Can community television go the distance?

Rhodes>Perspective>2012 Archives

Community television has huge potential in this country – or does it? The media is potentially about to experience a boom in community television, but the future of this – considering the stations that exist – is uncertain.

They are provided for in legislation; there are stations already running on pockets of spare analogue spectrum. In the digital arena, the spectrum is divided into multiplexes, of which two are allocated to television. With each multiplex providing for at least 20 channels, 10% of the first one is allocated to community television. Many communities appear to want their own stations.

Community TV stations are far more expensive than community radio, and, at this stage, there are no rulings on how transmission will be configured when digital broadcasting comes. In consequence, nobody knows how many stations there can be, what their footprints could be and if they will be viable. (There’s also spare capacity on Multiplex 2, but the Multiplex configuration is under review.)

According to academic theory on community media, community TV is supposed to “grow organically” from needs that communities identify. In practice, community TV stations are started by individuals with passion who drive the whole process, from enlisting the community representatives, to becoming the appointed CEO. The motive is anything from ‘community development’ to the illusion of fame and fortune, to egotism – just like most media.

In real terms, the station invariably proves to be more costly than was optimistically estimated by the founders. That is because advertisers are content to stay with the community newspapers and funders aren’t hammering at the doors wanting to throw money at the station. Also, the unemployed in the ‘community’ aren’t interested in volunteeering opportunities: they need real jobs. These factors complicate the environment and, in the long-term, secure funding or investment is necessary for the sustainability of these stations.

The granting of seven-year licences for community TV started about five years ago when Icasa responded to pressure from community TV activists, and invited applications for community stations in the few scraps of analogue spectrum available.

Since then, six seven-year licences have been issued and five stations have started up in Soweto, Cape Town, Tshwane, Empangeni and Nelson Mandela Bay. When it became known that community TV was up and running, there was a flood of applications. Icasa put a moratorium on applications in 2010 as digital TV was thought to be round the corner and was expected to change the television environment. After the notice, Icasa received even more applications from areas like Ekurhuleni, Sedibeng and Alexandra that are currently waiting for the moratorium to be lifted, according to a report in The New Age.

The operating stations have developed two completely divergent business models and these will undoubtedly influence the future of the many digital television stations. Cape Town TV follows what is known as the ‘funded’ model, while Soweto TV, 1KZN (Empangeni), Tshwane TV and Bay TV (Port Elizabeth) aim to be ‘commercially viable’ models.

Cape Town TV

Cape Town TV (CTV), at a glance, seems to be the model of how a community TV station should be run, according to the brief section in the Electronic Communications Act (ECA) and many previous discussion documents. CTV relies on sponsorship, donations and minimal advertising revenue – as little as 15%. The station holds discussions with their community on what content they want. Financial and editorial operations are lean, dependent on donated equipment and borrowed premises. It drifts between financial crises, but still manages to bring the station to the people.

Soweto TV and an emerging quasi community-commercial model

Soweto TV started the ’commercially viable‘ model. After a fitful start along the lines of CTV, Soweto TV, led by Tshepo Thafeng, went to ‘über production house’ Urban Brew (owned by Kagiso) for help. Urban Brew gave Soweto TV access to its spare capacity in studios, equipment, administration and ad sales expertise. In essence, Soweto TV contracted out everything, management of all costs, revenue and content for five years, according to station manager Elize Viljoen. Urban Brew’s CEO Danie Ferreira was clear that community TV should compete with national commercial TV stations. He said he had identified a gap in the market for commercially viable stations that would, in his own words, be “a future investment”.

All they had to do was keep costs low, comply with the definition of a community station as defined in the Electronic Communications Act, and run on commercial advertising and sponsorship.

Urban Brew approached two other stations struggling to get off the ground: 1KZN in Empangeni and Bay in the Nelson Mandela Metro (Port Elizabeth). Now, Urban Brew has over the last few months been contracted to manage all three community stations, with a business model that uses sponsorship and sales of programme time while competing with the national channels for advertising.

