by Thinus Ferreira
South Africa's TV ratings system risks getting damaged by the government's hard switch-off approach of analogue TV signal transmitters in communities across South Africa, which could leave millions of TV households without television access who haven't switched to digital terrestrial television (DTT) and who haven't received a free government set-top box (STB) or can't buy one.
It is estimated that there are more than 3 million South African TV households who are still on the analogue television platform.
These 3 million analogue TV households - in a new staggered monthly cut-off approach - are set to lose access to their TV signal over the next 9 months, with the process that could inflict damage to South Africa's TV ratings system and the so-called "TV households universe".
As a country South Africa has the most credible TV ratings system on the African continent for compiling daily, weekly and monthly viewership numbers for broadcasters and advertisers.
South Africa's TV rating system is the envy of other African markets where broadcasters, international TV channel distributors and advertisers are often forced to operate in the dark and have to make best-estimated guesses based on parsing other related marketing data and research in the absence of similarly comprehensive ratings data.
Now the credibility of the numbers-crunching used to compile ratings data for South African TV viewership is under threat after the country's department of communications and digital technologies have published a new list of analogue TV transmitters in various provinces being switched off, and that has started in the Free State this week.
The big issue is that the department - that is more than a decade late in completing the digital migration process from analogue to digital terrestrial television in South Africa - is now switching off analogue signals in succession in provinces but before all analogue viewers have actually switched over to digital TV.
That will wipe an as yet undetermined number of TV viewers every month from now on from the total TV universe on which the current TV ratings metric is based and that is tallied using installed People Meters in homes across the country.
Meanwhile millions of DTT set-top boxes are gathering dust in South African Post Office warehouses that haven't been distributed to qualifying poorest households, with many more TV households who don't qualify for a free one and who have to spend their own money to buy an STB or new digital-signal enabled TV set.
Hard switch-off approach
The department's original digital migration plan stated that analogue transmitters won't be switched off before all viewers haven't been migrated to DTT successfully. The department has now switched to a "hard switch-off" approach where TV households simply lose access if they haven't switched and transmitters are switched off.
With the long-drawn-out process, the department and minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, are under huge pressure to complete the DTT migration in order to make the dividend of frequencies available after the switch away from analogue TV for things like next-generation mobile data systems like 5G.
The Broadcasting Research Council of South Africa (BRCSA) as the custodian body of the country's TV ratings system hasn't yet responded to a media enquiry made earlier this week seeking comment about the potential impact on South Africa's TAMS and how the ratings system is going to be impacted.
Analogue viewers who don't have access to digital TV are who are getting cut off monthly will have to be removed from the existing TV universe data as well.
It's unclear how the BRCSA will have to change or adjust the existing TV universe when analogue-only TV households start to disappear and lose access to television in the real world.
Free-to-air broadcasters like the SABC with its SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 channels, and eMedia Investments with its free-to-air commercial channel e.tv, are likely to be impacted the most if they have to adjust advertising rate cards to lower 30 second-ad spot pricing if ratings are lowered because the existing TV universe shrinks.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on Tuesday in a statement revealed the new timeline for analogue signals to be cut and said that "it is anticipated that this process, which will be done province-by-province, will be completed by the end of March 2022".
On Monday the analogue TV signal was switched off in Boesmanskop and surrounding towns like Vanstadensrus, Zastron and Rouxville in the Xhariep District Municipality in the Eastern Free State near the Lesotho border.
That was followed on Tuesday by Ladybrand and the surrounding towns like Hobhouse, Tweespruit and Clocolan all losing their analogue TV signal. People who haven't switched to digital TV - mostly the poor people in rural communities - now have no access to television.
According to the department, the switch-off plans are to end analogue signals in the Free State by end of March 2021, Northern Cape by end of April 2021, Northern Cape by end of April 2021, the North West, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape provinces by end of May 2021, Kwa-Zulu Natal by end of July 2021, the Western Cape by end of November 2021, Limpopo by end of December 2021, and finally Gauteng by end of January 2022.
"The department is collaborating with provincial governments and district municipalities to recruit local installers of government-subsided decoders in order to accelerate the implementation of the broadcasting digital migration," said Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams in the statement.
Poor households with a combined household income of less than R3 200 can get a free set-top box.
TV households who do not qualify for free government decoders have to buy an STB or an integrated digital television (IDTV) set that has DTT decoding capability built-in.