South Africa: SABC's Demand Unreasonable - Pay TV Operators

Regulation & Policy

South Africa's pay TV operators are incensed about the SABC's demand that they pay for all its content that they carry on their platforms. In their "must carry" presentation made yesterday, Wednesday, 12 December 2007, before the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) in Johannesburg, MultiChoice and Telkom Media called the SABC's demand "unreasonable" and "opportunistic".

"While the 'must carry' process helps consumers to access all public broadcasters' services through one remote control and save on buying numerous infrastructure such as aerials, it should not be seen as an opportunity to create an additional source of income for public broadcasters and extend their local content objectives," MultiChoice Africa CEO Nolo Letele told the eight-member panel.

In terms of an undisclosed arrangement, MultiChoice pays no fee to carry all SABC channels but does bear distribution costs of signal carriage, while the SABC pays for the costs of supply of signal to the DStv studio. However, MultiChoice pays a fee to broadcast SABC Africa, which falls outside the scope of Section 60(3) of the Electronic Communication Act.

"But our agreement with e.tv is financial," Letele told Bizcommunity.com, declining to elaborate except to say that MultiChoice is committed to continuing with both agreements.

The SABC has been suspecting for some time that its channels are becoming drivers for pay TV uptake. Hence, it sought ICASA intervention to force new TV subscription operators not only to carry its current and future channels, but also to pay for every minute they will be broadcasting its contents. The public broadcaster also says that the cost should be passed on to subscribers.

But MultiChoice GM for regulatory affairs Kwezi Mtengenya said, "The SABC has gone a little over the board to suggest that its channels are drivers for pay TV uptake. And all the graphs and figures it relied on in its written representations to justify this theory are in fact distorted."

Time spent by DStv viewers watching SABC channels is low compared to DStv viewers watching DStv channels, Mtengenya emphasised. "Therefore, there can be no suggestion that carriage of public service channels has a commercial benefit for pay TV."

Nevertheless, Kwezi called on the SABC to continue making its channels available for carriage and pay TV operators must continue to carry such channels regardless of any disputes regarding commercial terms between the parties.

Meanwhile, Michelle Garden, of Telkom Media, said that her organisation is committed to complying with "must carry" regulations as such rules are necessary not only to promote universal access and plurality of media, but also assist with advertising targets and provide access to programming of public interest.

However, Garden argued that significant cost implications and the channels are not subscription drivers. "Rules should be proportionate, fair and transparent, and channels or programmes identified. Distinguish between commercial/public channels and national/regional and the rest must be left outside of regulatory framework," she said. "There should be 'must carry' and must offer but 'must pay' is unacceptable," Garden stated.

Committee chairperson Robert Nkuna told Bizcommunity.com that ICASA will publish a draft copy regulations for public comment early next year, and by March it will issue and promulgate final statutes that will govern the "must carry" regulations in SA.

(Biz-Community (Cape Town), 13 December 2007)