Africa Opinion

As a public broadcaster, SABC needs more funding, not less

By Mmusi Maimane

Mmusi maimane

The public broadcaster still has a lot to offer and there needs to be a focus from all levels of management on the content and creation of quality shows. In order to achieve this, the SABC needs more funding and not less.

The value of a national broadcaster is not and should not be exclusively measured in the same way that an ordinary business is. By now we are aware that the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) announced a net loss of R511-million for the year on Tuesday, November 17, which amounted to a 6 per cent decline over the previous year. We are also aware that this loss stems from declining advertising revenue and declining revenue from TV licence payments.

As a result of these numbers, there is a push by the SABC board to retrench SABC producers, on-camera talent and technical supporting staff. In this article, I will motivate as to why this is not a sound approach to dealing with the challenges facing the SABC. While the retrenchment option seems like the necessary evil to fix the SABC, it is not the right approach and in fact, it will have adverse effects which will weaken the SABC further.

There are three questions which we must consider in contemplating the health of the SABC and what the right approach should be in addressing its challenges:

  1. What is the nature of a public good? 
  2. Why are public goods funded in the way that they are? 
  3. What is the role of the state?

Public goods in economics are defined as services and commodities that are provided to all, and they are contrasted to private goods such as housing, clothing and cars. Examples of public goods include the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF); these two maintain security and the rule of law in a nation. Public goods can also refer to more basic goods, such as access to clean air and drinking water. Roads, bridges and railways are other examples of public goods.

Two principles exist in classifying public goods: they are non-exclusionary and non-rivalrous. Non-exclusion means that there is no way to prevent others from using the service, non-rivalrous means that multiple parties can use the public good or get the benefit of the public good at the same time. The SABC is one such public good as per the definition in economics.

A public good is not a business and should not be measured in terms of business metrics exclusively. We cannot say, for instance, that the police must be profitable in order to be funded and sustained. We realise that policing is not going to be a profit-driven market initiative, while it is true that some can afford private security and do often use it in South Africa.

Not every space can be policed by private security because not every community can pay for private security. As a result, we fund the public good of policing through tax rands. The same is true of military budgets. Not every service can and should be delivered from the framework of a business model. It is the role of the state to provide these services and to collect revenue in order to cover the costs.

In using the business model metric in making assessments of the SABC we ignore its value to the nation, and we ignore the role that the state must rightly play in funding this public good.

We have also undermined the size of the audience that the SABC serves and its contribution to our democracy. Let’s consider those numbers: SABC TV has an audience of more than 30 million, SABC1 reaches 89 per cent of the public, SABC2 reaches 91 per cent of the public and SABC3 reaches 77 per cent of the public, according to the broadcaster. The SABC has 18 radio stations, which have more than 25 million weekly listeners.

Language inclusivity is essential for our democratic project. The SABC broadcasts its content in all languages and its imperative is to provide content and news in these without some of the content being profitable. If we defund or try to privatise, we run the risk of creating a more polarised media environment than the one that currently exists. We have seen the dangers of this with Fox and CNN, which are both, for different reasons, politically aligned. The public broadcaster must be protected from private interests, and equally from state control, and there must be a balanced middle-ground for journalism that provides quality information to all South Africans.

Our government has committed itself to bailing out SAA even when the business rescue plan indicates that this is not the right direction to take. However, in direct contradiction, there is a commitment from the same administration to downsize, defund and retrench workers at the SABC. This is a backwards thought process. The SABC must be adequately funded and SAA must be given up as a dead project with low social and civic utility. 

Even on YouTube the SABC is still the largest content creator in Africa, with 1.05 million subscribers, while eNCA has only 770,000, and NewzRoom Afrika has 77,000. Even Netflix producers would admit that they are envious of the SABC’s numbers. The private sector, however, cannot cater to many of these viewers and listeners, because there is no profit incentive – these are South Africans who rely on the broadcaster for information, for entertainment and for education. Without a fully funded SABC these viewers and listeners would not be able to get Covid-19 information, they would not be able to hear the voices of national leaders from all political persuasions and they would not be able to vote with full information.

The value of the SABC extends regionally, and without its quality journalism the world would not be aware of brutal dictatorships like the one in Zimbabwe under Emmerson Mnangagwa, which is suppressing free speech and arresting investigative journalists for doing their work. The SABC is the first port of call for understanding Africa and for honest journalism about Africa. The work done by Sophie Mokoena on Lesotho this year was exemplary, and the work done by Aldrin Sampear and others in covering Africa has been noteworthy.

All of this is to point out that the SABC still has a lot to offer and that this cannot be offered effectively from a private sector perspective. I will be the first to admit that iSABC ayisafani, it has lost direction from bygone days when content was front and centre. There needs to be a return to proactive and creative content creation. There needs to be a focus from all levels of management on the content and creation of quality shows. In order to achieve this, the SABC needs more funding and not less. Defunding the SABC and implementing retrenchments will adversely impact the capacity of the SABC to sustain its quality. 

Good content requires funding, which is why Netflix has invested so much in it. Good content also requires skilled personnel, and retrenchments create newsrooms that are staffed by juniors and rookie reporters. This is not good for the quality of the news then produced – we all know that MSNBC, ABC or the BBC do all they can to retain their senior talent. We are embracing measures that reduce the talent pool of the SABC even further. For those who want advertising revenue to cover all the costs of running the SABC, that prospect is diminished by not having the right talent in the room.

This is why retrenchments and defunding are not the right conversations we should be having. Our conversations should be centred around getting back to producing hit shows that attract advertising revenue, our conversations should be around getting already existing content available to listeners and viewers on demand. For example, the SABC has a massive catalogue of African-language audio dramas which are aired live on radio. This content is brilliant but is not available on podcasting platforms for those audiences that prefer on-demand content. This is a mistake that can readily be addressed by the SABC. An initiative can readily be adopted to get the SABC playing in the fastest-growing content creation platform right now: podcasting. Where are the SABC podcasts?

There is a critical difference between South African Airways (SAA) and the SABC – the nature of the access and usage of the service. Our national airline’s customer base is limited to business professionals, middle class and high net worth individuals. Even with the loss of SAA this particular demographic will still be able to travel around the country and the world. The SABC, however, should be considered as a general access public good. 

Our government has committed itself to bailing out SAA even when the business rescue plan indicates that this is not the right direction to take. However, in direct contradiction, there is a commitment from the same administration to downsize, defund and retrench workers at the SABC. This is a backwards thought process. The SABC must be adequately funded and SAA must be given up as a dead project with low social and civic utility. 

I am a proponent of the social market economy and I believe that we do not need every service to be delivered by the state, but I do believe that the national broadcasting role can only truly be served effectively by the state.

We must also be careful of using the challenges of a pandemic to define the value and revenue generation potential of the SABC. This is not a normal year and businesses have reduced advertising revenue across the board. Some of this revenue will return once economic normalcy is re-established, but what may be harder to do is find great talent once it has been lost. We must also re-examine the TV licence funding model; this may not be the most efficient way to fund the state broadcaster. 

It is my firm conviction that the state has a central role to play in funding the SABC and maintaining its longevity. DM 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*