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Free-to-air TV faces a digital cliff as analogue switch...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Please be patient — we have a problem… free-to-air TV faces a digital cliff as analogue switch-off looms

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Michael Aldridge is the Broadcast and Regulatory Affairs Manager for Cape Town TV and is one of the station's founders. He has worked in the field of community television as an activist, researcher and practitioner for more than 20 years and has an MA degree in Cultural and Media Studies from the University of KZN.

The rapidly looming analogue switch-off has the potential to make or break free-to-air television in South Africa.

Free-to-air television in South Africa is facing a precipitous cliff as viewer numbers stand to fall drastically if the analogue switch-off (ASO) goes ahead as planned on 31 March 2022. Many current TV viewers are going to wake up on April Fool’s Day to find themselves without any signal on their TV sets.

The sad fact is that most TV households in the high population areas of Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and their major towns and cities do not have the equipment to receive digital TV signals by the time of the ASO. While government messaging is driving the uptake of digital pay-TV, the fate of digital terrestrial transmission (DTT) looks grim, along with that of the free-to-air TV channels that make up the platform’s content offering.

The digital migration process, known as the Broadcast Digital Migration (BDM) has been dragging on for the past 20 years after the ASO was initially set for November 2011. The past two decades have seen a number of swerves in government policy concerning the migration, several court cases, battles between broadcasters, numerous failed deadlines for the ASO, corruption and interference by commercially vested interest groups to stymie the process.

The consequences of the above actions have not only delayed the ASO. The state signal distributor, Sentech, has been obliged to roll out its digital transmission infrastructure to reach 80% of the population, but now this infrastructure is obsolete and in need of upgrade. The DTT set-top box decoders were manufactured around 2015 — they are also obsolete, there have been no over-the-air upgrades to their software, there is no support for them and they do not deliver a reliable signal because they were not built to receive the high bitrate at which Sentech sends the digital signal. At least one of the local companies that manufactured these devices has gone bankrupt because of the delayed ASO.

One of the primary reasons for the BDM is the freeing-up of frequency spectrum for use by telecommunications providers. These companies have long complained that they cannot reduce the costs of cellular communications without having access to this spectrum and more court cases have erupted as the telcos have fought with Icasa about the nature and timing of the spectrum release.

The long delay in achieving the ASO and releasing spectrum has caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to prioritise these objectives, as he stated in his State of the Nation Address in 2021. Dismayed with the failure of previous Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams to get the job done, Ramphosa has fired up his new minister in the portfolio, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni to bulldoze through the process.

While South Africans can welcome the efforts of the Ramaphosa team to unblock the logjam and free up frequencies to be used for telecommunications and reducing the costs thereof, the fact is that South Africans are not adequately prepared for the DTT transition and this is going to hurt free-to-air television audiences and broadcasters alike, while the pay-TV operators are laughing all the way to the bank.

MultiChoice and OVHD report receiving thousands of new applications every day, but the roll-out of DTT reception equipment is proceeding very slowly. Of the 1.5 million DTT decoders that the government had manufactured, less than half (616,871) have actually been installed countrywide. In Gauteng, the figure is only 115 decoders, and in the Western Cape it is only 62 (figures from DCDT report to Parliament on the BDM, February 2022). 

The number of digital TV sets with integrated tuners (IDTVs) and other local or grey-market import DTT decoders is unknown, but TV installers report a slow trickle of purchases, with one national specialist retailer reporting sales of DTT decoders at around 100-200 a month at each of their stores countrywide.

At the start of the BDM in 2006 the government estimated that some five million households would qualify for these decoders; this was later reduced to three million following lackadaisical uptake in the Free State, the second province after Northern Cape to have the SABC analogue transmissions switched off. Even if all of the existing stocks of government decoders are installed, that still leaves some 4.2 million households that have to either sign on to pay-TV platforms, buy a new digital TV set with integrated DTT tuner or find a local or imported grey-market (not SABS approved) DTT decoder.

The deeper problem is that there are not many DTT decoders in the market. The major retailers do not stock them due to what they say is a lack of demand, but there has been little marketing of the BDM before 2021 to drive consumer uptake of the DTT platform. Sentech was only recently tasked with the distribution and marketing of the government DTT decoders, but as a B2B operation the company has little experience of marketing to consumers. 

As an added hurdle to consumer marketing, the DTT platform competes against the pay-TV offerings of MultiChoice, OVHD and Starsat. But while the commercial operators market their platforms according to their overall content, the DTT platform is not marketed comprehensively on its overall content like the commercial platforms, but only as an improved technological mechanism for receiving broadcast TV.

Government, through its BDM steering committees, has driven a public awareness campaign about the looming ASO with the barest means possible. Its primary tool has been the SABC, running a ticker line across SABC channels advising of the coming deadline. Other mechanisms have been campaigns on community radio stations, visits to communities and use of social media. All of these have been used to drive the message of the BDM, its ability to drive the uptake of DTT has been constrained. 

