It’s been almost a decade since the community television sector really kicked off in South Africa as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) began granting one-year licences. Since 2004, a diverse and resilient community TV industry has emerged.
There are now nine licenced community TV stations in the country: 1KZN TV, Bara TV, Bay TV, Cape Town TV, Fresh TV, North West TV, Soweto TV, TBN and Tshwane TV. These stations service metropolitan communities in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and rural communities in the Eastern Cape and Richards Bay/Empangeni area.
Newcomers Bara TV and Fresh TV have ‘test’ licences. The former serves the areas immediately surrounding Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, and takes advantage of the otherwise-unused L-band of the radio frequency spectrum, which requires a slight modification of the digital set-top receiver box to pick up transmission signals in this frequency range.
Fresh TV is broadcasting on Sentech’s FreeVision platform, the parastatal’s upgraded direct-to-home (DTH) satellite-delivered offering, formerly known as Vivid. FreeVision has been shoehorned into being a ‘gap-filler’ for the digital terrestrial television (DTT) network, providing all the channels available on DTT to people who live beyond the areas covered by terrestrial signals. Sentech has been looking for new content providers and Fresh TV is an experimental youth channel debuting on the platform.
Fortunes vary in the community sector and some stations are stronger than others. In South Africa’s economic heartland of Gauteng, Soweto TV has a viewer base of around seven million. It transmits terrestrially in Johannesburg and nationally on DStv. Tshwane TV, with just under two million viewers, is available in Tshwane, Rustenburg and parts of Mpumalanga.
Cape Town TV (CTV) has struggled to survive after losing its initial broadcast frequency – along with most of its audience – in March 2012, when the frequency was taken over by DTT test transmissions. The channel has only recently recovered, with its viewership rising to 2.5 million viewers in November 2012, after launching on a second terrestrial frequency in Cape Town and nationally on DStv.
South Africa’s community TV stations have followed diverse business models. Some are operated by commercial companies under ‘management contracts’, while others are independent. Some are on air, and others are not. North West TV was granted a one-year licence, but was unable to broadcast in that time.
Despite various economic and ideological differences between the stations, this disparate group came together in May 2013 to form a national organisation, the Association of Community Television – South Africa (Act-SA). This was a reaction to the government’s threat in January 2012 to establish a business model and code of behaviour for the community television sector. Deputy minister of communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams warned that provincial community stations were to be set up on a public service broadcasting model, with boards appointed by government and fully funded by the state. There would be only one community station per province and where there were multiple contenders they would be merged or not have their licenses renewed.
The deputy minister’s pronouncements were met with shock by the assembled sector representatives and many were stunned at her vehemence. Still, this onslaught prompted the sector to organise itself, leading to the establishment of a single representative body.
Act-SA represents a new force on the broadcasting landscape. Its members have a collective audience of around 16 million viewers, and although there are no mechanisms yet in place to exploit this market share, this must be developed if the sector is to consolidate its strength.
The organisation is already making its mark by submitting policy pronouncements with regard to digital broadcasting issues and it has generated a charter of its own to regulate norms and standards within the sector.
The charter spells out parameters for governance, community ownership and control, business models and principles of community broadcasting. Through this the community channels have seemingly reached a common understanding of the nature of community television in SA and this bodes well for their future co-operation.
The sector is facing distinct challenges now. On the DTT grid, community television has been allocated 15%of Multiplex 1, with possible space opening up on Multiplex 2 when that is commissioned. The initial allocation on Multiplex 1 allows for two community channels per province, but this will be dependent on the ability of community stations to occupy this space given the looming uncertainties.
The architecture of the DTT network is a game-changer for community TV because it opens up new horizons in broadcasting. For one thing, local channels could expand into provincial footprints or at least widen their local coverage within single frequency networks.
The proliferation of DTH channels prior to the advent of DTT is increasing the demand for local content and elevating community channels from being neglected outliers to sought-after consorts of the DTH platforms. The DTH providers – Sentech, MultiChoice, Platco and StarSat (formerly Top TV) – understand the importance of local content in locking down their markets, and the battle for dominance in the digital broadcasting space is intensifying.
What this means for DTT is that it will arrive in a market that is already highly competitive, with each broadcaster wanting to create their own ‘walled garden’ of channels. The future of free-to-air channels in this environment is uncertain – will they be carried under ‘must carry’ regulations on all platforms, what will the costs of transmission be and who will pay them?
Sentech is not revealing prices for carriage on its DTT platforms, the official launch of the DTT migration hasn’t happened yet, the information and communication technology policy revision process is still pending and there’s a plethora of players scrambling to occupy the DTH space. Not to mention the coming of mobile television, video-on-demand delivery platforms, internet television and digital convergence!
For South Africa’s community TV sector, life is really just beginning. There are many more community broadcast initiatives waiting in the wings and before digital migration is complete there are likely to be new arrivals.
The imperative now is for the sector to ride out the turbulence of the digital storm and emerge brighter and stronger. n
Mike Aldridge is the broadcast manager at Cape Town TV. Follow on Twitter @capetowntv
This story was first published in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine.