With digital television imminent, broadcast media are anxious for the opportunities inherent in multichannel. In Digital Terrestrial Transmission (DTT), the use of digital signals allows a large amount of spectrum to be released for other purposes. Thus, when DTT is fully implemented, there will be capacity for around 40 TV channels. Also, about a third of what was used under the old analogue technology can be released for cellphones, broadband and other wireless applications.
Needless to say, community TV is under the spotlight, so much so that there are claims by some that “we are on air”. A casual check shows that they don’t yet even have a licence, frequency or transmitter.
The current community TV landscape dates back to 1994 when temporary licences were first issued. A few years later, Cape Town TV, Soweto TV and Greater Durban TV launched. Now, there are four stations on air: Soweto TV, Cape Town TV, Bay TV and 1KZN.
Despite the term ‘community TV’ meaning different things to different people (depending on how carefully they have studied the legislation), it appears to appeal to a wide cross-section of people with their eyes on the top jobs.
The Electronic Communications Act (ECA) of 2005 states that to set up these stations, the target market “includes a geographically founded community or any group of persons or sector of the public having a specific, ascertainable common interest”. It is also clear that the station should be run by that particular community’s elected trustees on a not-for-profit basis.
But other factors seem to play a role in the “scramble”. Television is thought by some to be glamorous and a natural precursor to ‘fame and fortune’. So it may seem easy to get the support of a community, elect some trustees, and then run your own TV station, with an undefined media mogul providing the necessary financial input for all concerned.
However, the reality is that managing a community television station is not easy: there are no frills and assistants. A handful of people manage everything, from the mundane to the high-level issues, including staff hiring and firing, sales, technical-signal issues, making your own and buying programming, internal and external policy issues and so on.
Without the necessary finance for operations and capital investment, experience has shown that stations become vulnerable to internal in-fighting and predatory investors. In order to stay on air, a community station could be led towards unethical business practices that go against the spirit of community development.
Of the four stations on air, three are ‘externally managed’ by Urban Brew (a subsidiary of Kagiso Ltd). Urban Brew controls everything: revenue, costs and content. Only Cape Town TV fully controls its own management, programming and distribution functions. It holds regular consultative meetings with the community, and its books are open for inspection.
One station that quietly went off air and disappeared was Tshwane TV. This was managed by a somewhat mysterious entity called Zallywood.
Potential of community television
A cursory look at what community TV represents around the world, what the ECA says, and what has been written over the past 20 years locally, makes it easy to position the role of the medium.
Community TV is everything that national TV isn’t, and national TV is everything that community TV isn’t.
Community TV is local, parochial, serving a defined a distinct community and delivering ‘local programming and news’. National TV will never cover the sewerage problems of a small neighbourhood, potholes, crocs in the river, the local factory issues, the high school basketball team, funerals of local eminent people, local customs and heritage, or local personalities. SABC TV is severely limited in what it can do for languages other than English, whereas community TV is generally confined to the local language and even dialect. Community TV would never be able to afford to broadcast international movies.
Community TV appeals only to the people within the footprint and will be inward-looking, parochial, local and probably rather low ‘quality’ compared to the high-cost production values of national TV. Community TV cannot compete with national TV, and vice versa.
Community channels will be small but significant employers. Skills will have to flow into these communities to manage the stations, and they could very well be the stepping stones for many people to get jobs in bigger stations.
Until the launch of DTT, there is no new spectrum available for any community TV stations. Furthermore, following DTT’s launch, all new community TV viewers will have to own a decoder or set top box (STB). Although not much is yet known about them, STBs are expected to be quite costly, and even with the proposed government subsidy, they could be out of reach of many poor families – at whom community TV is aimed. But this does give the hopefuls plenty of time to get an unknown formula right.
A while back, the department of communicaiton (DoC) organised a workshop on the strategic issues around community TV, where director of broadcast policy Mashilo Boloka said there were no guarantees that costs of operating a community station – which are currently between R5 million to R25 million a year – will decrease. According to broadcast signal distributor Sentech, they are likely to increase.
The deputy minister of communication, Stella Ndabeni, dropped a bombshell when she said that government would not allow community stations to be “hijacked” by commercial investors such as Urban Brew and Zallywood. She emphasised that they should be a valuable tool for social development, employment and empowerment. She even threatened stakeholders attending, including Urban Brew, that if the existing stations are found to be legislatively non-compliant, as prescribed in the ECA, they will be closed down. She also said that those who have been granted licences and are not operating and are selling licences to commercial investors will have their licenses revoked. In fact, she only just stopped short of throwing Urban Brew out of the workshop.
Where will money come from?
Cape Town TV does not have an easy time covering its costs. It struggles for advertising, sponsorship and funding, and even manages to solicit donations from the community.
Soweto TV seems to do well, but it’s in what is probably the only area capable of attracting advertising, and no one is even sure if Urban Brew can attract sufficient revenue to keep the station going.
Revenue is not going to migrate from local community newspapers. The community press has had a monopoly on local ad spend for too long to let it go that easily.
There is no point in hoping for sponsorships and corporate social investment money. The only source that’s left is government funding. National government is hardly an appropriate funder, so the DoC appears to be working on a model where stations are funded from provincial and local government.
Where should community TV fit into the broadcast landscape?
It is clear that national channels have a role to play in supplying high-cost mass entertainment, funded by mass advertising. National government may have little to discuss with the public, on the other hand, local government has plenty to listen to and say. These include issues pertaining to water, electricity, education, health and security. It would seem to follow that if there were to be public funding for community TV, it should come directly from local, as opposed to national, government.
However, asks Robin Sewlal of the Durban University of Technology (who facilitated the DoC’s January meeting), “If community TV stations get government funding, what will over 100 community radio stations have to say about that?”
Urban Brew CEO Mzi Malunga says community television will not survive without commercial partnerships such as the one his company has with the three existing television stations currently on the MultiChoice bouquet. Asked about accusations of “hijacking” levelled against them by the deputy minister, he says that most of these claims are misinformed and the result of envy from those whose stations are not doing so well. As for whether Urban Brew plans to approach more stations as they did Cape Town TV, Malunga is not divulging what he calls “business secrets” that are not in the public interest. He will not be drawn into the legislated requirements stipulating that all community TV stations must be Section 21 companies.
While he has a point about the need for partnerships, especially funding partnerships, the type of partnerships that involve meddling in the day-to-day running of a community initiative in the name of financial viability and sustainability should be questioned and put to the test.
Cape Town TV station manager Karen Thorne refutes the claim that the station is struggling financially and says that they do make back 50% of their operating costs from advertising revenue. They are driven by a social entrepreneurship model and the laws of a Section 21 company, which dictate that the station invests the profit back into the station and upholds its community development mandate.
The difference with the Cape Town TV model, although small in footprint, is that it strives for the principles of community media by the community, while the Urban Brew model supports the stations financially and, by getting involved in the management, potentially dilutes the ethos of development by the community. Those who decide to invest in community television need to understand the basic purpose and reason for its existence.
Meanwhile, the aspirants are coming out of the woodwork: Alex TV, Ekurhuleni TV, Platinum TV and Bara TV are just some of the hopefulls. But, they say, they are still “waiting for decoders”. Time and the switchover to DTT will tell. n
Johanna Mavhungu works as a media researcher and lecturer at the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership at Rhodes University. Her research looks at trends in media management.A recent research study was for the department of communications titled: ‘Investigating a Sustainable Model for Implementing Community Television in South Africa’.
This story was first published in the September 2013 issue of The Media magazine.