Volume 23 Issue 2, February 1998, primary_article

Public service broadcasting’s purpose, the object of much debate in South Africa, may be defined as the provision of a universal service of excellent programming while maintaining public legitimacy through an editorial independence from both the government of the day and commercial interests. Since the 1980s, the global media landscape has undergone fundamental changes. Most of the dynamics which today plague public broadcasting are of international import, and the direct result of the intervention of the global economic order. Public service broadcasting must be carried out within the means available to the public broadcaster, and so it is at this point, when the pragmatism of limited financial means meets with the idealism of an all-encompassing mandate, that public service broadcasting’s late-twentieth-century contradictions become apparent. This paper tracks this paradox across the re-launch and transformation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) from a state broadcaster serving the interests of largely “white,” “coloured,” and “Indian” middle classes to a public broadcaster mandated to better serve the country’s 11 official language communities.

Ce que peut être le but de la radiodiffusion publique est une question qui suscite bien des discussions en Afrique du Sud. On peut néanmoins définir ce but comme étant à la fois l’offre d’un service universel de programmation excellente et le maintien d’une légitimité publique en conservant une indépendance éditoriale par rapport au gouvernement au pouvoir et aux intérêts commerciaux. Depuis les années quatre-vingt, l’environnement médiatique global a subi des changements fondamentaux. La plupart des dynamiques qui aujourd’hui influent sur la radiodiffusion publique sont de provenance internationale, le résultat direct de l’intervention de l’ordre économique global. Dans un tel environnement, le radiodiffuseur public ne peut qu’utiliser les moyens à sa disposition pour offrir ses services. C’est à ce stade, quand le pragmatisme des moyens financiers limités confronte l’idéalisme d’un mandat trés vaste, que les contradictions de la radiodiffusion publique au vingtième siécle deviennent évidentes. Cet article examine ce paradoxe en décrivant l’exemple de la relance et de la transformation du South African Broadcasting Corporation (la SABC, c’est-à-dire La Société de radiodiffusion sud-africaine). Originairement un radiodiffuseur d’État servant principalement les classes moyennes blanches, métisses et indiennes, la SABC est devenue un radiodiffuseur public dont le mandat est de mieux servir les onze communautés linguistiques officielles du pays.

What is the purpose of public service broadcasting? This simple question has been the subject of a great deal of argument, debate, and deliberation over the past seven years in South Africa, and indeed in every country in which there has been a strong tradition of public broadcasting. As a point of departure, I take the purpose of public service broadcasting to be the provision of a universal service of excellent programming, while maintaining public legitimacy through an editorial independence from both the government of the day and rampant commercial interests.

By “universal” I mean programming which covers a full range of genres, from information to education and entertainment, for the widest possible audience and covering the most extensive geographical spread. There is only one caveat to this definition: public service broadcasting must be carried out within the means available to the public broadcaster. It is at this point, where the pragmatism of limited financial means meets with the idealism of an all-encompassing mandate, that the true contradiction of public service broadcasting in the late twentieth century becomes apparent.

Three questions seem appropriate:

  • What changes have taken place in the concept and practice of public service broadcasting in the movement from modernity to postmodernity?

  • Do we need a public service media any longer?

  • How do we ensure that such a medium fulfils the basic conditions of public service broadcasting, in terms of both content and economic sustainability?

The 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 also indicative of colonial belief in upliftment. In the South African case, this was despite the very limited view of who constituted “the people” broadcasting was to serve, an understanding which was confined to white English speakers and only grudgingly extended to white Afrikaans speakers.2

Public broadcasting was 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. Conceptually, the right place for the broadcaster is the public sphere (Calhoun 1992; Garnham, 1993; Habermas, 1989; Thompson, 1993).

From its inception, political and commercially powerful sectors of society expected public service broadcasting 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, that is, public broadcasting services. This was the rationale which governed public service broadcasting until the early 1980s. From that period, the global media landscape underwent fundamental changes as almost all countries deregulated broadcasting. National broadcasting systems were deregulated or, rather, re-regulated; private providers were admitted to the market; and the state facilitated and promoted the development of the technological infrastructure and was occasionally involved in its operation.

