In 2008, we were promised the dawn of a new, golden age in broadcasting. Digital terrestrial television (DTT), we were told, would open South Africa up to High Density (HD) television as a standard, better audio quality in the language of our choice and even being able to use our televisions to access government e-services. More importantly, perhaps, the advent of DTT promised more channels, particularly on the South African public broadcaster, the SABC, for public oriented programming.
Being, perhaps, the single largest information and mass communication medium in the country, with a penetration of about 10.7m of the 14.7m households in the country, the SABC plays a critical role in facilitating a national dialogue about the society we imagine for ourselves. Through public programming, it also offers a new hope for the majority of these households who would otherwise have no meaningful access to information on what possibilities exist for them to unlock the opportunities which will enrich their lives.
Five years later, the promise of digital doesn’t look any realer a possibility as it did in 2008. Instead, as a direct result of an inordinately high turn-over of Ministers of Communication and a lack of strong and decisive leadership, DTT is being swiftly overtaken by an inexorable influx of profit-driven commercial satellite broadcasters to the detriment of public programming.
The rate at which DTT is (not) unfolding in South Africa shows a picture of a project in crisis. The digital dream for South Africans has effectively become a digital disaster for both the SABC and ordinary people alike:
- In the last year alone, we’ve seen the DTT commercial launch date change no less than four times;
- The manufacture of the set-top boxes (STBs) (or decoders) that would enable the public to receive the new digital signal on their televisions has been interdicted by a commercial broadcaster whose sister-company is an emerging satellite broadcaster set on locking users to its own platform;
- Because of the choice it offers, subscription satellite broadcasting services are swiftly becoming ubiquitous across affluent suburbs and low income townships alike; and
- All too little is being done to equip the SABC, the institution tasked with the singularly important task of delivering public programming that reflects, re-imagines and empowers the public it serves, with the ability to provide additional channels that will incentivize public take-up of the new technology.
And all this to the detriment of the public broadcaster and, more importantly, public programming which carries inherent public value!
Right now, more than ever, we need brave and decisive leadership from the DoC. A kind of leadership which fully appreciates the ground DTT has lost to commercial satellite broadcasting and the impact this will have on, most especially, poor and indigent households. A kind of leadership that will save public programming in the public interest so that no-one is left behind before this inherent public value is altogether lost.
This column was first published in the October print edition of ScreenAfrica.