A political Economy of South Africa’s Digital Broadcasting Transition

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How many South Africans are aware of the massive changes in the pipeline for free-to-air television? Not many, it would seem.
Most countries need to switch off their analogue signals and replace them with digital signals by 2015, by agreement with the International Telecommunications Union. In South Africa, this means that existing television viewers will need to buy set top boxes for approximately R700 to decode the digital signal, so that they can continue to receive television on their existing analogue sets.
If they do not, they will be unable to access television at all from the existing free to air broadcasters (currently the SABC, e.tv and five community stations) or any new stations.
The process is meant to be beneficial to users as it can lead to more viewer choices. This is because many more digital channels with higher picture quality can be multiplexed on a channel previously occupied by an analogue broadcaster.
The freed up spectrum (known as the digital dividend) is much-coveted, prime real estate for information and communication technology companies, and is particularly ideal for mobile broadband services, especially in rural areas. Governments stand to benefit financially from the release of this spectrum, while users should be able to access additional services.
Why are South Africans largely in the dark about these developments? The policy and regulatory machinations on the migration process are taking place in elite governmental and regulatory forums. Nominally, these processes are open to the public, but the ways in which they are conducted do not lend themselves to citizen participation.
Furthermore, there is very little civil society involvement, with the notable and important exceptions of SoS – Save Public Broadcasting, Media Monitoring Africa and independent community television stations like Tshwane TV and Cape TV.
In spite of the fact that government has promised a consumer awareness programme on the need to migrate - a task delegated to a multi-stakeholder advisory body called the Digital Dzonga - this programme has not started yet.
By the time that it does, the decisions that really matter will already have been sewn up by the ‘experts’, ready to be imposed on the hapless citizenry. Their only role will be to fork out money for set top boxes to enable their television sets to decode the new digital signal from free to air broadcasters.
DSTV and Top TV subscribers will be unaffected, as the signal they receive is already digitised. In effect, this means that the poor will be more heavily affected by the migration process than the rich, as the rich have already largely contracted themselves out of free-to-air broadcasting.
This marginalisation of the public is unstrategic. The digital migration process is running into trouble, partly because Treasury has refused to grant sufficient funds needed to complete the process. Without this funding, subsidies will remain inadequate, and local content production will be frustrated.
South African viewers have a strong appetite for local television content, as they want to see their own life stories being told. But viewers are frustrated with the continued dominance of English and Afrikaans. Public pressure is needed to unlock the resources necessary to ensure that digital migration addresses these needs.
Whether these needs will be met depends very much on the balance of forces in the migration process. Policy-making on digital migration is notoriously susceptible to industry capture, which can lead to a process driven by producer interests rather than user interests.
The risk of industry capture is that a handful of media conglomerates can land up controlling the post-migration airwaves, filling them with commercially-driven programming that fails to address even the most basic informational and educative needs of society. Because of the fixed costs involved, digital migration can easily lead to more channels with fewer owners.
International experiences are instructive in this regard. In a study of digital migration in Canada and the United States, Canadian academic Gregory Taylor argued that Canada’s process was largely market-driven, to the point where industry and the Canadian regulator, the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission, effectively co-regulated the process. Civil society and academic scrutiny was practically absent, which led to key public interest elements being marginalised.
Yet ironically, given the highly deregulated nature of its media market, US policy makers and the regulator have been forced to take public interest considerations more seriously than was the case in Canada. Civil society engaged the process proactively to prevent a full-scale spectrum heist by corporate interests.
Organisations representing millions of Americans developed a Bill of Media Rights, demanding media that serve the public interest, reflecting and responding to their local communities. The Benton Foundation developed a public interest benchmark for digital television, which included children’s programming, political coverage (especially of elections), coverage of underserved populations, access to emergency services and disability access. This benchmark was then used to mobilise involvement in the migration process.
In Canada, little critical thinking has taken place about potential uses of the unused spectrum (known as ‘white spaces’). Dominant industry players have a vested interest discouraging such thinking, and prefer to lock down spectrum to their benefit through the licensing process.
In the US, on the other hand, civil society advocacy led in part to a Federal Communications Commission decision to approve a portion of white spaces for unlicensed use, which created space for new broadband projects, as barriers to entry were reduced.
