SABC's TV licence collection plans like 'arranging deck chairs on the Titanic' - MultiChoice

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SABC TV licences have a 75% evasion rate, says MultiChoice.
SABC TV licences have a 75% evasion rate, says MultiChoice.
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  • MultiChoice told the Department of Communications that it was opposed to proposed changes to the SABC's TV licence fee collection regime.
  • The broadcaster said government should work to conclude the ICT White Paper to create policy certainty.
  • MultiChoice slammed the idea that the SABC could veto policy in which it had a stake.

MultiChoice told the Department of Communications on Wednesday that it was opposed to the SABC Bill's proposed changes to the television licence fee collection regime.

MultiChoice, which owns the country's dominant pay-TV subscription television provider DStv, was making submissions to the department's virtual hearings on the SABC Bill, which was approved by Cabinet and made available for public comment at the end of June.

The bill seeks to improve the financial position of the SABC, which has faced a number of challenges, including a television licence fee evasion rate of more than 70%. Hearings on the bill are also being held while the ICT White Paper remains a work in progress.

The bill brings the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) into the fold when it comes to determining the TV licence regime, saying: "This bill grants powers to the regulator to develop the television licence fees regulations to determine the price and other terms and conditions".

'Household levy'

The SABC told the Department of Communications during a virtual hearing on Monday that the bill should make provisions for a "household levy" that is based on possible access to the SABC's services - as opposed to actual usage.

The SABC also proposed that the "dominant" pay-TV subscription service - i.e. MultiChoice - collect TV licence fees from subscribers on the public service broadcaster's behalf and withhold their service from them if they refuse to pay.

MultiChoice general manager of regulatory affairs Lara Kantor said the company took issue with the fact that the SABC Bill was having its hearings in conjunction with work on the White Paper, which is meant to look at broader, more far-reaching ICT policy regulation and law.

"It makes sense to confine the bill to the narrow dimensions that that are in the policy documents. That allows the department to continue to focus resources on completing the White Paper process and it allows it to address SABC matters that are not caught up in the White Paper process," said Kantor.

Kantor said MultiChoice understood that if the department decided to put the bill on hold pending the finalisation of the White Paper process and deal with the legislative amendments holistically that flow from the final White Paper.

"But this process must not be widened to deal with issues which have not yet been settled at the level of policy or rush, short-circuit or circumvent the White Paper process or turn into a draft White Paper 2.0," she said.

Also representing MultiChoice, Werkmans Attorneys' Wendy Rosenberg said the bill's terms and definitions also needed to be better aligned with those found in the Electronic Communications Act (ECA).

"Some definitions don't work and should be aligned with the ECA. The definition of the broadcasting licence is a problem because the ECA deals the licensing of radio spectrum. It is inappropriate for a spectrum licence to be the same as broadcasting service licence," said Rosenberg.

Rosenberg said the bill's proposal to shift the power to make TV licence fee regulations from the Minister of Communications to Icasa - in consultation with the minister and the SABC - also raised some questions.

"The bill requires regulations to be made by the authority. It is not clear why this change is being proposed. These are not broadcasting regulations, but practical aspects of mechanisms like licences..." Rosenberg said.

She said it was not appropriate for regulations to be made jointly by Icasa and the minister, adding that the bill's proposal to give the SABC the right to veto regulations that affect it is impermissible, as no person must exercise decision-making power or judgment in their own matter.

Rosenberg recommended that the power to make TV licence fee regulations should remain with the minister. In addition - whether the minister or Icasa prescribed the regulations - MultiChoice opposed the proposal for the regulations to be made in consultation with the SABC.

She urged the department not to tinker with licence fee administration before the White Paper is finalised, likening do so to "arranging deck chairs on the Titanic".

'Use SARS to collect TV licences'

MultiChoice head of policy analysis, research, and regulatory affairs, Aynon Doyle, pointed out SABC TV licences have a 75% evasion rate, suggesting that an effective revenue collector such as the SA Revenue Service (SARS) would be best placed to assist the SABC with collecting TV licence fees.

"No changes globally have attempted to shift revenue collection to the private sector on the part of public service broadcasters. If SARS collected in 2019 there would have been a significant difference in what would have been collected," said Doyle.

Doyle said there was no international precedent for pay-TV subscription broadcasters to collect fees on behalf of a competitor, even if that competitor were a public service broadcaster. He added that any suggestion that such a policy be adopted in South Africa would be "mischievous and unfounded".

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