9 March 2023
Cape Town TV signals alarm at imminent analogue switch-off
The government is intent on going ahead with the switch-off of analogue TV broadcasting (ASO) at the end of March 2023, according to the outgoing Minister of Communications and Digital Technology Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, despite the very real threat it poses to free-to-air TV broadcasters. This is because there are simply not enough TV viewers on the digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) platform to make it sustainable.
As Station Manager Karen Thorne explains, “Minister Ntshavheni has chosen to disregard submissions made to her by Cape Town TV and other affected parties in January 2023 concerning solutions which would keep some analogue transmissions on air in the major metropolitan areas while still freeing-up frequencies for mobile operators.
“The Constitutional Count required the Minister to engage with “affected parties” before determining the ASO date, which grouping includes the free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters and civil society organisations such as the SoS campaign, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and the SaveFreeTV coalition.
“The Minister’s idea of consultation was to request submissions on the ASO date that she has set and then to send a response saying that she doesn’t agree with anything we said and that she is going ahead with the gazette date of 31 March. A basic reading of the Administrative Justice Act makes it clear that this kind of dismissive interaction does not constitute meaningful consultation.”
Thorne says that what no one is talking about, including the Minister herself, is that a compromise solution has already been mooted in ICASA’s Joint Spectrum Advisory Group (JSAG) which includes Sentech, ICASA and FTA operators.
Thorne reports that JSAG has been working on migrating broadcast transmissions to frequencies under the 694MHz range in order to free-up the frequencies in the 700MHz and 800MHz ranges for mobile operators.
“The Minister cites the 2015 ITU deadline to switch-off all analogue TV broadcasting which South Africa failed to do eight years ago. What she is not telling you is that most countries in Africa are still broadcasting on analogue for similar reasons – so that argument does not stand up to scrutiny.”
As Thorne points out, the SABC, eTV, community TV and civil society watchdogs SoS and MMA are all in agreement that a hard switch-off will have a devastating impact on public interest, free-to-air TV which stands to lose 50 – 70 % of its viewers if the ASO goes ahead as currently scheduled.
“While Minister Ntshavheni likes to focus media attention on her obligation to roll-out 1.5 million set top boxes (STB) to indigent households, she ignores the ‘missing middle’ including the vast majority of South Africans who earn over R3,500 per month and who don’t qualify for subsidised STBs.
“These people will be forced to subscribe to pay TV platforms such as DStv or free satellite TV platforms such as e-Media’s OpenView which does not include Community TV channels. Alternatively they will have to buy a new digital TV with a built-in tuner which starts out at R4,000.The government’s failure to impose a ban on the import of analogue TVs, which they should have done years ago, has meant that SA has become a global dumping ground for old tech. Consumers can also try to get their hands on a STB which is hard to come by due to a global chip shortage although they are available at online stores such as Takealot.
“With the rising costs of energy, food and other basic necessities, we are concerned that the majority of South Africans will not be able to afford to migrate and an estimated 11 million people could be left behind. A phased switch-off will be less disruptive and allow broadcasters to do more effective communication allowing viewers to migrate over a longer period of time.”
Thorne believes that the Communication and Awareness Campaign sponsored by the DCDT, “was rushed, solely focused on indigent households, contained negative messaging relating to the switch-off and failed to motivate and incentivise people to want what Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) has to offer”.
Meanwhile, she says that FTA broadcasters are getting the jitters that the ASO could spell the end of public service broadcasting television in South Africa which will remove a hard-won cornerstone of democracy.
Cape Town TV stands to lose 50 – 60 % of its viewers, potentially reducing its audience from two million to less than a million. Given that commercial income accounts for 60% of the station’s income, this would be a devastating blow to the community broadcaster.
Nevertheless, Thorne says that the recent removal of Ntshavheni as the Minister of Communications offers a glimmer of hope that the new Minister, Mondli Gungubele, will listen to what affected parties are saying, look out for the interests of the South African public and protect public interest television in South Africa.