The long-awaited switch from analogue to digital television transmission will finally happen on 30 June after years of delay, but this will leave millions of impoverished South Africans without a television signal. This switch will also have huge financial implications for community television stations already operating on a tight budget.
Voices driving the ongoing Save Free TV campaign blame the delay and the debacle on former president Jacob Zuma, President Cyril Ramaphosa and the minister of communications and digital technologies Khumbudzo Ntshavheni. They accuse Ntshavheni of setting “artificial deadlines to please the president”.
They cite government bungling in the distribution and installation of set-top boxes, its failure to register all qualifying “indigent households” because of ongoing defunding and the closure of many post offices (the government announced it would close 130 post offices last year), poor public communication campaigns about the analogue switch off, and corruption.
Global shortages in the supply of computer chips and legal battles have also been blamed for the delay. This is nearly 15 years after South Africa signed the international telecommunications union regional agreement in Geneva committing the country to digital migration by 2015.
Mike Aldridge, station manager at Cape Town TV, who is uncertain of the future and fears the station could lose about a third of its monthly 1.8 million viewers because of the switch, says the government initially launched the digital migration programme in 2008 with completion set for 2011.
“This was very unrealistic as the lead-in period was too short. Not much marketing was done for the project and there were no free set-top boxes available,” Aldridge says. “Then former general Siphiwe Nyanda became minister of communications and threw a spanner into the works when he wanted to change the digital terrestrial television broadcast standard, a move that was rejected by the broadcast sector. Then there was the big fight among the broadcasters over signal encryption, with MultiChoice campaigning against it and eTV launching a court case to argue for it.”
Aldridge says that during Zuma’s tenure, there were nine communication ministers in eight years and Ramaphosa has continued this trend of constantly replacing them, with ever more junior people occupying this position. “No comms minister has had an opportunity to really get to grips with the process, which is now being rushed through by Minister Ntshavheni.”
The cost of digital
Aldridge says one “massive issue” the government is not addressing is the fate of community television stations because the costs of digital transmission are “astronomically higher than analogue distribution”.
For example, he says that Cape Town TV will have to go from hiring “just one transmitter from Sentech to hiring 32 transmitters at a cost of R1.8 million per month, a cost increase of 2 900%. No one knows how community TV channels are going to afford this move. This is a completely untenable situation and no one has any idea at this time of how to solve it.”
The community station was started 14 years ago and represents sectors such as sport, arts, culture, media, education and community-based organisation, he says. He adds that it runs a schedule specifically aimed at the impoverished and working-class communities, and these include programmes such as Workers World on labour issues, Positively, Proudly Hanover Park on issues affecting troubled neighbourhoods, The Womxn Show on domestic violence, Street Talk on social issues and Philippi TV focusing on videos produced by young filmmakers and volunteers in the Philippi township in Cape Town. It also broadcasts local and international documentaries, Al Jazeera newscasts, religious programming and African music, he says.
The fight for free television has to go on after the switch, he says. In a statement in support of the Save Free TV campaign, the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) said even though the government claims that it is communicating directly to communities through the public broadcaster, SABC, about the switch off, “it is clear the message is not sufficient for poor working-class households”.
“Even many indigent households (as per government definition) that are eligible for free set-top boxes are not registering to get one. This impels us to think the message is not getting through to them and the government’s communication efforts are falling short.”
Saftu said that there are two problems facing households that wish to continue watching free-to-air television post the digital migration. There are “very few set-top boxes in South Africa other than those manufactured by the government. Retailers and installers say that there has not been much demand for them.”
“Secondly, TV sets with integrated tuners are relatively expensive, starting at around R4 500. However, major retailers only stock the more expensive models, which sell for much more than this. These factors mean that it is difficult for working-class households to remain free-to-air viewers because their easiest option is to go for a pay-TV service like DStv or OpenViewHD, and this loss of audience threatens the survival of free-to-air TV in South Africa.”
Activist Hassen Lorgat who represents the People’s Media Consortium (PMC) says free television is vital for the impoverished as it “galvanises the public during moments of crises” and allows the nation to “have a conversation” and debate issues.
He says while the government insists on helping indigent households earning less than R3 500 with free set-top boxes, it is leaving out the working impoverished who earn around R4 000 and cannot afford the boxes, new digital televisions or pay television. This group includes farmworkers, domestic workers and retail workers who focus on survival and not digital television migration.
In a recent letter to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), the PMC queried the mandate of the authority and wanted to hear with urgency how the looming analogue switch “will ensure that services are extended to all citizens” as the transition had been “fraught with incompetence and poor leadership”.
Logart says Icasa’s task was to serve the public interest and “we have argued repeatedly in public that the switch off is a violation of constitutional rights and services”.
Despite these voices of discontent, the Save Free TV movement was dealt a blow on 29 March, when, in a ruling that favoured the government, the North Gauteng High Court endorsed the digital migration, setting the date for the switch for 30 June. The government is going ahead with the switch and has already switched off SABC analogue television transmitters in Limpopo, Northern Cape, Free State, North West and Mpumalanga.
But, Saftu says the fight for free television will go on beyond the switch off deadline “until such a time when there is a sustainable free-to-air audience”.
“While the current battle is to stave off the analogue switch-off for as long as possible, after the fact, the focus will switch to pushing the government to assist in ensuring that there are set-top boxes available in the market for people who don’t qualify for the free government set-top boxes but who can’t afford either a new integrated digital TV or a pay-TV service,” Saftu says.
In its 2021 estimates, the Broadcasting Research Council, which provides viewership figures for the television industry, showed that 5.7 million households receive analogue signals and will be affected by the analogue switch.
The government estimates that there are 3 million indigent households in the country and it committed to providing 1.5 million set-top boxes to registered and qualifying households who earn R3 500 and below to allow them to migrate to digital television. This means 4.2 million households will have to purchase their own digital TV receivers or move over to pay TV.
According to Saftu, since 2015, only 800 000 households have received set-top boxes. It warned that the situation for all free-to-air broadcasters, including eTV and community television channels, will worsen when analogue transmission in the four remaining provinces are switched off in June. While Saftu recognised the need for digital migration, it is calling on the government to further delay the analogue switch off because “we are not ready to migrate”.