Funding challenge and undervaluing the public service

20 January 2010

Funding is one of the biggest problems the SABC faces.  But it seems to me that they are missing using some of their best programming and most profitable channels to answer some questions about how best to proceed.  A new and creative model and should explore some of the alternatives, and I think, surprise surprise, that a policy review process would enable us all to do this, and this will take time - so I also think we need to see if we can get SABC to operate more effectively as it

One of the standard arguments trotted out is that the existing model doesn’t work and I have witnessed SABC arguing before ICASA that the public service conditions are too onerous.  Yet how is it that SABC 1, the channel with the greatest public broadcasting conditions, makes all the money while SABC 3, the one with the least, has to be cross-subsidised by the public service channel, SABC 1?

If anything this would seem to prove that more public broadcasting conditions make a channel more economically viable and not the other way round.  I think if we can start to look at these things and see how much things actually cost, how the channels actually work (as in SABC 1 or apparently don’t as in SABC 3), then we might also be able to ensure that whatever funding model we do come up with will be more effective and more likely to work.

But there is another issue also:

I think one of the reasons people are so resentful of the tax idea (aside from a series of issues about high debt etc.) is linked to the credibility and perceived value of the SABC.  Yes we all criticise it - as we should - but we should also note the fundamentally good role it can and, to varying degrees, does play.  Yes, it might be bad, but it is a thousand times better than it was under apartheid.  We have news in all official languages, in fact in slightly more if you add in sign language.  We have some very good programmes and still some excellent people.  Programmes like 50/50 (which in their idiocy they took air for a while), Shorelines, slick magazine programmes like Top Billing (no public service content, but slick), there are also some excellent dramas.

We have Special Assignment, which despite having the crap kicked out of it -with ludicrous forced lie detector tests among other things like self-censorship -  still does some excellent investigative programmes as well as other more consumer oriented programmes like Speak Out. When they try, we have news that offers a greater diversity of views and range of political parties than other media - as we found in monitoring their elections coverage (sadly their news seem to have gone down the extremely dodgy route recently - more on that later we will be releasing monitoring figures soon).  We also have some rather amazing local and international documentaries broadcast - quite when we aren’t sure because they are poorly advertised and I usually find them by chance.

Which kind of links to my point here - we have clear crises at our public broadcaster, one of which we haven’t spoken about much is the lack of public support.

Nobody will want to pay more for something they think is bad, but all of us pay mobile operators even though the big ones often give us shocking service and charge among the highest rates in the world - yet we all use them even though we could survive without them - but they give us a service we think has great value - a lovely mobile phone that can do just about everything except look after the children and make coffee.  People will pay if they think they are getting value even if they resent it.

One of the key challenges we have to overcome is to ensure that ordinary South Africans see the value of public broadcasting - why it is important, why they feel it should belong to them - I think in many instances we have this with loyal listeners to the biggest radio stations in the country and huge fan bases of programmes like generations - but these issues are seldom linked to the concept of public broadcasting.

One of the reasons people don’t make these links is because until very recently the SABC has not been big on talking about its actual public service mandate - and has focused more its commercial side.  So recently, while we had “total citizen empowerment” it seemed to be more of a branding exercise than anything with any real content behind it.  What does it mean?  Does it mean approaching members of the public to find out what kind of programmes they would like? Does it means delivering a diversity of programmes for all the SABC audiences?

Sometimes the SABC has good things that they could actually use to show how they are meeting their public broadcasting mandate but they clearly don’t want to let people know about them.  A clear example is Children’s News.  A news programme for children, in different languages African and English, a programme that offers children something of real value, and addresses them as citizens, that helps them understand events in the world, that focuses more on explanation and analysis - and I might add was very popular with children. 

(Of course they did all they could to stuff it up, from using it as the plaything of news so that when it came to the negotiating for airtime with the channel heads it could be shipped around to times when children aren’t awake or cannot watch the news like 5:30 in the morning - because of course when you might actually reach bigger audiences in the afternoon there are apparently more important programmes. Then ensuring that they gradually removed resources so that instead of being able to produce their own news it was “reversioned” from the adult news with the result that the news for children isn’t really for or even about them now, and we have research to support this).

So, yes, we need and have to address funding as THE issue but unless we ensure that there is sufficient public ownership of the SABC or indeed why we all should care about public broadcasting we will never win the battles - just look at what happened in New Zealand where precisely because there wasn’t sufficient understand of the need and importance of public broadcasting they went and sold them all off to the highest bidder.  As our guest, Dr Ruth Zanker point out, once it is lost it will be nearly impossible to regain.  So yes we have to ensure the funding issue is addressed but at the same time we have to talk about public broadcasting why it is so important, what value it really brings to all of us now, despite the SABC’s depleted status.  Look at the alternative: if you are wealthy then you can have multi-choice - nice for the minority.  If not, you have e.tv as the alternative, and while I have lots of time and respect for it as a commercial station in terms of the things they are trying to do - their schedule is dominated by wrestling to such an extent that it is a running joke that they are going to re-brand to w.w.e.tv.  Hardly in the public’s interest.