Mike Aldridge is a media practioner with experience in television and print media. He holds an MA in Cultural and Media Studies and has been involved in community television since the mid-1990s, when he co-organised one of the first community TV broadcasts at the University of KZN. Since then he has been a researcher and activist in the field and is currently the broadcast manager at CTV. He writes in his personal capacity.
Community television walks a rocky road in South Africa, as this non-profit sector struggles with issues of sustainability across a range of areas from licensing to finance.
Not least of the problems facing the community television sector is to define quite what community television is or will be in South Africa, with several different operational models in action and the possibility of provincial community channels now on the cards.
There are just three community stations currently on air, they are Cape Town TV (CTV), Soweto TV and Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). Some organisations were licensed but have fallen by the wayside, while others have won licences but are yet to go on air.
The oldest licensed community channel is TBN Africa, which is part of the American-based Trinity Broadcast Network evangelical empire. Despite its presence on terrestrial analogue broadcast in the rural Eastern Cape, the channel’s programming consists mostly of white American evangelical content.
Soweto TV was the first community TV channel to gain a one-year licence and it was also the first to gain a “permanent’ seven-year class licence last year. The channel has a controversial management agreement with Urban Brew Studios, which provides services including equipment and training, advertising sales, funding and staff deployments at managerial level.
Urban Brew is a subsidiary of the JSE-listed Kagiso Media, whose chairman, Murphy Morobe, also chairs the board of the community channel.
Comments founding member and board secretary Meshak Mosiya: “Urban Brew was brought on board to assist in terms of capacity, especially around broadcasting. The board is responsible for programming and content.
“We believe that if it was not for Urban Brew’s partnership we would not have succeeded in our intention to become a broadcaster and in terms of the viewership that we have achieved.’
Adds Urban Brew MD Danie Ferreira: “It is absolutely advisable for community TV initiatives to have people with the necessary know-how. Attempts at community broadcasts with no technical capacity have always failed.’
Soweto TV’s relationship with Urban Brew has enabled the station to sustain its operations and to build an audience of 1.2 million viewers, within its broadcast footprint and through its presence on DStv. But not everyone in the community TV sector is happy with the implications of this relationship.
Says Karen Thorne, station director at CTV: “Certain quarters, in government and the private sector, try to create an argument that community television stations are not sustainable and need to be run by commercial operations. They are trying to build an argument for the commercialisation of community television.’
Thorne believes that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is ultimately to blame for this situation because the regulator has not enabled local or provincial public or private TV channels. “As a result all eyes are on community TV with the expectation that community TV stations are to fill this gap and fulfill the public service obligations of a local public broadcaster along with commercial expectations.’
She also slates ICASA’s lax licensing procedures for community TV. “If ICASA took community television seriously they would adopt the same procedures for community television licences as with e.tv – a proper call for applications and a proper adjudicating process. This would ensure that licences were given to entities that truly represent the community and have capacity not only to run an NGO but also to run a TV station.’
CTV itself braved rough waters last year when its application for a seven-year licence was initially refused by the regulator, resulting in a prolonged tussle that forced ICASA’s council to clarify its stance on a moratorium on community TV licences (due to digital migration issues). The station eventually won its class licence and boasts a monthly viewership of about 1.2 million.
Meanwhile moves are afoot to set up community TV stations in other provinces. Platinum TV has recently been licensed in the Northern Province and Nelson Mandela Bay TV has been licensed in Port Elizabeth. Another initiative, driven by the Eastern Cape Development Corporation, aims to establish a province-wide community TV initiative there.
A key issue facing community TV stations is the ongoing saga of high signal distribution costs.
Says Thorne: “Since the IBA Act of 1992, successive regulators, and more recently signal distributor Sentech, have failed to put in place a tariff structure that takes into account public, private and community broadcasters, despite their legislative mandate to do so.
“We have a ridiculous situation where ICASA issues community TV licences but the licensee is then either not able to get on air or is taken off air for failure to pay Sentech.”
“The precedent has already been established whereby the Department of Communications supports community radio transmission costs so there is absolutely no reason why this should not be extended to community television broadcasters due to their non-profit, developmental mandate.’
The next hurdle for community TV is the country’s migration to digital terrestrial television (DTT) – but only time will tell whether this will be beneficial for the sector or not.