Tuesday, January 5, 2016

40th BIRTHDAY: South African television marks its 40th anniversary today since the first nationwide TV broadcast of the SABC on 5 January 1976.

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Television in South Africa turns 40 years old today with the SABC TV service that marks its 40th anniversary since the very first nationwide broadcast on 5 January 1976 when Dorianne Berry and Heinrich Marnitz welcomed viewers to the "opening night" of TV in the country.

The past four decades saw the SABC's television offering going through various channel permutations with the South African public broadcaster currently providing 5 TV channels in the form of SABC1, SABC2, SABC3 and then two channels – SABC News and the archive rerun channel SABC Encore – produced exclusively for MultiChoice's DStv satellite pay-TV platform.

The past 4 decades in South Africa also saw the launch of pay-TV with pay-TV broadcaster M-Net (that will be turning 30 years old in October), together with MultiChoice's DStv and StarTimes Media SA's StarSat as satellite pay-TV offerings.

Services like Platco Digital's OpenView HD free-to-air satellite service in addition to a growing plethora of video-on-demand (VoD) services like Naspers' ShowMax, Times Media’s struggling VIDI, MTN’s VU and PCCW Global's ONTAPtv.com are enhancing consumer choice in South Africa’s growing videosphere. 

Meanwhile the global streaming giant Netflix that told me that it will be launching in South Africa before the end of this year.

The 40th anniversary milestone comes as the SABC that introduced television in South Africa continues to lurch from crisis to crisis four decades later.

Currently the largely rudderless South African Broadcasting Corporation sits with a suspended CEO off the job just 4 months after being appointed to a position that was vacant for a year and a half, a chief operating officer (COO) mired in protracted court cases and who wants journalists "licensed", a gutted SABC board, a reported loss of R403 million for the latest financial year, and with a looming controversial Broadcasting Amendment Bill set to change the SABC from a public broadcaster to a state broadcaster under the control of the minister of communications and the president.

The SABC isn't today celebrating the 40th anniversary since its first national TV broadcast was done from Auckland Park – complete with studio curtains and in colour – but the milestone is highly significant as the South Africa's television industry is hovering on the verge of the biggest sea change since the introduction of what dr. Albert Hertzog, the then minister for posts and telegraphs, called "the devil's own box".

In 2016 the long-delayed commercial switch from analogue to digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasting will simply have to start in South Africa after the country missed the internationally agreed to deadline for the switch-off of analogue TV signals by June 2015.

Government incompetence over years, a lack of leadership with the process over the past decade, as well as a wayward department of communications are blamed for the shambolic DTT quagmire.

SA's digital TV challenges
While DTT will ring in the biggest sistemic change for South Africa’s television industry since the medium started in 1976 and will bring ordinary South African TV viewers access to many more TV channels from e.tv and M-Net in addition to the SABC's 5 existing channels, big problems and challenges await in South African television's 40th anniversary year.

While millions of poor South African TV viewers qualify to get a government-subsidised set-top box (STB) – a compulsory decoder necessary to receive and watch digital television – these TV households without a SABC TV licence and who can't pay for an annual licence are already being denied a STB.

This will see thousands of TV households cut off in a TV market where viewers can't get enough of their beloved local South Africa weekday soap operas, impacting things like TV ratings, audience measurement and advertising.

As channels and new broadcasters under DTT are rolled out it will also lead to the biggest demand for TV content since the start of TV in South Africa in four decades ago.

Lost in the squabble over STB contracts and tenders, numerous digital migration standards and regulation amendments, as well as industry infighting and broadcaster litigation, has been the discussion about the actual TV content – what it will be, the financial cost to produce and acquire it, and where it will come from to fill new schedules.

While broadcasters like the SABC, e.tv and M-Net will each transmit more channels leading to further fragmentation of the existing TV audience, advertisers, agencies and ad buyers will battle with having to slice their existing ad spend to try and capture ever thinning audiences spread out over more channels.

Meanwhile local broadcasters will have to pay for foreign content and produce more local content for new TV channels to try and entice South African viewers to switch to DTT – burning through content that will have to be good enough to make viewers feel they need to switch in order to make the digital migration process successful, although these channels will not initially have a lot of viewers to make its existence commercially feasible.

Digital television will ironically require a huge capital investment for South Africa's broadcasters in their own new TV content that won't be initially seen by a lot of viewers.

Broadcasters will also have to continue to pay for "dual illumination": broadcasting a DTT version of their existing and new TV channels' signals but also continuing to transmit in parallel, the analogue signals of existing TV channels for a period of a few years until these analogue signals can be switched off.

This switch-off can only take place when the bulk of millions of TV households have eventually bought or received a set-top box and switched over … in a country where roughly two-thirds of all TV households don't even have or pay for a SABC TV licence.