While the nation-state has been the terrain of public broadcasting, most of the dynamics which plague broadcasting are of international import and are the direct result of the intervention of the global economic world order, which threatens to undermine the very economic and political system under which public broadcasting presently operates: the nation-state. It is my contention that most of these forces arise from the move from modernity to postmodernity.

The main issues we can identify here can be summarized under three strands:

  • the decline of the value of the nation-state as the primary political and economic structure;

  • the issues involved in cultural identity, most notably the rise of ethnic, religious, gender, and “lifestyle” identities, which have overtaken the previous pre-eminence of class as a determining factor in identity; and

  • the epistemological, ethical, and political shifts in the way we think about ourselves and our world (Keane, 1996; Teer-Tomaselli & Tomaselli, 1996; Thompson, 1995).

The project of modernity is characterized by the ideal of rational thought, rooted in a notion of shared, universal human rationality. On this basis it has been premised that open debate allowed free agents to discuss and reach agreement on the end and means of politics, defined as having two components. The first is the achievement of human emancipation from the domination of nature. The second is freedom from poverty for themselves and their fellow human beings.

Postmodernists, on the other hand, argue that universal rationality and progressive politics are impossible in the face of an inescapable cultural relativism. Postmodernism substitutes pleasure and difference for reason and universality as the pre-eminent categories of analysis. In this view, Western secular rationalism is seen not only as one variant of cultural identity, but also as an aggressive and imperialistic variant attempting to impose its false unity on the rich diversity of cultural difference.

What is the role of the mass media in this debate? Two points are crucial: First, rational debate within the public sphere -- the crucial underpinning of modernist politics -- is being challenged as an ongoing possibility. Second, the media, so central to the theory of postmodernity, are at the same time the crucial infrastructures, as well as the terrain, of economic and cultural globalization.

Throughout the world, media industries are undergoing major changes both at the level of technology as well as at the level of political economy. Expanding on the centrality of media in postmodernity, seven distinct but frequently overlapping tendencies in the development of modern media organizations are evident:

  • a growing concentration of resources within media industries, which occurs at the same time as the contrary process of fracturing;

  • 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 expand into areas which are traditionally outside their core business. At the same time, there is evidence of a dialectical process of decentralization and de-diversification, as huge conglomerates disentangle their various components in the understanding that economic efficiency demands meticulous attention to specific tasks;

  • globalization, set against the antithetical processes of localization and the rise of the politics of identity;

  • an international movement towards deregulation, or rather re-regulation, through the opening of opportunities to new market entrants, which has characterized the ideological perspective of the post-Cold War era;

  • the growth of media technologies and convergence which threatens the pre-eminence of the public broadcaster as the chief articulator of the nation-state;

  • the loss of legitimacy and credibility in the face of rampant commercialization and pandering to governments;

  • 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 the South African context as well (Teer-Tomaselli & Tomaselli, 1996). I would like to concentrate on the issue of financial viability, since this is the crux of much of the present dilemma facing public broadcasters worldwide. Here I will illustrate the arguments with reference to the South African case, but these principles do have wider applicability.

The greatest crisis of public service broadcasting is that as income diminishes, costs rise. This is a truism which is hardly unique to public broadcasting. The basic difficulty with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) -- and this is probably instructive of many Third World, “developing,” or “south” broadcasters -- is the contradiction which lies between its public service mandate and its access to public funds. By public funds I mean those funds paid directly or indirectly from the public in the way of licence fees, along the same model used in Great Britain and France, the understanding being that those who use the media gain “ownership” of it through direct subscription to it. This mechanism excludes money directly from the public treasury, which in this instance, I refer to as “state” funding. At present, the SABC receives no direct funding from the state: 18% of its budget comes from licences; 78% comes from advertising; and 4% comes from sponsorship and commercial sales. Thus the SABC is a broadcaster with a public mandate but operates in a commercial environment, under commercial constraints.

The problem in South Africa has been exacerbated by the regulator -- the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) -- which has imposed a mandate but only recommended a mechanism of funding, a distinction which indicates the divide between the idealism 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 question: What if? What if resources were infinite and imagination the only impediment, what could be done? In the real world, idealism must be tempered with pragmatism, and “what if” translates to “what can we, given the limitations of our resources.” This is a hard lesson for public broadcasters, used as they are to a birthright of largesse from the public purse.

