The SABC is going international

 ·2 Aug 2023

The Department of Communication and Digital Technologies has laid out proposals that would see the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) become a player in the international satellite TV and digital services space.

The proposals are contained in the department’s draft white paper on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services and Online Content Safety, published for public comment earlier this week.

The white paper contains many high-level policy proposals, ranging from a complete overhaul of South Africa’s licencing regime to more focused points like sports broadcast rights. It also proposes that digital platforms in South Africa be taxed to promote local content production.

One of the more pressing issues, however, is the SABC’s role in the new broadcasting and digital content landscape – and how to make it a successful and sustainable player.

The white paper addresses several key proposals around the SABC, including its position in legislation, how it should function in a more competitive environment, as well as how it should be funded.

Like many state-run entities, the SABC has proved to be more of a financial burden on the national fiscus than a benefit, running at a mutli-million-rand loss and garnering no support from the South African people who refuse to pay for their TV licences.

For the 2021/22 financial year, the SABC reported a loss after interest and tax of R258 million and negative cash flows from operations for the financial reporting period, amounting to R353 million. At latest reporting, approximately 9.2 million South Africans have shirked their duty to pay TV licences.

This is an area that the white paper wants to address.

The paper recognises the importance of the SABC as a public broadcaster to the entire audio and audio-visual content ecosystem, and wants to empower it and mandate it to become more sustainable.

“Apart from the dependency of millions of South Africans on the SABC, the sustainability of the public broadcaster has an impact on its employees, sports rights associations, Sentech, independent television producers, commercial partners and creative artists like musicians, actors, writers, directors,” the department said.

“A strong and financially fit SABC is vital for South Africa, and the government will take the necessary legislative and financial steps to ensure this.”

To achieve this, the white paper proposes that the SABC have a mandate in legislation to operate international satellite television, radio, and Internet services, under the name SABC International Broadcast Services or SABC Foreign Broadcasting Service.

“The Channel Africa radio services and Ubuntu Radio, DIRCO’s 24-hour internet-based radio station, will form part of this unitary service to provide both domestic and international news, information, as well as a wide variety of programming, 24 hours a day, to the world accurately and promptly from African various perspectives, making the best use of public broadcaster and its international partners networks,” it said.

To address the group’s funding issues, the department said that there will be “a comprehensive overhaul of the SABC’s funding model based on international best practices to ensure that the public broadcaster has adequate funds”.

Some commentators to the report suggested that the SABC do away with the TV Licence regime and instead replace it with a Public Broadcast Service levy. The department said this, and other proposals, are being considered in a new SABC Bill.

However, some stakeholders argued that any state financial aid or support of the public mandate of the SABC should be achieved in a “responsible and fair manner” so as not to distort competition between the SABC and its competitors in the commercial radio broadcasting sub-sector.

However, the department said that this view is contrary to the international best practises with public broadcasters around the world – noting that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has a commercial arm selling its channels as well as the OTT platform and commercialising its content.

Notably, the SABC has already made some moves in the OTT space, having launched its own streaming services, SABC Plus, in November 2022.

Read: SABC on the edge of collapse: report

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