Tuesday, July 17, 2018

e.tv and the SABC silent over the drop-off danger and the threat of disappearing audiences in South Africa's digital terrestrial TV switch-over.

South Africa's two biggest free-to-air broadcasters - e.tv and the SABC - are both silent over the looming danger, and the horrific implications for their respective audience ratings, when millions of viewers nationwide could be disappearing in the country's switch-over to digital terrestrial television (DTT) as the government warns that it is nearing the point where it will start shutting down analogue signals for entire provinces.

With South Africa's stalled decade-long switch from analogue to digital TV broadcasting - a process known as digital migration - moving forward with lurching imprecision, the department of communications last week announced that it plans to switch off all analogue TV signals to the entire Free State province.

Also of concern is that the minister of communications's new Broadcasting Digital Migration Advisory Council that have representatives from broadcasters and the TV industry, doesn't include any members who are directly representing the South African viewing public or civic organisations that are representing public broadcasting interests.

Nomvula Mokonyane, the minister of communications, last week warned that in the "the countdown to the Free State Province switch-off by December 2018" that people in this province need to get their set-top box (STB) they need to continue watching the SABC and e.tv's free TV channels.

The South African government, after missing the international June 2015 deadline to complete the process, is now under pressure to try and make its next self-imposed deadline of June 2019 to switch off all analogue TV signals nationally.

Only people receiving social grants and those earning less than R3 200 per month qualify for a free, government subsidised STB.

Struggling South African families in the so-called "middle income group" - those earning more than R3 200 but less than R6 500 - as well as those earning more, are getting no government support and will have to buy a STB costing around R700 or a new integrated digital TV set.

Many of these TV households don't know that they qualify for a free STB, don't know that they need to buy one or about the DTT process, or can't afford to suddenly buy a STB even if they earn more than R3 200.

TV households who don't switch will be cut off and lose the existing free SABC, e.tv and community TV channels they've been watching when analogue signals get cut.

The looming problem comes in when the department of communications starts to cut off whole provinces, like its plan for the Free State come December 2018, when thousands of TV households either haven't switched to using a government-subsidised STB, or haven't bought one because they don't know about it or can't afford it.

How many will disappear from the TV ratings universe?
That will not just lead to analogue TV households losing public access to existing free-to-air TV channels, but e.tv and the SABC as broadcasters losing swathes of viewers who will completely drop out of existence from the overall so-called "TV universe" - the sampling of South African households with a TV set making up the matrix used for compiling the country's national TV ratings.

The South African government is supposed to keep both analogue and its parallel DTT signals going - a process known as "dual illumination" - until the bulk of existing analogue TV households have migrated and it's safe to switch analogue off.

With its announced December 2018 shut-down deadline for the Free State, it appears that the department of communications will switch off analogue signals even if the bulk of Free State province TV households have not switched to DTT in just 4 months' time.

It's not clear how TV ratings services and the Broadcasting Research Council of South Africa (BRCSA) - overseeing radio and television audience measurement research and TV ratings for broadcasters, as well as the advertising and marketing industry - are going to handle the issue of the potential drop-off and disappearance of millions of viewers watching public TV channels when their access to analogue signals are taken away.

A week ago Vasili Vass, eMedia Investments group head of corporate affairs, was asked for comment as to whether it's a concern for e.tv, given that a sizeable chunk of TV audience watching e.tv are making use of analogue TV signals and might simply disappear if they have not switched to DTT.

e.tv was also asked for the broadcaster's view on how the switch from analogue to DTT might impact e.tv in terms of possible loss of its available audience because of the swith, but Vasili Vass didn't respond to the written media enquiry.

Last week the SABC was asked the same questions regarding the viewing audience of the public broadcaster watching SABC channels through its analogue signals, and the threat of audiences vanishing when analogue is switched off before viewers have switched over.

SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago likewise didn't respond to the written media enquiry.

'A real problem' William Bird, director at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), told TVwithThinus that it's a problem that the public interest isn't represented on the minister of communications' Digital Broadcasting Advisory Council.

"This is indeed a real problem - it means that the public interest is likely to be marginalised in favour of what works for big industry. This is a real problem. We are working on it," he said.

Speaking about DTT and STBs William Bird said "the real question is whether DTT is already dead in the water".

"MMA's view is that its time has passed and we need to be looking to other methods, specifically satellite and broadband to ensure connection for all and to ensure that all people have access to free-to-air services."

"Satellite is already in more than 50% of all homes in South Africa. The costs for reaching all people with DTT are massively prohibitive and will also involve upgrading equipment that is already out of date as well as doing more work on the actual spectrum."

"We see form international experience that DTT will be gone from many countries in the not too distant future."

Meanwhile Marian Shinn, the Democratic Alliance (DA) political party's member of parliament looking after telecommunications, says the Broadcasting Digital Migration Advisory Council "seems to be aimed only at delivering the short-term goal of analogue broadcasting switch-off to the Free State by December 2018, as well as chalking up a pre-election 'achievement for the 2019 general election".

According to Marian Shinn, the minister of communications Nomvula Mokonyane, "ducked out of a joint meeting of the portfolio committees on communications and telecommunications and postal services scheduled for 5 June to discuss the status of the broadcasting digital migration programme".

"The committees' last had a progress report from the former minister of communications, Faith Muthambi, in September 2016".

"The DA once again repeats the callfor a 2-day public hearing in parliament to comprehensively review the entire broadcasting digital migration programme," she said.

"The hearings should look at the full cost of implementing the programme and how this will be funded, determine whether the corrupted government-sponsored STB-programme should be scrapped in favour of integrated digital TV sets [and] how the programme will be funded".

"We also need to know whether to upgrade signal distributor Sentech's terrestrialdigital transmission infrastructure, which has been largely unused since it was erected to meet the International Telecommunications Union's analogue switch-off deadline of 17 June 2015, or switch the entire digital broadcasting programme to satellite transmission."

"The switch-off of the analogue broadcasting signal is extremely urgent to free up desperately needed spectrum for mobile broadband use, but it would be foolish and probably wasteful to focus only on ways to now fast-track an outdated, corrupted, and inadequately-funded process," Mariann Shinn said.