TV: Here’s the bad news

2014-07-24 13:30

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There may be more news on TV than ever before, writes Thinus Ferreira, but does quantity equal quality?

If you have satellite TV, you have access to more South African TV news than ever before. But with so much of the same, and not really a lot of it in all our 11 official languages, are the bulk of viewers really better off?

Satellite TV subscribers now have access to three 24-hour local TV news channels – eNCA, SABC News and ANN7. Coverage is predominantly in English, interspersed with some indigenous language bulletins – but this is only on the SABC News channel.

So far, DStv fails when it comes to rolling news coverage in all, or just more, official languages. But then, satellite competitors StarSat and OpenView HD don’t have any local news channels.

Those without the dish rely on the public broadcaster’s English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Setswana, Sepedi, Tshivenda, Siswati and Xitsonga TV news bulletins.

Then there’s, which does a smattering of early morning and early evening news snippets in the vernacular but it’s hardly enough. Finally, the community TV stations (which are still to build solid news gathering systems) provide mostly local community news in various languages.

According to viewership figures and market research from the SA Audience Research Foundation, while eNCA is still the most watched 24-hour TV news channel in South Africa (daily viewership increased from an average of 16?662 viewers older than 15 in 2013 to 19?624 in 2014), the SABC News channel that started last year began with 2?199 daily viewers aged 15 and older, but is now up to an average of 6?865.

Sadly, the ongoing drama and scandals plaguing the SABC are evident in shifting patterns. Things like the highly controversial SABC tsar, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and his edict that SABC News tells “good news stories” affected viewers negatively.

The SABC’s flagship English daily TV news bulletin on SABC3 has been struggling and just got cut back from the hour-long broadcast it was increased to a few months ago. This bulletin drew an average of 566?913 viewers aged 15 and older between June 2013 and June 2014.

Compare that with the buoyant average of between 2.9?million and 3.1?million viewers who watched’s flagship news programme, eNews Prime Time, in the same time slot over the same period.

In fact, more than a quarter of all TV sets, roughly 28.5% of the total available TV audience, watched eNews Prime Time between June 2013 and June 2014 compared with 5.8% for SABC3 news.

Another interesting fact: some SABC TV news bulletins in other languages grab a larger slice of the audience than the flagship.

The news in isiZulu on SABC1 commands a staggering average of 3.6?million viewers, while the isiXhosa news, also on SABC1, pulls in 3.4?million people. The Afrikaans news has more than 1.5?million viewers.

So why don’t broadcasters do more for viewers with an appetite for local languages? It’s all about money, skills and maybe even intent. Advertisers and sponsors jump to be seen during dramas, sitcoms and game shows rather than during news broadcasts.

Then there’s the issue of where to find experienced, well-rounded producers, reporters and editors who are not just great journalists but excellent in TV news in vernacular languages.

Ever-shrinking newsrooms, coupled with a skills shortage in broadcast news, make it a constant competition (and headache for news editors) just to maintain the basic existing bulletins on offer.

Finally, there’s the issue of intent. Does the South African media, or more specifically, TV news media, feel a real need or any real pressure from viewers as news consumers to produce more TV news in indigenous languages?

Or is the more one-size-fits-all approach that we have, that we’re “stuck” with, and that we’re used to, the one we’ll just continue with because it’s too difficult to try and be more to a broader audience?

One wishes in the next phase of rapid expansion of 24-hour channels and digital platforms, news delivery will be better in a bigger and more representative way – in the tongues of the people.

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