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HELP POOR HOUSEHOLDS TO MIGRATE TO DIGITAL TV ; SAVE FREE-TV

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) supports the campaign, #SaveFreeTV, initiated by People’s Media Consortium (PMC) and other interest groups.Though a digital migration is necessary urgently, SAFTU demands that government not leave millions of poor households behind in this much-needed migration.

The North Gauteng High Court has on 29 March 2022 dealt a blow to the campaign aimed delaying the migration from analogue to digital television transmission. Though the ruling has extended the migration by three months to the end of June 2022 from its initial date of 31st of March 2022, the court ruled in favour of the Department of Communications’ commitment to switch off analogue in the immediate period.

SAFTU recognizes the need for the digital migration to free-up spectrum for use by telecommunications providers and to realise the promise of these providers to lower the costs of communication – however SAFTU demands that this be done in a responsible way that does not leave the working poor behind and which ensures the sustainability of free-to-air television. There are technical solutions which can deliver this successfully and
which involve continuing analogue broadcasting on certain frequencies while allowing those most in demand from telecoms providers to be sold off.

Why the migration is necessary?

Migration from analogue television to digital television means moving from a television feed that is supplied on an analogue signal to one supplied on a digital signal which requires a digital decoder to view.
The benefits of this migration include:
• clear pictures, in contrast to the poor picture of analogue;
• clear sound;
• providing more free-to-air television channels, so giving the public an increased variety of news, entertainment and education. This is contrast to the analogue setup which currently only offers viewers 5 channels (three SABC stations, one
eTV channel and local community TV channels);
• freeing-up spectrum which can then be allocated for telecommunication services such as data, internet and voice.

So if the migration to digital television has these benefits and advantages, why are we campaigning for its delay?

We are not ready to migrate

The campaign to delay the analogue switch-off (ASO) is rooted in two interest groups; the poor households — represented by civic movements, SAFTU and other civic media groups — and the free-to-air television providers.

SAFTU support for delaying the switch from analogue to digital television is informed by the realities of poor, working people. While government has committed to providing free decoders to households earning under R3,500 per month.

The Broadcasting Research Council provides viewership figures to the television industry and its 2021 estimates show that 5.7 million television households receive only analogue signals, i.e. they are free-to-air TV viewers who will be affected by the analogue switchoff. If we subtract the 1,5 million government decoders from this free-to-air audience we find that around 4,2 million households will have to purchase their own digital TV
receivers (decoders or TV sets with decoders built-in), or move over to pay-TV services.

Over half of South African TV households have opted to get digital TV through pay-TV services such as DSTV, OpenView and StarSat, so it is likely that many of those households which remain free-to-air viewers can’t afford pay-TV. In other words they do not have sufficient income to afford migration on their own.

Despite this situation, government only classifies those earning below the meagre minimum wage of R20 per hour (R21.69) rounded to monthly income as ‘indigent’ and therefore eligible for free digital decoders (also called set-top boxes or STBs)

The Household Affordability Index for March 2022 shows that the average cost of household food basket is R4 450 per month. This excludes other household essentials such as electricity, transport, municipal services and other. This means many households who are a little above the minimum wage, and are excluded in the criteria, may still not afford the STBs.

The low financial threshold flows from two key aspects: the ideological offensive to project the minimum wage as reasonable in order to avoid raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and the austerity-oriented policy of the ANC to abdicate responsibility for assisting the great mass of the working poor to be informed through television news and programming.

Households classified as indigent according to this narrow definition are estimated at around 3 million, and only 1.4 million of these have registered for free set-top boxes. The Department of Communications and Digital Technology reports that only around 800,000 STBs have been installed since 2015, some 14 years after the ANC government signed the International Telecommunications Union Regional Agreement in Geneva, committing the country to complete its digital migration by 2015.
Besides the fact that more than 1.5 million workers lost income as a result of unemployment in the past two years and may not be accounted for by the data showing who is included in the ‘indigent’ category, the STB installation backlog shows that a lot of ordinary working households will be affected by an immediate switch-off.

SABC-TV transmitters have already been switched off in five provinces (Limpopo, Northern Cape, Free State, North West and Mpumalanga), while eTV has continued broadcasting on analogue in these provinces. The SABC has shown a 30% drop in
viewership in the Free State, which was one of the first provinces to be switched off, while eTV viewership has expanded by 40% in that province.

The free-to-air broadcasters, SABC, eTV and community TV channels, have tried to negotiate with the Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Khumbudzo
Ntshavheni, to delay the Analogue Switch-Off (ASO), but the Minister refuses to listen to them. Instead she fights with eTV in court, punishes the SABC for disagreeing with her and completely ignores community TV. The Minister refuses to work with free-to-air broadcasters and instead sees them as enemies to be defeated.

The free-to-air broadcasters are all warning that millions of individual TV viewers in households will lose access to TV, and so the TV stations on analogue will all suffer a loss of audience and the working poor will be left out.

Beyond the general government bungling which is certainly responsible for the delay in the distribution and installation of STBs, other problems such the global shortage in the supply of computer chips, poor communication about the ASO to TV households and the closure of postal offices are also contributing factors.

The 1,5 million decoders manufactured by government will only enable a small fraction of TV households to receive digital TV.