Tshwane TV, with a footprint covering Tshwane and surrounding towns, is commercially managed by Zallywood (Pty) Ltd. Both Zallywood and Tshwane TV won’t disclose details of the station’s business. The CTV and the Urban Brew model battle for funding and revenue, but from two extremes of the business model continuum.

The community audience

The audiences for community television differ from those of the national broadcaster, whether it is a public station or a commercial one. National TV stations have a footprint that simultaneously covers the whole country and the full range of demographics. Community stations have tiny footprints complicated by diverse and heterogeneous cultures and demographics, where common concerns and needs are mostly theoretical. The only homogeneity exists through basic day-to-day issues.

National TV cannot cover emotionally fraught matters of concern such as local schools, hospitals, sewerage, roads and community safety. A community that has a choice of local and national media can choose between viewing local issues and the people that they know and the national programming that is of general entertainment value.

Community stations will never be able to afford sitcoms and soaps (or even B-grade movies), but they do have something that national stations don’t have: the airtime to cover local music, dance, theatre, sport, weddings, funerals and celebrations of all kinds.

The big mistake all five community TV stations have made is that they have not seen themselves as providing an alternative, but as the only station people want to watch. The rule of thumb in media is that viewers choose programmes, easily accessed from their remotes, rather than channels.

The community media business model

Media buyers are reluctant to buy advertising on local community media – radio, TV and print – that don’t have sound and formal research behind them. The Caxton-type community newspapers attract a lot of advertising, largely due to the investment that goes into research such as ROOTS.

Many community radio stations are struggling because they cannot attract advertising, and don’t do any in-depth research.

Almost all of them, as with the TV stations, gripe that they can’t afford the research. This is despite standard textbooks available free on the web that explain how to do low cost research for community media. Cellphones, survey software and other research techniques used by community media in other countries are ignored. It seems there is a cultural meme that states categorically that if your research does not come from SAARF then it’s not research. Any media buyer will tell you that’s not true.

Then there’s the belief that all the local businesses will buy advertising on the station. Community radio already knows that local advertisers find that community newspapers work for them, and given their low budgets, local business stays with the medium that works for them.

Urban Brew has discovered that revenue for all community TV stations is not that simple. Sure, there’s lots of advertising on Soweto TV. But Soweto is unique. On top of that, it’s on the old BOP TV footprint that covers more middle class people than any other comparable footprint in the country. Bay TV and 1KZN are struggling, but then they’ve been on air for months rather than years.

The Cape Town model has its problems. It keeps costs low because facilities and some infrastructure are borrowed. The situation creates uncertainty for investment.

They also operate on funding from sources such as MDDA, private funds, donations – all of which are once-off and ad hoc. Their sources of funding are not secure and long term. While they may go through periods when they don’t have a financial crisis, they know that one is just around the corner.

Their biggest flaw is that they are not regularly funded and supported by the very people they assist: local and provincial government.

Urban Brew may have difficulty accessing local government funding because stations are run as commercial entities. It is difficult to understand why the Cape Town municipality and Western Cape government do not support CTV with the R5 million or so they need (a minuscule amount) to run each year.

The real question is: which of the two business models will work on digital TV? Or will the future model be a hybrid? You can’t run costly TV from financial crisis to crisis, and you should also not have a model that could sacrifice community needs to profit motive.

There is also a suspicion that national stations trying to cope with multi-channel TV’s fragmented audiences will not actually welcome competition from community TV.

When digital comes, there could be at least 20 stations that are supposed to be non-profit, and community owned. Chapter 9 of the ECA states that stations must be “fully controlled by a non-profit entity and carried on or is to be carried on for non-profit purposes…”

The last thing anyone wants is for half of them to go to the wall as has happened with community radio.

Written by: Howard Thomas and Johanna Mavhungu

  • Johanna Mavhungu is a media researcher at the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership at Rhodes University. This article was published on