Historically, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) played an important role in both constructing and supporting the apartheid structures of pre-1991 South Africa. In the 1980s, the SABC explicitly supported the government in its effort to combat the “total onslaught” of “revolutionary forces,” seen to be spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) in exile (Teer-Tomaselli, 1993). With the general transformation of the South African political imperatives, being the voice of the government was no longer an option -- it was a liability. From January 1991, under the leadership of Wynand Harmse, an accountant by training and inclination, 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 (Collins, 1993). At the end of the 1991 financial year, the surplus stood at R34 million; by the end of the 1995 financial year, it had increased to R101 million (South African Broadcasting Corporation, 1995, p. 50). Today, all things being equal with the income level predicated on 1995 and the expenditure figures predicated on the mandate agreed to with the IBA, the projected shortfall for the 1996-97 year is R56 million (Evening Post, August 16, 1996). How has this happened?

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 “Vision and Values” framework which would act as the blueprint for the task of transforming a former state broadcaster into a fullfledged public broadcaster. Summarized briefly, this vision was “a commitment to deliver full-spectrum services to all South Africans, in all parts of the country, and in each of the eleven official languages. Their programme content is aimed at protecting and nurturing South African culture and creativity, and reflecting the reality of South Africa to itself and to the world from a distinctly South African perspective” (South African Broadcasting Corporation, 1996a, p. 2).

The most visible evidence of the SABC’s new approach has been the reconfiguration of television channels. Television 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, was precisely to move closer to delivering public broadcasting by providing more of the country’s 11 official languages, as well as ensuring that the 7 which were already broadcast were done so with greater equity.

The SABC television service has three channels at its disposal: TV1, with the largest footprint, or signal distribution network, broadcasts programming in SeTswana, SeSotho, Tsivenda, siNdebele, Xitsonga, and Isiswati during peak hours, filling in the morning and afternoon schedules in a mixture of these languages interspersed with English. Similarly, TV2, with a strong signal network in the eastern part of the country, uses IsiXhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaans during peak viewing time. TV3, the smallest signal footprint covering predominantly urban areas, broadcasts only in English. The various languages are scheduled in “blocks” in order to provide continuity for viewers: for example, on TV2, the main news bulletin on a Tuesday evening will be in Zulu, preceded by a Zulu-language game show and followed by a Zulu-language drama. The predominance of English in the schedules is premised on the notion of English as a “core” language, understood as the second language choice of most South Africans and, more practically, on the wide and inexpensive availability of English-language programming on the international market.

While much of the transformation work was aimed at television, substantial changes needed to be implemented in radio too, 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. Among other projects, the following targets were aimed for:

  • extension of language services towards full “equity” on television;

  • increase in local content programming;

  • extension of TV footprint to reach all potential viewers;

  • introduction of regional television slots in all provinces;

  • equity and universal access to religious programming;

  • provision of curriculum-based education on both radio and television; and

  • upgrading of the African language radio services.

Local content programming, particularly when it includes a high proportion of drama, documentary, and sport, is an enormously expensive enterprise, as any national broadcaster worldwide will testify. Nevertheless, it is essential to the project of protecting national identity and national culture, as well as providing for the diverse language needs of the audience. It is worth noting that a locally produced drama would cost as much as R15,000 a minute while a drama of the same standard produced abroad, in English, would sell for as little as R600 a minute. 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.” One way around this dilemma is the large-scale use of dubbing into a local language. An added advantage is that the original imported soundtrack can be “simulcast” on another audio channel, either through the television set or synchronized on radio.

Apart from the projects mentioned, there have been a number of “once off” (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 dollars, as well as pounds sterling -- the currencies in which most programming and capital equipment is paid for. Decreased surplus reserves have also meant a smaller amount of interest paid into the current account.

Currently, 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% of the viewing public (Argus, August 16, 1996). The main source of revenue -- advertising -- has dropped substantially, both on radio and television. The relaunching and reconfiguration of the television channels, with a new programming mix, new formats, and a more multicultural, multi-ethnic mix, clearly has played a part in the reluctance of advertisers to buy broadcast space. However, television viewing and radio watching 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. (The fourth channel is the pay-TV channel, M-Net.)

