Digital TV is looming...Uh-oh!

2015-03-22 09:30

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Digital TV will finally become a reality this year. But this will fuel a hunger for more content and more TV channels. We’re starting to get a peek inside, but it’s like your fridge at the end of the month: nothing to see.

While government and the TV industry have been squabbling for years over the R700 box households earning more than R3?200 a month will have to buy, nobody has talked about what exactly will be offered in terms of content (beyond vague promises of more channels).

Now the content chickens are coming home to roost. And it’s not pretty.

This month, for the first time, at a digital terrestrial television (DTT) readiness briefing, Parliament was told the new digital TV channels would have to be supplied by the SABC, e.tv and M-Net, and would have to sparkle with local content to entice viewers to pay the money to make the switch – because “local is lekker”.

It’s a belated, throwaway comment in a process that has totally discarded the viewer (whom digital TV is, ironically, actually happening for) and which was hijacked over the past few years as a vehicle for job creation, “digital dividends” and local decoder manufacturing. It’s also condescending.

Viewers are not going to watch new South African TV channels broadcast digitally simply because they have local content. They will watch local content that is good, relevant and speaks to their lives.

Already, the SABC won’t launch its DTT offering with the 18 TV channels – 17 TV channels and one interactive video service – it promised in 2011. Most likely, it will be five: SABC1, SABC2, SABC3, SABC News and an SABC Entertainment channel.

Both e.tv and M-Net, which saw their digital spectrum allocations stripped and siphoned away as the process kept being delayed and regulations kept changing, will likely each now start with a smaller set of new TV channels. Viewers also won’t switch to their new offerings if their content, particularly local content, isn’t enticing enough.

The SABC, M-Net and e.tv’s new digital TV channels will have to find the money somewhere to make new and excellent programmes, and spend on acquisitions to fill new channel schedules.

It’s not government, the Industrial Development Corporation or the National Film and Video Foundation, but civil society organisations such as the Support Public Broadcasting Coalition that this month focused attention on the precipice digital TV is racing towards. Where will local content come from? And how will broadcasters pay for it?

Broadcasters can do a lot if they just make inventive plans. This year, viewership of the Parliamentary TV Service on DStv tripled. Suddenly, watching the proceedings of Parliament is cool. But only a fraction of our 40?million viewers have access to it. It’s public broadcasting, of public interest – and cheap.

Scour the archives for local kids’ programming (puppets), educational programming and documentaries that aren’t dated. Of each of those genres, there’s enough content to fill 24-hour channels for at least a few months.

Otherwise, viewers might just stick with their bunny ears and find no reason to change?…?and they will be right.

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