The Public Broadcaster and Democracy in Transformation (1996)

Broadcasting entered the public arena in the second half of the 1920s. In South Africa, radio stations were set up in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, all under private ownership, and, by 1929, the companies were amalgamated as the African Broadcasting Company. In 1934, the government of the Union of South Africa commissioned the then Director General of the BBC, John Reith, to write a charter for a national Public Broadcaster, and, in 1936, the African Broadcasting Company became the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

Reith’s vision of what constituted an ideal public service broadcasting can be summarised as follows:

  •  provide geographic universal access;
  •  provide universal programming which would include education, entertainment and information;
  •  be financially independent of government and the commercial sector through the raising of licence fees;
  •  be editorially independent; and
  •  be a unifying force for a single national identity.

This now “classic” version of public service broadcasting is an essentially modernist one. It incorporates all the optimistic hope of rational discourse and the firm belief in the edifying and uplifting potentials of broadcasting as a conveyer of “culture”. It is premised on the understanding that the broadcasting spectrum is limited and belongs to the nation. The government, while it may act as the guardian of the nation-state, should be kept at arm’s length from the day to day operation of the broadcaster. Broadcasting, in this view, is a public good belonging to the whole nation, not to be exploited for private or sectarian gain of either a monetary or ideological kind.

From its inception, public service broadcasting was expected to accomplish an important democratic and cultural mission. It was given the task of providing the entire population with information, education and quality entertainment. For both economic and ideological reasons, the tasks implied in this mandate could only be performed by a state-regulated monopoly. Under these auspices, public service broadcasting prevailed until the early 1980s. Since then, the global media landscape has undergone fundamental changes as deregulation of broadcasting was launched in almost all countries. National broadcasting systems were deregulated and private providers were admitted to the market, while the state facilitated and promoted the development of the technological infrastructure and was occasionally involved in its operation.
Not all the problems facing public broadcasting today are unique to South Africa. Most of the dynamics which plague broadcasting are of international import. Throughout the world, media industries are undergoing major changes both at the level of technology as well as political economy. Seven distinct, but frequently overlapping trajectories in the developing of modern media organizations are evident.These are :

  1.  the growing concentration of resources within media industries, which occurs at the same time as the contrary process of fracturing;
  2.  the process of diversification, in which industries based in one sector of the economy spread their investments, and their risks, not only into horizontally and vertically integrated activities, but expanding into areas which are traditionally outside their core business;
  3.  the intensified process of globalization, working together with the dialectical processes of localisation and the rise of the politics of identity;
  4.  the international movement towards deregulation, opening opportunities to new market entrants, which has typified the ideological perspective of the post-cold war era;
  5.  the growth of media technologies and convergence which threatens the pre-eminence of the public broadcaster as the voice of the nation;
  6.  the loss of legitimacy and credibility in the face of rampant commercialisation and pandering to governments;
  7.  the increasing difficulty in remaining solvent in the face of massive competition.

While each of these trends can be supported by even the most cursory glance at the international literature, they are clearly illustrated within South Africa as well.

Funding and the Public Broadcaster: the Crux of the Dilemma

The greatest crisis of public service broadcasting is that as income diminishes, costs rise. The basic difficulty with the SABC (and this is probably instructive of many third world, “developing” or “south” broadcasters) is the contradiction between their public service mandate, and access to public funds. By public funds, I mean those funds paid directly or indirectly from the public — and excludes money directly from the state. At present, the SABC receives no direct funding from the state: eighteen percent (18%) of its budget comes from licences; seventy eight percent (78%) from advertising; and four percent (4%) from sponsorship and commercial sales.

The problem in South Africa has been exacerbated by the regulator — the IBA — which has imposed a mandate, but only recommended a mechanism of funding, a distinction which indicates the divide between the normative realm of the public service mandate, and the prosaic realm of economics. The mandate of a public service broadcaster can be extrapolated almost indefinitely. It is an important exercise to stretch the corporate imagination, and pose the questions: What if? What if resources were infinite and imagination the only impediment, what could we do? In the real world, idealism must be tempered with pragmatism, and ‘what if’ translates to ‘what can we, given the limitations of our resources’…

The SABC’s public service mandate

Historically, the SABC played an important part in both constructing and supporting the apartheid structures of the pre-1991 South Africa. In the 1980s the SABC explicitly supported the then government in its effort to combat the ‘total onslaught of revolutionary forces”, seen to be spearheaded by the ANC in exile. In January 1991, under the leadership of Wynand Harmse, an accountant by training and inclination, the emphasis within the SABC moved from power to finance as the dominant organizing principle. The SABC was reorganized into ‘Business Units’, each with its own financial responsibility as a profit-generating entity. In the early 1990s, the SABC showed a substantial surplus, but for 1996-97, there is a projected shortfall of R56 million. How did this happen? After an extensive process of public nominations and hearing, the election of the new Board of Directors of the SABC, announced in May 1993, can be seen as the point heralding the “new” broadcast environment. In line with the social, economic and political changes taking place within the country as a whole, the SABC was in the vanguard of visible change. To this end, much creative energy was expended on negotiating a new framework which would act as the blueprint for the task of transforming a former state broadcaster into a full-fledged public broadcaster.

The most visible evidence of the SABC’s new approach has been the reconfiguration of television channels. These previously served the interests of the middle classes only: predominantly, white, ‘coloured’ and Indian, with an increasingly large percentage of black people falling into this category. The aim of the ‘re-launch’, which took place in February 1996, precisely was to move closer to delivering public broadcasting by providing more of the country’s eleven official languages, as well as ensuring that the seven which were already broadcast were done so with greater equity.

