It’s no secret that we over at htxt.africa are pretty much addicted to the news cycle that the SABC’s Board and its
COO Group Executive of Corporate Affairs Hlaudi Motsoeneng provide.
In just over a six month period, we’ve seen journalists sacked, protest footage removed from news broadcasts, a flop of concert, a song thanking Motsoeneng and the board for taking unilateral decisions about broadcast content and some of the most eyebrow-raising quotes from any public official all year. The SABC’s news cycle is about as bonkers as Donald Trump’s.
So when the news emerged today that the SABC has made a request to Icasa that it be allowed to decide when prime time news is broadcast, we have to confess, our ears did prick up.
Given the fact that the news is one of the most watched programs the SABC broadcasts, any initiative to allow the broadcaster to move it to a lesser time-slot seemed (at least initially) a little worrying.
If Icasa ruled in its favour, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the SABC could decide to screen its TV news bulletins early in the day (say 11am or midday) when most people are at work and not able to watch them. While this move wouldn’t appear as brazen as say, banning footage of violent protests from news bulletins, it would mean that a large audience who depends on TV news for their fix on current events would find it more difficult to watch bulletins.
Could this be the SABC’s latest attempt to make sure bad news reached as few people as possible? On further investigation, however, we found that the SABC’s motion to gain complete autonomy of when its news is broadcast may be a little more commercially minded.
“For the SABC the move is less about censorship and more about massively declining audiences and seeking to retain advertising revenue. News is down generally, for audience figures. This isn’t only for broadcasters but print media too. So partly the application is a response to the digital revolution, and an effort to make more money through advertising if they broadcast more popular shows during prime time,” says Thandi Smith, Head of Policy Unit at Media Monitoring Africa
She also points out that eTV applied to Icasa in April this year to have its broadcast license amended so that it too could broadcast the news outside of the prime time slot.
“The SABC and eTV news audiences have seen a decline over the last few years and they stand to make more money through advertising if they broadcast more popular shows during prime time,” Smith says. “One of the reasons for this move by the SABC and eTV is that more and more audience members are getting their news through on-demand services – apps and websites.”
It’s true that news on-demand is growing in South Africa. It’s also hardly news to hear TV shows like Generations or Game Of Thrones knock news broadcasts out of the box when it comes to the ratings game, and it follows that the more viewers a broadcaster can attract to its prime time slot, the more it can charge for advertising.
This logic appears to be in line with a statement SABC CEO James Aguma made at an earnings briefing a month ago,.
“There are certain events that we can’t avoid, of national interest because we are a public broadcaster,” Aguma said at the time. “So we would go and broadcast events, but when we come back to the advertisers, they’d say there is no revenue, but the public is interested in it.”
That having been said, viewership stats put isiZulu iziNdaba, Afrikaans Nuus and English News among the top ten most viewed broadcasts on SABC’s free-to-air channels. Furthermore there may be some TV license owners who think that if the SABC needs to recoup cash, it could slash the exorbitant salaries it pays some of its board members, starting with Motsoeneng, who at R4.2 million for the last financial year earns more than President Zuma.
But even if the decision to fill prime time exclusively with shows that draw the biggest audiences possible is good business sense, one can’t help but feel it’ll have a negative impact on those viewers who don’t have access to the news outside of that time slot.
“The unfortunate side-effect is that those viewers who depend on TV for their news will be the losers, as they will miss out on coverage, if Icasa rules that the networks can decide when it is broadcast,” Smith says.
“It is a difficult decision as we can see the logic in seeing to shift away from prime time, but at the same time we have to address declining engagement with news in traditional formats- ie. broadcast and print. These really are the debates we should be having in South Africa. Instead, sadly thanks to the greed and fascist tendencies of some within the SABC we have had to focus on basic freedom of expression issues,” she says.
“What is clear is that every time news media credibility is dented it impacts all news media, so as much as people might get their news form digital media, the importance and necessity of journalists is even more essential in a digital age.”