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 which had generated sizable profits used to cross-subsidize 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 (The Star [Johannesburg], September 23, 1996).

At the heart of the issue is that most advertising spending goes to white, “coloured,” and Indian target markets, with advertisers spending less on African-language broadcasts, which are not seen as significant markets. Despite the increased expenditure on extending, upgrading, and generally improving the core business of the radio division -- the public service stations in the African languages -- larger audiences do not necessarily translate into revenue. Marketers have told the SABC that until the size of the black middle class has improved, they do not see lots of advertising being dedicated to speakers of black languages. This is also true of television expenditure on the new Eastern African languages. The four new languages introduced into the SABC television schedule -- Tsivenda, siNdebele, Xitsonga, and Isiswati -- have not brought any new revenue into the Corporation, nor is it envisaged that they will do so in the foreseeable future.

The answer to this question is far from self-evident. The need for a public broadcasting service has characteristically been justified on two grounds: (1) the protection of national identity and culture; and (2) the provision of information, education, and entertainment to those sectors of society which are economically non-profitable.

Social solidarity is reinforced when consumers share the same cultural and informational environment. BBC founder John Reith, and those who followed his school of thought, argued that this is best achieved when audiences shared common cultural resources and were subjected to a monopoly provider of a single service.

Although the ideal of a universal single-channel environment is now an anachronism, nation-building continues to be an overriding consideration, as is evidenced by the SABC’s Guidelines for Programme Content:

In a multicultural society, the SABC needs to ensure not only that the diversity is reflected, but that it is reflected positively....

Programmes should contribute to a sense of nation building and should not in any way disparage the lifestyle or belief systems of any specific cultural group or in any way attack the integrity of such a group, unless it is established to be in the public interest. However, the news and beliefs of different groups are obviously open to honest, thoughtful scrutiny in programmes like documentaries. (South African Broadcasting Corporation, 1996b, p. 10)

The need for the consolidation of national identity is keenly felt in developing countries, and the role of the mass media rightly has been foregrounded in this debate. Media provide the self-image of a society. In their now classic exposition of “bardic television,” John Fiske & John Hartley note that “the bardic mediator occupies the centre of its culture: television is one of the most highly centralized institutions in modern society. This is not only the result of commercial monopoly or government control, it is also a response to the culture’s felt need for a common centre, to which the television message always refers. Its centralization speaks to all members of a highly fragmented society” (1978, p. 86).

In somewhat more colourful language, Colin Morris, one-time documentary commissioner for the BBC, makes a similar point:

In the Book of Genesis, it is God who brings order out of chaos; in the modern world, television journalists have to make a stab at doing it. They subdue into harmony a mountain of telex printouts, miles of video tape and a pandemonium of ringing telephones. They organize into a coherent picture, a riot of impressions, a chaos of events, a bedlam of attitudes and opinions that would otherwise send us scurrying to the hills in panic. And they have to construct this world view at lightning speed, in a welter of instant judgements. Not for them the luxury afforded to philosophers of earlier ages who could reflect at leisure on the fitness of things. Aristotle had no six o’clock deadline to meet. (cited in Tusa, 1992)

Third World countries, particularly those in Africa, have taken nation-building most seriously. A leading African intellectual, Paul Ansah of the University of Ghana, put it this way:

[T]he press in a developing country is expected to help forge a sense of national unity, identity and integration and to mobilise the people for development. Many leaders in developing countries also consider that it is their responsibility to provide information to citizens as a social service in the same way as they provide other services such as educational, health and recreational facilities.

African governments find it necessary to control broadcasting operations in order to promote national unity, socio-economic development and stability. It is felt that if control is not exercised, there is a danger of the system falling into the hands of wealthy people who could use it to promote commercial, sectional or political interests that may be at variance with national objectives. (Ansah, 1981)

These sentiments have been echoed throughout Africa. Nahum Gorlick, one-time Director-General of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, made a similar statement:

In Third World countries, the power of radio and television must be considered as an effective tool for change and development. There is no doubt that governments in their attempt to implement policies of development, which can be considered as a national priority, depend to a great extent on radio and television communication. The fact is, if there is no development and no participation by the people in this developmental effort, we are then condemned to face conflicts within our society. (Gorlick, 1991)

The line of thought which foregrounds the media as watchdog and critic does not go down well with African governments. In many cases, building nationalism is articulated as unconditional and uncritical adherence to political -- often party-political -- orthodoxy. John Tusa has expressed the opinion that in many African countries, “governments feel weak rather than strong, threatened by tribal [and ethnic] rivalries, economic failure, ideological disputes, religious tensions. In such an atmosphere, the response has been to demand of the journalist /broadcaster in Africa that they should...bind the nation together, and that criticism, dissent, investigation, all the customary activities of the media should take second place to the primary need of national unity” (1992, p. 5).