While much of this work was aimed at television, in radio too, substantial changes needed to be implemented, most notably the upgrading of the African language channels, and the extension and improvement of the news division. In order to put into effect such an ambitious plan, the mandate of the SABC was stretched considerably.

Local content programming, so essential in the project of protecting national identity and national culture, as well as providing for the diverse language needs of the audience (particularly when it includes a high proportion of drama, documentary and sport), is an enormously expensive enterprise, as any national broadcaster will testify. Audiences used to exogenous programming, in which the quality typically is very professional, are not prepared to settle for inferior productions, simply on the grounds that they are “local”.
In addition, there have been a number of “one-time” (but periodically recurring) expenses, notably the coverage of elections (national and regional) and voter education coverage of the truth and reconciliation commission, the coverage of Parliamentary debates, and the like.

Greater financial liability has also been imposed by the shrinking value of the Rand when measured against other currencies, notably the American, Canadian and Australian dollar, as well as Pounds Sterling, the currencies in which most programming and capital equipment is paid for.

Currently, the expected income of the Corporation has been drastically cut. An important factor here has been the increasingly notable “culture of non-payment” which has seen the television licence payment shrink to 18 percent of the viewing public. The main source of revenue — advertising — has dropped substantially, both on radio and television. The relaunching and reconfiguration of the television channels, with new a programming mix, new formats, and a more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic mix, clearly has played a part in the reluctance of advertisers to buy broadcast space. However, television viewing and radio listening are highly routine domestic habits, and any change, let alone a major change across three of the country’s four channels, will of itself result in substantial audience reshuffling before the new rhythms of the service are negotiated.
To complicate matters, at the request of the IBA, and in an attempt to ‘deregulate’ the airwaves, the SABC recently sold off six of its regional radio stations, all of which had been run on commercial lines and had generated a profit which was used to cross-subsidise the less profitable public service stations. Together, the loss of revenue from the privatization of these stations amounts to R90 million per annum, calculated on the 1995 figures.

Do We Still Need Public Service Broadcasting and How Can it Survive?
Broadcasting driven by a purely commercial logic can not ensure that a rich diversity of programming is available to audiences who are not considered to be profitable. In this respect, commercial media are less concerned with wide public access than they are with profit. Thus, for the purposes of commercial broadcasters, universality is not important: what is important is to cater for a critical mass of well-defined audience segments with the wherewithal to purchase specific categories of products. Audiences perceived to fall outside of the parameters of consumers, or who are too expensive to reach, are not catered for.
The range of programming is also limited by commercial considerations. There is enormous competition to provide information goods to those who can pay for them, or those whose economic status defines them as attractive audiences to advertisers. This affects the ability of the public broadcaster to provide some categories of programming which may be seen to be in the public interest. The classic issues of programming for the very young; curriculum-based education; the elderly and disabled, including close-caption broadcasting or sign-language inserts for the deaf; as well as minority language and cultural groups readily come to mind here.

The need for a public broadcasting service has characteristically been justified on two grounds: the protection of national identity and culture; and the provision of information, education and entertainment to those sectors of society which are economically non-profitable. The arguments made in the preceding sections indicate to me that public service broadcasting still has an important role to play within the national broadcasting environment. Public service media create programmes for audiences, commercial services create audiences for advertisers. However, and the caveat is important, this will not be the same sort of public sector broadcasting we have defined in classical terms.

It is no longer possible to envisage a national public broadcaster which can be all things to all people, fulfilling all functions of broadcasting in the old style of the utopian Reithian model. For the reasons outlined earlier in the paper, it is neither financially, nor ideologically possible to present a single monopoly broadcaster integrated across all broadcasting functions.

If we are to find a space in which the public broadcaster is able not only to survive, but to thrive, then we need to be able to place it within a matrix of broadcasting alternatives, which takes account of the reality of new technologies, commercial competition and the changing milieu of post-modern nationalisms. Thus instead of speaking of a national public service broadcaster, we need to be able to speak of a broadcasting environment into which the public service broadcaster must fit. The whole of this environment will then be a flexible entity of interlocking parts, in which co-ordination, rather than centralization, will be the chief organising principle.

The community broadcaster will play a significant role within this broadcast environment. With the rise in the politics of identity, both regionally/locally-based community services, as well as those based on a community of interest, language or ethnicity, are increasingly important — not only in South Africa, but in the global context as well.

When not detracting from the important role to be played by regional broadcasts within the ambit of the national service, the truly local can only be serviced by a network of community broadcasters. The national public broadcaster and the local, community and regional broadcasters should see themselves as partners in the supply of broadcasting services — and not as competitors.
If, as I have argued, it is desirable that public service broadcasting should survive, and with a wider range of broadcasting services, then there needs to be a protected space within the broadcasting environment. This needs to be done in such a way that the integrity and independence of the broadcaster is not compromised. It is the job of the state to provide the regulatory environment, and the job of the media institutions to fulfil their mandates.

But the greatest challenge is still the vexed question of financing. There is a Nigerian proverb which sums up the dilemma of public broadcasting most aptly, by comparing it to a communally owned goat, the pride of the village. If everyone claims ownership of the goat, but no one feeds it, then the goat will die. It would be a great pity to see public broadcasting starve to death because no one was responsible for feeding it.

(summary by Marc Raboy)

Transcript : The Public Broadcaster and Democracy in Transformation (1996)