South Africa

South Africa

Coming soon to your TV screen: The Political Hunger Games

Coming soon to your TV screen: The Political Hunger Games

If there is anything the success of Oscar Trial Channel revealed, it is the appetite in South Africa for live television coverage of big news events. It is no longer soapies and talk shows that get the highest television audiences. Even reality TV shows are so 2002. In the digital age, the only thing that can outdo live blogs and Twitter updates is live television visuals of big events. Now the ANC wants to cash in on the movement in the TV market and is proposing that Parliament set up a 24-hour free-to-air channel so people around the country can watch their elected representatives in full throttle. If you think there’s too much in the way of theatrics now, imagine what WWF: Parliament Edition will be like. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The ANC resolved at a caucus lekgotla last week to get Parliament to set up a free-to-air television channel and a radio station that will keep the business of the legislature rolling 24 hours a day. There is already a parliamentary channel on the DSTV platform, but because of high subscription costs, this precludes the vast majority of the population from being able to view the channel.

City Press reported that the ANC also wants the SABC to resume broadcasting National Assembly debates. (This had been stopped due to financial constraints at the public broadcaster.) With all the abnormalities raging at the SABC presently, and decision-making vested with the all powerful COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng, it is likely that the ANC’s proposal would be considered favourably.

Radio has the highest penetration in the country, at 90% of the population, but there is no dedicated parliamentary radio channel. It is the largest platform for news and current affairs, but the business of Parliament features like any other story when it makes the news.

It might seem as if the ANC proposals are all in the interest of transparency and promoting access to information, but there is obviously vested interest in this move. There are currently three South African 24-hour news channels, eNCA, SABC News and ANN7, all on the DSTV bouquet. All three tap into the feed of the parliamentary channel for major events and debates but most of the business of Parliament, particularly committee meetings, is not screened. The SABC broadcasts highlights from Parliament in a show called View from the House, but as this is a packaged half-hour morning show, it just skims the top of the previous day’s events.

Television bulletins broadcast the main news from Parliament, mostly capturing who had the strongest soundbites. When you analyse what, or rather who, makes news, the motive behind the ANC’s latest move is uncovered.

Since the establishment of the fifth democratic Parliament, the news has been dominated by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), both for their fiery speeches and theatrics in the House. As the third largest party in Parliament, even the SABC cannot overlook what they say and what they do in the House. In two-to-three minute news segments, the EFF almost always features in stories from Parliament – several of which have been about their MPs getting kicked out of the House.

Despite being the biggest and most influential news organisation in the country, the SABC is struggling to compete for audience share on its 24-hour channel. Viewership figures for June 2014 show that eNCA captured 51% of the audience share while SABC News only had 17%. British news channel SkyNews had 11%, followed by ANN7 at 7% and CNN at 6%. So while the SABC, egged on by Motsoeneng, might try to project government and the ANC in a more favourable light, its audience share does not ensure maximum impact. ANN7, the channel owned by President Jacob Zuma’s friends, the Gupta family, is also government-friendly, but its audience share is negligible.

The multiple crises at the SABC are now resulting in major organisations seeking alternate broadcast platforms. City Press ran a bombshell story on Sunday that the South African Football Association (SAFA) sold the rights to all Bafana Bafana and Banyana Banyana matches to a yet-to-be-established channel called Siyaya TV for R1 billion. The public broadcaster’s agreement with SAFA expires at the end of April next year, and the new station only begins operating from June 2015. The deal is likely to stir controversy in government and the SABC about why the national teams’ games will now be broadcast on a Pay-TV channel.

But through the resolutions taken at its parliamentary caucus lekgotla, it is clear that the ANC is mindful that it is struggling to keep its voice and messaging afloat in a competitive broadcast marketplace. In terms of news from Parliament, even though the EFF are being projected as troublesome noisemakers, they are being firmly entrenched into the body politic and raising their profile. The ANC’s “good story” narrative, on the other hand, is not getting the play they want.

The ANC is now revisiting proposals from its National General Council in 2010, when it had big ambitions about revolutionising the airwaves. Its report on Information and Communications Technology stated that the advent of digitalisation would enable the establishment of a fully-fledged parliamentary channel, as well as the creation of channels reflective of provinces and regions.

“The fundamental challenge remains the funding structure of the public broadcasting services and the attendant inability of the SABC to fund these services. If these services are important policy [sic] must resolve the funding question, paving the way for the state to deliver in the near future,” the document stated.

On the issue of funding, the document stated: “Public contributions to the revenues of the SABC still remain at about 20%, and the 60% percent quota called for by the resolution (from previous ANC national conferences) remains a distant possibility with profound impact on the nature and extent of services provided by the SABC. In essence the SABC output remains commercial programming aimed at getting viewers whom it sells to the advertisers in a vicious circle that leaves no room for developmental programming.”

However, priorities shifted at the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Manguang, and while the resolutions mapped out the need to review the SABC’s broadcasting system and funding model, there was no specific mention of a “fully-fledged parliamentary channel”. The final resolutions did however state the need for “the provision of additional channels, including 24-hour news, sport, educational and all indigenous language programming”.

This year saw a competitive election campaign, during which political parties competed for space on the SABC platforms and the Democratic Alliance and EFF even had their adverts banned. All parties are already gearing for an aggressive local government election campaign, where they will no doubt compete for airtime again.

The prospect of a 24-hour parliamentary channel, however, will play in favour of the ANC. With 62% of the vote, the ANC has a proportionate amount of speaking time in parliamentary debates. ANC MPs also outnumber all other parties in committee meetings and can therefore hog the space if cameras are rolling throughout the meetings.

Such a channel will allow the ANC to showcase its performance, rather than having to compete with opposition MPs for time on news bulletins. People around the country will be able to see their elected representatives in full cry free of charge. Of course this is beneficial to the democratic process as ordinary people who have no access to law-making and parliamentary debates would be able to watch this all day, every day.

There is always a danger that there will be even more theatrics and grandstanding for the benefit of television audiences, and less focus on the daily grind of Parliament. The last thing South Africa needs is more showmanship in politics.

On the other hand, heated parliamentary debates could provide live entertainment for millions of people sitting at home unable to find jobs, and could possibly be a mass antidote for insomnia.

But there is a broader, less obvious strategy into which the move for a 24-hour parliamentary channel fits. After the May elections, the ANC’s senior-most leaders, including the president, were furious with the mainstream media for perceived bias against the ANC. The media space is evolving with more and more ANC and government-friendly owners influencing the editorial slant. Independent broadcasters and publishers are being pushed to the periphery. The state is using its advertising power to support compliant media houses. This is making news production for independent players increasingly difficult in a harsh financial climate.

Add into the mix a free-to-air channel funded by the state that gives politicians a perpetual speaking platform, undiluted by the mass media. It is yet another move to counter critical and impartial journalism in the country. Pretty shrewd too, if you think about it. DM


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