Though government says that it communicates directly with communities and runs the switch-off message as a ticker line on SABC TV channels, it is clear the message is not sufficient for poor working class households. Even many indigent households (as per government definition) that are eligible for free set-top boxes are not registering to get one. This impels us to think the message is not getting through to them and government’s communication efforts are falling short.

There are two problems that face households that wish to continue watching free-to-air TV: firstly there are very few STBs in South Africa other than those manufactured by government. Retailers and installers say that there has not been much demand for them, so only a few specialist retailers stock ‘grey’ import STBs, i.e. those which are not approved by ICASA for use in South Africa.

Secondly, TV sets with integrated tuners (IDTV) are relatively expensive, starting at around R4,500. However the major retailers only stock the more expensive models which sell for much more than this. These factors mean that it is difficult for working class
households to remain free-to-air viewers because their easiest option is to go for a payTV service like DSTV or OVHD, and this loss of audience threatens the survival of freeto-air TV in South Africa.

The other possibility to account for low registration numbers could be that many post offices in poor, working class communities have closed as a result of government bungling and defunding. In 2021 alone, about 130 post offices were scheduled for closure, in addition to the many that have already been closed.

The free-to-air TV channel providers

While the SABC has switched-off its analogue transmissions in the rural provinces, the situation for all free-to-air broadcasters including eTV and the community TV channels will worsen when analogue transmissions in the four remaining provinces which include the large cities are switched off on 30 June 2022.
Considering that four outstanding provinces — Eastern Cape, Kwa Zulu Natal, Western Cape and Gauteng — constitute 68% of the population in this country, the contemplated final switch-off will have serious ramifications for the balance sheets of these TV
broadcasters. Very few of the government STBs have been installed in these provinces and the rest of the TV households will struggle to get the necessary STBs or IDTVs in time for the switch-off.

eMedia Holdings’ annual report for the financial year 2020/21 shows that advertising generated 66.4% of its total revenue, and 69.6% in 2019/20. The SABC says it generates 78% of its income from advertising, and 20-22% from government allocation, TV licence payments and other revenue streams.

It is therefore clear that these free-to-air television stations rely heavily on advertising for revenue, and a complete switch-off on 31 June 2022 with so many households still not having STBs installed will definitely cause their advertising revenue to plummet. The bottom line is that with so few STBs and IDTVs in the market, they simply will not have a big enough audience to attract advertising.

While we are not usually concerned with the balance sheets of capitalist corporations such as eTV, in this case we are interested for two reasons: (1) workers might face retrenchments, and (2) eTV is largely owned by workers investment arm, Hosken
Consolidated Investments Limited (HCI), whose major shareholder is an investment arm of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU).

Although the trade union investment arms have subsumed their mandate into the logic of capitalism (signalling either the capture of the trade union leadership or the inability of the union leadership or both), and as demonstrated with HCI can even pursue investments in environmentally threatening enterprises such as the Wild Coast oil search blasting,
SAFTU takes interest if such worker investments may be lost due to the government bungling of analogue switch-off to digital television or corrupt ways of investment managers of workers money.

It is important to protect the SABC’s advertising revenue stream since, in the context of mismanagement and defunding, this revenue is the lifeblood of public service television.
This is very pertinent in the era of a swing towards privatisation of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). The neoliberals in government have used every available opportunity, including suspiciously engineering opportunities for privatisation through the defunding and mismanagement of SOEs.

Maybe the privatisation of SABC is on the cards and that is the reason why Minister Ntshavheni is adamant to proceed with the analogue switch-off even when this clearly poses a threat to the SABC’s revenue stream.

As part of its turn-around strategy, the SABC cut 621 workers from the payroll in March 2021. If the Corporation’s advertising revenue plunges as we predict, in the context of austerity this may prompt further retrenchments.

Our demands
SAFTU recognises the need to migrate to DTT and to free-up spectrum for communications purposes, but the Federation urges government not to leave the working poor behind nor to compromise the SABC’s ability to attract advertisers. Consequently we demand the following:
1. Delay the final Analogue Switch-Off for certain frequencies identified by free-to-air broadcasters until the following conditions have been met:

a. The release of promised funding from USAASA to enable free-to-air channels, including the community TV channels, to launch a communications campaign to educate the public on the benefits of DTT and motivate them to migrate. In order to be effective, this campaign should be rolled out over a six-month period from the time said funding is received.

b. A minimum of 95% threshold has been reached with regards to the installation of subsidised set top boxes for indigent households.

2. An undertaking that ALL free-to-air broadcasters will be included in consultations with the Minister during this period.

3. That the Minister consults with the free-to-air broadcasters to come up with a compromise position on a managed, responsible and phased switch-off that protects free-to-air TV while at the same time freeing up spectrum for the digital dividend that is affordable broadband internet.

4. A commitment to ensure prominence and accessibility of free-to-air services on digital TV sets and internet TV boxes.

5. The Communications Department ensures that within three months of the reallocation of the spectrum, the promise of 10GB of free data a month is implemented.
SAFTU urges the working class through their civics, their learners/student formations and trade unions broadly to fight for the postponement of the scheduled switch-off date, which is currently set for 30 June 2022. This will afford government time to help poor households migrate to the digital television.