Tusa’s response is indicative of most Western-based commentators. He articulates the demand for control as one of “two different codes of journalistic ethics...a higher standard of editorial standards for the developed world and a looser discipline for the developing nations” (Tusa, 1992). Such double standards are unacceptable, they are “patronising on the part of the West, defeatist on the side of the Third World.” However, Tusa’s riposte misses the point: while he is correct that control of the media “is a disservice to those who look to the media for a true picture of events, and it is harmful to the democratic process,” in his rebuttal he evidences a clash of values between Western, liberal values (laissez-faire) and normative/developmental ethics. While he is absolutely correct that “a free press is the mark of a confident nation; an accurate press is the sign of a mature people; a press which can criticise governments temperately and governments which react rationally to such criticism, are evidence of a civilised state” (p. 5), this position is not incompatible with an understanding of the hugely significant role the media are able to play in producing social goods such as health education, civic literacy, and pro-social messages. Not all nation-building necessarily promotes sectarian political positions. Indeed, when the electronic media is used in a top-down fashion, uncritically mouthing the voice of the government or party, they become instruments of oppression losing their credibility as the aspirations of the people change with regard to political, cultural, social, and economic desires. In effect, they lose their effectiveness.

Questions around the universal provision of information, education, and entertainment are more compelling. The MacBride report on the New World Information Order (UNESCO, 1980) stressed the understanding of cultural rights as human rights. Culture, education, and the provision of information were seen as basic human rights, alongside and equal to the material rights of food, water, health, and housing. These informational “needs” have to be provided as social goods -- not simply as commercial commodities. This debate has been revived by the recent publication of the UNESCO report, Our Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 1996), which stresses the intimate connection between culture and development.

Arguing for the protection of culturally, educationally, and socially valued broadcasting, or what Jay Blumler (1992) has eloquently referred to as “vulnerable values,” is not the same as distinguishing between needs and wants. Put in those terms, “wants” are thought of as the legitimate desires of the audiences, signalled through the two mechanisms of audience research, that is, ratings which signal audience preferences and appreciation indices, and measure off the intensity of those preferences; and the market, that is, consumer support for encrypted or encoded channels. In the same framework, “needs” are envisaged as the paternalistic response of those who know best -- a top-down approach compared to the more participatory approach of “wants” (White, 1984).

The argument I am putting forward is one which recognizes the asymmetric distribution of power with respect to different audience segments and their ability to signal wants and needs. A broadcasting policy based only on the perceived wants of those who are in a position to articulate them through market-driven responses, to quote Richard Collins, “will necessarily neglect large areas of legitimate needs, and will reproduce and perhaps amplify existing inequalities in wealth and power” (1993, p. 29). In other words, legitimate needs cannot be determined by an exogenous process decided outside the expressed wants of the audience.

Driven by a purely commercial logic, it is not possible to ensure that a rich diversity of programming is available to audiences that are not considered to be profitable. In this respect, there is a temptation for commercial media to be less concerned with wide public access than they are with profit. For the purposes of commercial broadcasters, universality is not important: what is important is to cater to 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. As a commercially driven public service broadcaster, the SABC is very prone to a schizophrenic sense of its own direction.

Audiences can be excluded from universal coverage for at least three reasons:

  • They are too poor, and poor people make poor consumers, both of the media itself and the products it advertises. The consumption of printed media is a case in point: when a daily newspaper is an equivalent price to a daily loaf of bread, the choice is clear.