Canada rigidly pursued the provision of high definition television (HDTV) rather than standard definition, which chewed up a large amount of spectrum, and reduced the number of channels. Not only did this undermine one of the touted benefits of migration, namely to increase viewer choice, but it also penalised low-income viewers who could not afford HDTV sets.
How does South Africa’s migration process measure up? The process, which started in 2005, has been state-led as the state assumed responsibility for securing public interest objectives on behalf of the citizenry. To save costs, the government decided on a short dual illumination period - during which both analogue and digital signals are broadcast - to allow broadcasters to phase in the digital signal and to give viewers time to buy set-top boxes.
The government also decided on an ambitious industrial strategy of manufacturing the set-top boxes locally, rather than allowing the country to be flooded by cheap imports; seventy percent of the costs would be subsidised to make them affordable for poorer households.
But after a very impressive start, the process has become shambolic. The government has repeatedly shifted the deadline for analogue switch-off, with the most recent decision being not to decide on another deadline again as it will probably not be met again owing to the funding shortage. So far, set top box subsidies have been budgeted for a mere six percent of households, which is clearly inadequate.
Delays work to the incumbent broadcasters’ advantage, giving them breathing space to lock down content deals that may create near-insurmountable barriers to entry for new broadcasters in future. But the incumbent broadcasters are also squabbling amongst themselves about the carving up of the multiplexes set aside for the dual illumination period.
Initially, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) decided to reserve the multiplexes for the incumbent broadcasters, to give them an incentive to migrate by protecting them from competition. The problem with this decision, though, was that it locked out any new entrants for the dual illumination period, which Icasa at the time considered a necessary evil to provide incumbent broadcasters with sufficient incentive to migrate at their own expense.
Since then, South Africa decided to adopt a more efficient transmission standard, prompting Icasa to propose a reduction of e.tv and M-Net’s allocation of the multiplexes, to free up spare capacity for possible new entrants. A portion of the first multiplex has also been reserved for community television. Icasa has also proposed that stations be authorised to offer HDTV, in spite of government policy favouring standard definition.
While the desire to consider new entrants is welcome, even the revised allocations give M-Net undue access to the spectrum, which will reinforce its owner, Naspers’s position as South Africa’s media behemoth. The decision to open the door to HDTV during dual illumination suggests a further capitulation to industry interests and their desire to capture high-income markets.
The reservations that incumbent broadcasters have expressed about introducing competition now is that the already-stretched advertising cake will be stretched even further, threatening their sustainability. This is not an insubstantial concern, but if Icasa accepts their arguments, then viewers are not likely to see new entrants before 2017, which will deprive viewers of much-needed plurality for five more years.
Much depends on the Department of Communications’ ability to secure public funding from Treasury to free the South African Broadcasting Corporation up from advertising, as well as to fund its content development strategy.  If they do, then more adspend becomes available for commercial broadcasters and resources will be unlocked for the production of local content.
But there is no sign yet of Treasury relenting on their decision to underfund the process, strongly suggesting that the neo-liberal, fiscal conservatism that characterised the Mbeki era remains under Zuma's administration, disabling genuine attempts at progressive policy making.
Underfunding will have the inevitable consequence of costs being shifted over onto viewers: the very viewers that have had practically no voice the process, and that, as a result, have said very little about what they want out of digital television.
Also, with little money available for local content, they may land up receiving very little in return for their financial outlay, apart from more channels of wrestling, American sitcoms and repeats. The likely result is slow take-up of the set top boxes, and mass public protests as the switch-off deadline looms.
Underfunding will also lead to free to air television suffering in the long term, to the advantage of the more lightly regulated subscription television sector. By default, if not by design, Naspers is likely to be the biggest winner, as the company has spread its bets across several platforms and has a bigger content pool to leverage than its free to air competitors.
If this happens, then the process will simply reproduce, and even reinforce, existing property relations, leading to the kind of industry capture of the process that was apparent in Canada, and that South Africa has commendably tried to avoid. In fact, there are strong signs of regulatory decision-making heading in this direction already.
South Africans have very few common spaces for national debate, and digitisation is fragmenting these common spaces even more. As deeply flawed as free to air television is, it does offer some spaces. Unless these spaces are protected and expanded, then South Africa risks becoming a society that is unable to see itself: a dangerous prospect indeed.