South African Television's Accumulation by Dispossession

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Last month, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) released draft Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) regulations for a second round of public consultations. The DTT transition provides South Africa with an opportunity to address the uneven development of television, given the enhanced capacity for more broadcasters to offer more channels.

In theory, South Africa is meant to have three tiers of broadcasting - commercial, community and public service - to ensure that pluralism and diversity are built into the media system. Community and public service television were meant to be non-commercial.

However, in reality, owing to government’s unwillingness to provide significant support for the non-commercial tiers, South Africa’s media landscape has become dominated by commercial television. Public service and community television have been forced to survive by becoming commercialised, leading to all tiers of television targeting upper income brackets and addressing audiences as consumers, to different extents.

This means that those who participate in the economic mainstream have access to a plurality of television services; but for working class, underemployed and unemployed South Africans, the majority of whom are youth, their viewing options remain limited.

One of the government’s main arguments for the digital transition is that it will increase diversity and access to the airwaves. However, ICASA’s draft regulations may well intensify the problem of uneven development.

The new regulations do have positive proposals, though, such as reallocating a multiplex assigned to mobile television multiplex to the DTT process, thereby creating space for new entrants. Three multiplexes will now be offered instead of two.

However, ICASA’s proposed multiplex allocation is problematic. The first multiplex will be used mainly by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), with ten percent being allocated to community television (the only proposed allocation for this tier of television broadcasting). The other two multiplexes will be assigned to existing and new commercial broadcasters, including a new subscription and free to air broadcaster.

This proposed assignment will lead to a de facto reduction of the proportion of the spectrum available to public and community television. Currently, public service and commercial free to air television command roughly the same proportion of the spectrum. But according to the Right 2 Know Campaign and Cape Town TV, the new regulations will lead to 74 percent per cent of the airwaves being set aside for commercial use, while three per cent is set aside for community use, three per cent for unallocated use and 20 per cent for public service broadcasting use.

This proposed allocation clearly makes nonsense of the policy of three tiers of broadcasting: a policy that is already on a weak footing. As a regulatory intervention implicitly designed to reassign common property rights to the private domain, thereby advancing corporate interests, the draft regulations will weaken public and community television even further. Given South Africa’s unsustainably high levels of joblessness and inequality, at least 50 percent of the digitised spectrum should be allocated for non-commercial use.

ICASA seems to be making the assumption that increased competition will lead to increased diversity and access by all social strata to a wide range of viewpoints. The equation of competition with diversity is misplaced. Media organisations are notoriously susceptible to the ‘hotelling’ effect, where competitors tend to imitate one another’s products if there is non-price competition between advertiser funded media, which can quickly lead to them offering ‘more of the same’.

In fact, the draft regulations may well lead to increased competition combined with reduced diversity, which will represent a missed opportunity for the digital transition to broaden the public sphere.

ICASA has also proposed that broadcasters will be allowed to broadcast in standard and/ or high definition formats. The latter chews up bandwidth; in fact, ICASA has estimated that each multiplex can carry 16 standard definition or six high definition channels.

Commercially-orientated broadcasters may well opt for High Definition Television (HDTV), which will allow them to attract upper income brackets who already have access to high definition-enabled sets.

However, the HDTV proposition may make the digital transition harder to achieve. Countries undergoing digital migration often have to make trade-offs between prioritising HDTV or emphasising multichannel offerings to encourage voluntary digital take-up: trade-offs that remain relevant in spite of the improved compression standard.

South Africa faces the particularly difficult challenge of encouraging voluntary take-up of digital television in a short space of time. If viewers are to be persuaded to buy set top boxes - which will be necessary to continue television viewing after the conversion process - then there needs to be demonstrable benefits. Broadcasters will need to provide relevant multichannel offerings that speak to the country’s news, informational and entertainments needs and interests on a mass scale.

The ultimate deadline of 2015 for converting from analogue to digital television is a mere three years away. Yet a serious national conversation about what viewers - as opposed to technocrats, government, or broadcasters - actually want out of the process has not even begun.

Marxist geographer David Harvey’s concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ could be used to describe what is taking place in South African television. Harvey developed the concept to theorise the main drivers of contemporary capitalist accumulation in the wake of the worldwide diffusion of neoliberal policies.

Unlike accumulation through production, where wealth is created through productive activity, accumulation by dispossession involves opening up new spheres of accumulation, converting non or de-commodified assets into wealth-generating ones. Accumulation by dispossession can take place through the expropriation and commercial exploitation of tangible assets, like land, or less tangible ones, like the frequency spectrum. In the case of South Africa’s digital television system, what is being dispossessed is symbolic capital.

According to Municipal IQ, South Africa experienced more protests in July than any month since 2004. This upsurge of protests, with high levels of youth involvement, suggests that the media are failing to provide meaningful channels for the expression of grievances in a manner that forces those in positions of authority to sit up and take note.

Furthermore, in the face of the rising tide of class struggle, many governments have become wary of putting information and communications tools in the hands of the working poor and the unemployed, and South Africa is no exception.

Unless the migration process redistributes access to the spectrum more justly, then viewers may refuse to buy set top boxes. If the popular will is exercised in this way, then the migration process will stall. The government cannot risk alienating large numbers of viewers by forcing a switch-off prematurely, or they may have another e-tolling fiasco on their hands.

In spite of the fact that ordinary viewers have been largely absent from the elite machinations around the migration, they hold great power in the process. State institutions underestimate this power at their peril.

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Professor Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.

  • This article appeared on the South African Civil Society Information