The South African Broadcasting Corporation’s recent proposal to amend the Broadcasting Act (1999) is, in principle, correct. But the manner in which the SABC wants the Act changed is helpful to the SABC and to marketing its case to the public.
The Act, specifically the regulations regarding television licence fees, prescribes payment of a fee for possessing a TV set. The conceptualisation of this regulatory regime had, first, a device – a TV set – in mind. Second, it understood the TV set in relation to its reception of TV broadcast signals.
This where the SABC’s problem start. New technological devices such as laptops, PCs, tablets and cell phones, for which the SABC wants the TV license paid, as much as they receive TV/SABC content, are not exact equivalents of a TV set.
Second, the TV content they receive may not have been through TV broadcasts signals as provided for in the Act, but through other internet-based signal modalities that fall outside the specifics of the Act to which the SABC ties its future. Apart from these technological specifics of content reception, the SABC’s causal treatment of a TV set, a largely “family”-oriented devise, as if it were the exact equivalents of the new devices, which are personal and private, creates a public unease. The new devices are qualitatively different for them to be easily assumed that they can just be absorbed into an old Act. That said, the SABC deserves its money. The Act and regulations, as they stand, promise this, and part of the promise is TV license fees.
A TV licence is a legal requirement for the possession of a TV set. One is required to pay for the possession of a TV set because revenue accrued from TV license fees’ collection is used for the upkeep of the Public Service Broadcaster (PSB), the SABC. Payment of a TV license fee forms part of a “mixed” funding model for the PSB.
It is an integral part of a funding regime where a government partially funds a PSB, and the rest of revenue comes from other streams. The SABC is partially funded by the South African government. Less than 5% of its revenue comes from government, for educational programmes. About 80% of its revenue comes from advertising and private sponsorship and about 12% comes from TV licenses fees.
The Act and regulations, in their current form and as it exists in a changed environment, vaguely treats possession of a TV set and reception of TV broadcast signals as if they were interchangeable variables. They are not. It does not follow that one uses TV set for watching TV in a traditional sense. A TV set, for others, is a device for just playing video games, watching series downloaded or streamed from somewhere else, or as an extension of their laptops.
The question then is whether they should pay for the possession of a TV set (and now smart phones, tablets, laptops, and so forth) or the reception of television broadcasts signals. Or both. There are other attendant questions here. Some South Africans are asking if they should pay even if they only use their TV sets for watching StarSat (formerly Toptv), e.tv and DStv? In terms of the current broadcasting regulatory regime they must pay. It is the law. This is where the SABC is taking its cue.
The SABC seems to be leaning largely on the side of possession of a TV set and its new technological “equivalents” (laptops, tablets, smartphones). It seems to say that if you are in possession of a TV set or its new equivalents that are equally capable of receiving TV broadcasts signals you must pay for the upkeep of the SABC, a PSB. The SABC, in the spirit of the Act and regulations, seems to be correct, only to a degree.
The Act and regulations care less if you are then going to use your TV set for any other purpose such as to play video games. Indaba yakho leyo – that’s your problem. In fact, the SABC seems to just to enforce what it is asking for, not so much ask for the amendment. In the regulations , for example, the definition of “television set” “includes computers fitted with electronic broadcast cards (television tuner cards) and the electronic broadcast cards themselves.
There are also moral questions that South Africans are asking and cannot be avoided. These relate to corruption, nepotism, political and ideological orientation, financial prudence, relevance and legitimacy with regard to the SABC. These are critical questions. There are aspects of the SABC, particularly in its management , more on TV news (although getting better after that parliamentary drama) and far less so on radio current affairs that resemble a national broadcaster other than a PSB. Yet the same moral question we ask of the SABC can be asked of South African Social Security Agency (Sassa).
As angry as we can be about Sassa, we don’t starve the poor, do we? On the question of relevance, when was the last time you were the beneficiary of the immediate services of the national defence force or some obscure taxpayer funded-academic journal? Yet you have not withdrawn your tax, have you? If the SABC it to be boycotted for moral reasons, that is a different matter altogether.
In all fairness and as problematic as some components of the SABC are, it cannot be expected, when it receives so little from government, to provide free services to undeserving members of the public. The SABC is a huge institution; it spends millions of rands in running its various operations: keeping people in its employ and developing and sourcing its content. This is expensive.
To the degree then that the Act allows the SABC to operate in the private market, prescribes the payment of TV licenses fees and provides no other sources of funding that replaces TV license fees, qualifying receivers of SABC transmissions should, irrespective of the device they use, pay, since they are treated as customers, not necessarily as citizens.
They pay to receive services of DStv services. They do the same for Netlix, Showmax and Amazon Prime. They pay MTN, Cell C and Vodacom. They pay for Telkom and Mweb services. They pay for newspaper subscriptions. Newspaper organisations whose content is free are almost falling apart. So why should any self-respecting organisation that is also supposed to subsidise the poor through concessionary domestic silence, provide free content? Yet paying for services received and having my device for receiving them licensed are two different things. The problem in this instance is not the SABC, but the regulatory regime within which it falls.
The aspects of the regulatory regime to which the SABC ties its fate and reputation are ambiguous, if not archaic. As much as this regulatory regime makes provision for a relatively broader definition of “television set”, it is not explicit enough in relation to the reception of TV broadcast and Internet-based signals from any other device. The Act and regulations are, so far, outpaced by the technological developments. The amendment of the Act then should lean explicitly on the reception of TV broadcast signals. But there is another problem.
Even if broadcast regulatory regime was to be explicit enough, both it and the SABC should move away from this device-oriented approach. It would create the same problem in future that the SABC is trying to run away from today. The broadcasting and other related Acts cannot, for example, be always amended each time there is a new type of broadcasting, internet signal-receiving devices in the public sphere. Legislators will have live in Parliament. No Act can keep up with the speed of technological developments in the media and communication space.
The amended Act and the SABC, instead, should prescribe a particular form of encryption. It must be an encryption that does not, limit universal access of the poor South Africans and any other person qualifying to receive services of the PSB for free. Second, it should be a form of encryption that limits reception of TV broadcasts to only those who have paid what we should now call a TV broadcast receiving license.
The specific device, the signalling system or any other technological form through which TV signals are received should not matter. What should matter is whether you have a code for receiving them. This will sort out SABC problems in the immediate future. But this is only to the degree that the current funding regime for the SABC is treated as acceptable and means for sorting out the license issue are sought.
The license fee aspect of the SABC funding model should be collapsed altogether. The compliance levels are relatively low. The fee collection costs are high. The SABC gets 85% of its money from open markets. The treasury should cover the shortfall. That said, the treasury and citizens should not be expected to fund the entirety of the SABC, especially under the current economic climate.
The argument that says the dependence of the SABC on the markets restricts its public service mandate, only makes nice ideological sense, but it is seriously unimaginative. With what we have, we already have a centre-left government that depends on capitalists enterprises to fund welfare programmes. There is nothing that stops an institutional reconfiguration of the SABC in such a way that revenue accrued from private activities fully services SABC’s public service mandate.
Equally, both the argument that says heavy financial reliance of the SABC on the government would create conditions for political manipulation and the one that say its dependence on open mark insulate it from political manipulation are limited. The SABC has already been a playground of some in government while receiving only 2% (talk of being used). The recent turbulence at e.tv/ENCA had state intervention of all over it, leading to this broadcaster teased in some quarters as the SABC without benefits. ANN7 is a full private the enterprise … the least said the better. A broadcaster does not need to be public or private or partially funded to be a political stooge; it simply needs stooges. Against this forgoing context, the broadcasting Act is ripe for amendment, just not the way SABC proposes.