  • They are too geographically dispersed. Newspapers are poorly distributed in rural areas, since the cost of transport and distribution cannot be recovered by the cover price. Broadcasting over long distances has traditionally required heavy investment in cabling, microwave relay stations, receivers, and boosters. Television, furthermore, requires a pre-existing electricity grid. In commercial terms, the outlay of such an infrastructure may not be compensated for by the expected return in audience numbers, particularly when the rural areas are sparsely populated. The greater the density of population, the higher the marginal return on infrastructural investment.

  • They are too linguistically or culturally diverse. Catering for the information and entertainment needs of small pockets of distinct language speakers is costly, with a very low marginal rate of return on the numbers of viewers and listeners reached. This is particularly true of television, where original programming is very expensive. While the cheaper options of dubbing or subtitling existing programming is still expensive, such programming may not be acceptable to the audience. (This is particularly true of drama programming, while news, sports, and actuality programming finds greater acceptance in translation.)

The range of programming is also limited by commercial considerations. Nicholas Garnham has pointed out that “what we are in fact being offered is not cultural interchange in the electronic sphere, but on the contrary the expansion of price and profit, of commodity exchange, as the dominating mode of organization in yet another area of cultural production and consumption” (1990, p. 121).

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; and minority language and cultural groups readily come to mind here. But broadcasting is big business commanding big capital outlay and nowhere is this more evident than the question of sports rights. When these rights involve national teams, they are seen by many as a national asset and not only as a right of the privileged few who are able to access them through superior buying power.

From the arguments weighed above it seems reasonable to argue that if public service broadcasting is to survive, it 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 its monolithic dominance. Neither financially nor ideologically is it 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 postmodern 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 organizing principle.

In order to envisage how this can be achieved, it is useful to break up the broadcast environment into its discrete parts, at least on an analytic basis (see Table 1). The categories I have chosen, in a fairly arbitrary way, are those of producer/program supplier, broadcaster/scheduler, and distributor.


Table 1 Schematic View of Broadcast Environment

Table 1 Schematic View of Broadcast Environment

Production / Program Supplier Broadcaster/ Scheduler Distributor
Independent production houses
Facility houses
In-house production
(e.g., Supersport, TopSport,
Safritel, Television
News Productions)
News agencies (e.g., SAPA,
EPNA, Reuters, AFP,
International networks /
national networks
globalizing their services
(e.g., NBC, ABC, BBC,
Sky, CNN, etc.)
Digital Satellite (DTV)
Analogue Satellite (Astrasat)
National radio stations (PSI)
National commercial
radio stations
Community radio

If we take as our point of departure that the broadcast environment should be judged by two criteria -- on one hand, whether it facilitates the development of pluralistic media, that is, provides consumers with the widest set of relevant and really useful choices, and on the other hand, whether it fosters the efficient use of resources, then it makes sense to argue that a public broadcaster will need to identify those areas of “core competence” which must be filled as social goods, but which are being neglected by the for-profit broadcasters. At the same time, it will also identify those areas of broadcasting which are profitable and which can usefully be exploited to provide the funding leverage to cross-subsidize the less profitable but socially necessary. Thus, the SABC plans to have a part share in the satellite venture, ASTRASAT, which will be run as a purely commercial venture in order to produce profits, with the sole purpose of generating moneys to cross-subsidize the less profitable, but socially necessary, terrestrial services.

Part of this process is in effect already happening. The use of outside production companies for the commissioning and production of programming is now an accepted practice. The SABC retains its in-house production facilities, notably TopSport, Television News Productions, and Safritel (responsible for the production of continuity, educational, and children’s programming) as well as studio and editing facilities. These are used for both SABC as well as commercial productions. Increasingly, however, drama productions have been commissioned from outside the Corporation. M-Net has no production infrastructure and, as a result, when it embarks on a local production, it enlists the services of outside production houses. According to M-Net, the local film and television industry benefits from this practice, as commissioning to outside companies creates work, income, and investor confidence in the industry, which in turn promotes prosperity. M-Net also asserts that the commissioning of productions to outside companies contributes “towards a vibrant and dynamic range of creative input that encourages growth, diversity and healthy competition within the industry” (Tager & Govender, 1994, p. 4).

