The SABC has finally launched its on-again-off-again 24-hour news channel to mixed reactions on the part of the media and the public. Broadcasting on the DStv platform, the launch took place on the public broadcaster’s 77th birthday.
President Jacob Zuma was the guest of honour at the launch, and also the channel’s first interview. Zuma said the channel would “take forward the constitutional right of citizens to have diversified news”. He said he hoped the channel would cover more than just crime stories, and would showcase what “this beautiful country has achieved in recent years”.
“We know the power of broadcasting,” said Zuma, adding that the launch came at a time when South Africa was preparing to celebrate 20 years of democracy. He said he hoped the channel would expose ordinary citizens who were making the country a better place and that it should provide news, educational programming and proper entertainment.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng, acting chief operations officer, said the platform was a great opportunity the SABC ss it would enhance the broadcaster’s public service mandate as it would extend the news focus to provincial stories and the different official languages.
“One of the key issues which was facing the SABC was the limited space available on the three television channels, in terms of News slots, and this inadvertently meant that provincial stories did not receive due coverage,” Motsoeneng said. “This channel will definitely go a long way in solving this problem, and the public of South Africa will also appreciate hearing news in their preferred languages. This is a key feature of the channel as all 11 official languages will be catered for, although initially the channel will broadcast predominately in English in the first phase and other languages will be phased in incrementally.”
General secretary of the Media Workers Association of South Africa, Tuwani Gumani, congratulated the SABC on what he called its “milestone achievement”.
“It is an exciting moment for South Africa after years of Gauteng-centric focus. The inclusion of many amongst the variety of competing views from across the width and breath of South Africa will be a challenge,” he said.
Acting head of news, Jimi Matthews, told the Mail&Guardian there is no ulterior motive in launching the 24-hour satellite channel. He said the reality was that if the SABC did not play in the 24-hour news space, it would be left behind.
“Very few people are still satisfied waiting for bulletins in the evening. Previously, it was appointment viewing, where you rushed home to watch the 8pm news. While we see continuous growth in radio news offerings, digitial sites are exploding in growth. There is a decline in the television news service. If you are going to produce television news, you have to play in the 24-hour space,” he told the newspaper.
Tuwani, like others such as the DA’s communications spokeswoman, Marian Shinn, is concerned over the questions of “universal access” as currently 24-hour channel is broadcast on a pay-televsion platform. “…this current platform will exclude a substantial section of the population especially the majority of the economically marginalised, the poor, rural and mostly females,” Gumani said.
“The reported increase in national unemployment figures places the SABC at the centre of public debate where it must provide an inclusive, interactive platform for genuine national discourse on developmental issues. South Africans from all walks of life should have their voices accommodated on the national broadcaster,” he added.
Shinn said earlier that the SABC’s previous board, which collapsed when the ANC instructed its deployees to resign in March, “rejected previous attempts by the SABC’s executive management to ram through approval of the 24-hour news channel because it was prohibitively expensive and that the structural issues that landed the public broadcaster in a financial crisis have not been satisfactorily corrected”.
“The fact that the 24-hour news and entertainment channels are to be broadcast on a pay-platform may be in contravention of its public broadcasting mandate, and possibly undermine its much-delayed transition to digital terrestrial broadcasting,” she said.
But the SABC says the SABC News channel will also be available on the Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) platform once the migration or switch from analogue to digital signal takes place.
New communications minister, Yunus Carrim , said SABC News should help close the information divide. “The SABC must serve all of our people. The SABC is not meant to be elite,” he said at the launch. “It is the responsibility of the SABC to reduce the divide. He also said the new channel must win back viewers for the broadcaster. He acknowledged that there were people who have reservations about the financial sustainability of the channel, but said its sustainability will be possible.
“If we all pull together [it is sustainable] … Let us not start with the doom and gloom. Such channels are a risk all over the world. We wish you [the SABC] well. We need to make this a success in the interest of the country.”
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the ANC hoped the channel would “not be yet another hourly regurgitation of stale content which can no longer be considered news, but rather a critical assessment and exposure of the best and worst in our society, anchored firmly on the hope and determination of ordinary South Africans to be part of solution, building a common nationhood”.
Like Shinn and Gumani, Mthembu said the “ANC trusts that the SABC will, with great urgency, soon expand beyond Pay TV housed on DSTV, to ensure that the majority of South Africans for whom Pay TV is a luxury, will also be able to enjoy quality, accessible, informative news content that tells the South African and global story”.
Gumani said he believed a “substantial investment will also need to be made in the area of personnel development with a view to improve on-air product quality.
“Competition will be rife and the SABC needs to fast shed the jet-lag from years of inertia and internal strife which landed the institution in the news for all the wrong reasons,” he said.
SABC Interim board Chairperson, Zandile Tshabalala said the SABC had “invested in massive technology and human capital for incomparable news gathering capacity and this will therefore maintain the SABC’s position as South Africa’s news and information leader”.
She said the SABC would “use its existing newsrooms in all provinces to maximize its efforts to achieve and reflect South African human interest stories without worrying about space in our current television news offerings”.
The SABC said it had “built a multi-million rand infrastructure for its new 24-Hour News channel, which is Studio 9, and has invested in the recruitment and training of additional news staff.
What was the reaction of South Africa’s vocal Twitterati?
Watching SABC’s new 24 hour news channel (ch404) with Zuma’s “dynamic oratory”… I’d rather watch MORE re-runs of CHiPS.
Well done #SABC for the 24 hour news channel, channel 404. We also salute the department of communications for taking SABC forward!
New #SABC 24 Hour News channel What a comedy showcase.
Pikkie Greeff @PikkieGreeff: I was watching this new sitcom on tv about a news crew, then I realized its the new SABC 24 hour news channel
Gus Silber @gussilber: The SABC’s 24-hour news channel debuts tomorrow on Channel 404.This is the dawning of a whole new 404 era for the SABC
So this new #SABC news channel is Jay Z’s personal 24Hr PR machine. Safa saphela
#sabc news channel….I would like to see who will be watching sabc news on dstv…Homer Simpson is more credible than the sabc
So SABC has a 24-hour news Tv channel on Dstv channel 404. Hope there’s a diversity of news compared to the sabc1 channel #Sabc
Have been watching new #SABC News channel. They run many ads telling us how great they are and then report on how fab Zuma is. Yawn
#SABC is one of the largest public broadcasters in the world. You cannot launch a 24-hour news channel in this manner. Professionalism?