It seems that what the government messaging is doing is driving people towards the main pay-TV platforms, these being DStv and OVHD. This is going to further diminish the potential DTT market, which bodes ill for the ongoing survival of this platform and hence is bad news for its operator, Sentech. 

The fact that only 36% of South Africa’s TV households are getting terrestrial signals already calls into question the utility of DTT as a means to transmit broadcast television and broadcasters are increasingly looking to satellite as the most cost-effective means of signal distribution. The further shrinkage of the consumer market through the shift to satellite pay-TV (or direct-to-home, DTH as it’s known) is going to further diminish the DTT market and make it even less of a viable proposition for national broadcasters.

The community TV sector is in even more of a bind. The sector is being forced to shift from local to provincial level broadcasting, with attendant astronomical increases in transmission costs. These costs will either destroy the sector or force it to radically change its business models towards a more commercial orientation at the expense of its developmental, public benefit obligations.

The reason for the shift is the architecture of the digital multiplex which carries the DTT signal. The twin multiplexes which currently operate in SA are built on single-frequency networks (SFN), which span provincial and even multi-provincial boundaries. The community channels which have hitherto been licensed to serve metropolitan audiences in Cape Town, Soweto, Tshwane and Richard’s Bay are forced to broadcast on all of the transmitters in these SFNs and to hire them at commercial rates. This will, for example, increase Cape Town TV’s transmission costs by 2,900%, a leap that represents a formidable hurdle for the channel.

Existing broadcasting policy stipulates that community TV stations must serve local audiences. In its Community TV Position Paper of 2004, Icasa stated its decision to license community local television broadcasting services in line with the authority’s Triple Inquiry Report, 1995, where it recognised the importance of community television and its “intention to license as many of these as technological and financial capability permits”. The authority continued that “as only one of the three tiers of broadcasting is being introduced at local level, there is no need to distinguish between different types of local television and it will be referred to henceforth as community television.”

Various issues concerning the licensing of community television stations are currently being discussed in the White Paper on Audio and Audio-Visual Content Services (AAVCS), but this is going to take a long time to finalise. The bottom line is that the community TV sector is being compelled to absorb the costs of maintaining Sentech’s DTT multiplexes in a way that directly contradicts the mandate under which these services were licensed. They are being forced to become regional broadcasters with the attendant costs while at the same time being non-profit organisations with strict public service content quotas.

Cape Town TV has put the issues of community TV localisation and costs in the DTT environment on the table for many years, but policy action has been very slow to emerge and is far from complete. This policy vacuum leaves the community TV sector in limbo after the ASO, with no clear direction on its regulation or funding support. While the DCDT came up with a rudimentary and inadequate scheme to support the funding of the community TV sector in 2015, nothing more ever came of the idea.

In fact, the government seems to have entirely forgotten about the community TV sector. Communications Minister Ntshavheni did not deign to mention community broadcasters at all in her Progress Update on BDM to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications in February this year, citing only the SABC and eTV as free-to-air broadcasters. The community TV sector has not had representation on the Ministerial BDM steering committee nor the technical committee, and so has not been consulted on the timing of the ASO.

To exacerbate the situation, in October last year the community TV channels were promised funding to carry out their own publicity campaigns to help migrate their audience, but this money has never materialised. This lacuna in local outreach compounds the lack of DTT reception devices, which together with the looming increase in transmission costs create a perfect storm for the free-to-air broadcast sector.

What is needed now to ensure both a successful digital migration and the sustainability of free-to-air television on the DTT platform must be along the lines that eTV has suggested. The ASO must be postponed, at least for some transmitters, to allow for an uptake of DTT decoders that will enable a significant number of free-to-air viewers to migrate to the DTT platform. At least 75% of the available decoders should be installed and a far stronger marketing effort aimed at making South Africans enthusiastic about their forced investment in television technology. 

With the future of television broadcasting leaning towards satellite distribution, DTT operators and broadcasters should look to added value technologies such as datacasting, which injects a data stream into the digital television signal to distribute information to TV viewers. This can provide the end-user with multimedia information such as websites, audio and video files, distance education materials and e-government services. 

Beyond DTT, broadcasters are being dragged ever deeper into the digital terrain. Zimbabwe has, perhaps surprisingly, become a leader in digital broadcasting within the SADC. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) is using DTH to provide internet and telephony as well as digital broadcasting services. ZBC also has Triple Play agreements with telcos to provide a zero-rated app to distribute its content online. Here in South Africa, the SABC has postponed its online platform launch to next year and Cape Town TV is planning to launch its own online VOD channels this month.

The ASO has the potential to make or break free-to-air television in South Africa. The key question now is whether or not the government is prepared to negotiate the path to a successful transition with all stakeholders or bulldoze through a hasty ASO that will leave millions of viewers scrambling to find accessible TV viewing options and threaten the existence of free-to-air and community TV channels, as well as entrenching MultiChoice’s dominance in SA’s TV market. DM

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