At a structural level, the disaggregation or, in South African parlance, the “unbundling” of media organizations is already apparent with the separation of Sentech (the signal distribution arm of the SABC) from the direct control of the SABC, a move which will be formalized with the passing of the Sentech Act now before Parliament; and the split between Multi-Choice and M-Net. Both these moves were done for very strategic reasons. Outside the direct line of ownership of the SABC, Sentech would be able to canvas further transactions from other broadcasters as well as target the business community, to whom they would be able to offer new distribution services, such as satellite technology to provide training and teleconferencing facilities, in-house radio services, and the like in a more legitimate way -- a very necessary consideration in the light of the deregulation and proliferation of broadcast organizations.

In October 1993, Multi-Choice (now Multi-Choice International Holdings [MIH]) and M-Net separated into two business units. After the restructuring, M-Net retained the role of domestic broadcaster/scheduler and continued as a provider of subscription TV in Africa and the adjacent islands, while Multi-Choice functioned as a distribution network, with control of the Subscriber Management Services (SMS) and Communications Technologies (ComTech) divisions as well as technology and program distribution in Africa and Europe. Multi-Choice (MIH) provides subscriber management services to households subscribing to M-Net, BBC World Service TV, Canal Horizons, TV Portuguesa, Christian Network, Shalom TV, and Bop TV (Multi-Choice, 1994). It has been suggested that part of the reason behind the split was that

in the light of a new political dispensation and investigations by the IBA into broadcasting,...M-Net’s diversification into Multi-Choice allows the company to function as a commercial company, not subject to the social obligations that might be imposed on M-Net as a broadcaster. In other words the IBA has little legal recourse over a financial, management company which is the nature of Multi-Choice. (Tager & Govender, 1994)

By-passing the regulation of the IBA over the international operation, MIH has greater accessibility to the international capital market.

If, as I have argued, it is desirable that public service broadcasting should survive, and if at the same time it is faced with what appear to be insoluble odds against it, then there needs to be a protected space within the broadcasting environment for this type of service. This is true both of the national public broadcaster and community broadcasting with a public mandate. This protection would take place within an awareness of the need for a wider range of broadcasting services. What I am suggesting here is that we move to a situation which John Keane (1991) has referred to as “regulated pluralism.” 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 regulation environment, but it is the job of the media institutions to fulfil their mandates.

The role of the regulator is of primary importance here. The regulator is essential in three specific areas: the allocation of spectrum, the safeguarding of financial viability of the public broadcaster, and the adjudication of ground rules which must be the same for all players (i.e., which do not put public service broadcasters at a disadvantage vis-à-vis for-profit broadcasters). In a purely market-driven environment -- exemplified for instance by the United States of America -- the broadcast spectrum, treated purely as a commodity, will be sold off.

Convergence and globalization mean that we need to construct a national communications/information plan which will co-ordinate the efforts and enterprises of various information-based activities at the national level. At the same time, it is important to understand that within the age of globalization, it is no longer possible for a national regulator to regulate broadcasting or communications entirely: any attempt at regulation must take into consideration the fact that satellites understand no boundaries. Thus a national regulator must acknowledge its limitations -- it needs to be flexible and dynamic while at the same time able to take cognizance of changing external circumstances.

The greatest challenge for both public service broadcasters -- whether national or community -- as well as the regulator, is the vexed question of financing. This question deserves an entire paper on its own, but it is not a question which can be ignored indefinitely. 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.


1 This article is based on the inaugural lecture of the Graham Spry Fund for Public Broadcasting, delivered at the University of Montreal and Simon Fraser University in November, 1996.

2 One of the most important indicators of the difficulties inherent in fulfilling the public service mandate has been in the provision of universal service. Both in terms of complete geographic coverage of the country, as well as in terms of program type and language, universal service largely has been a myth. In the case of South Africa, for instance, the issue of language on radio must serve as exemplary. Reith’s understanding of “the people” was confined to those people who spoke English and, in this vein, initially only English language radio was set up. By the late 1930s, an hour of Afrikaans was introduced, becoming a separate but not equal station in the 1940s, aptly labelled the “B service.” In similar fashion, “Bantu language” radio programs were introduced in the 1950s. With the technical advances made possible by the introduction of FM, the now infamous “Radio Bantu” became a fully fledged array of stations mirroring and contributing to the apartheid grand narrative of separate nations, speaking separate languages, and living in separate areas of the country (cf. Tomaselli, Tomaselli, & Muller, 1987).

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