV stations be converted to provincial stations to help offset the cost of digital broadcasting once the country switches to digital TV.
Cape Town TV broadcast manager, Mike Aldridge, says the station has mixed feelings about this proposal because an expansion in scale comes with an expansion in cost and “to have transmitters throughout an entire province, you need to be able to pay for them”.
There is also the question about what defines a community, says Aldridge.
“Our community TV licences give us the mandate to be owned by the community that we serve. In a smaller area this is easier to define. We are a membership-based organisation, with our members comprising various non-governmental organisations in the area. We try to create some kind of democratic structure by doing this. This model, however, is difficult to apply to a provincial structure,” he says.
Nzimande offers a different view, saying he supports Icasa’s proposal because it is about growth, innovation and moving the information and communication technology (ICT) sector forward. But he too is worried about the effect this will have on stakeholder engagement.
“We expose ourselves to the community and they tell us where we are doing well and where we are failing. I’m afraid that this might take a knock, even if I am not anti what people are planning,” says Nzimande.
Aldridge says the proposed nature of these provincial structures is also concerning.
“Provincial stations would mainly be funded by the state. Their boards would also be appointed in a similar way to that of the SABC. Nominations are put forward and then the appointments are done by government. This is problematic because at the moment, the boards of community stations are nominated by the community itself. We want control in the hands of the people rather than in government.”
Whether or not Icasa’s proposal will get the green light depends on the ICT policy review and, with new ministers in place, there has been no indication of when this will happen, says Aldridge.
In 2012, Cape Town TV lost 663 000 viewers because its frequency was changed to accommodate DTT trials. Its signal was relocated to the upper reaches of the spectrum which made it difficult to pick up because a higher frequency means that the signal degrades over distance. Viewers had to buy different aerials to pick up the signal which, for its lower income target audience, was a costly investment.
Aldridge says it has taken time for Cape Town TV to recover. The station lobbied Icasa for another frequency, which it was granted. The channel is now also available on DStv, which has helped to recover its footprint.
In May 2013, the Association of Community Television – South Africa (Act-SA) was formed in response to government’s intentions to create a code of conduct for community stations and to eliminate the threat of provincial community stations operating on a public service broadcasting model.
Says Aldridge, “Act-SA has produced a memorandum of understanding. It hasn’t been formally launched yet as we haven’t had our first AGM, but we have contributed significant input nonetheless.”
Mavhungu says community stations are, however, not being consulted enough. “I believe that there should be an effort from the department of communications to engage with them about how they will be affected, because it isn’t clear,” she says.
Ultimately, the success of DTT depends on the content offering, says Aldridge. “Unless the authorities look at the feasibility of the content offering, it isn’t going to be a success. There has also been an increasing interest in direct-to-home (DTH) channels. If people move towards getting reception from satellite then it represents a real threat to DTT,” he says. “Icasa and government need to approach this in a creative way. It requires an open-minded way of looking at concrete strategies for DTT content creation.”
This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Media magazine.