It's been a trying and unprecedented year for many industries in South Africa.
But not many would have played as crucial a role for their respective communities as local news platforms in SA's vast regions and provinces.
In an era where we were glued to our screens for the latest "family meeting" on the Covid-19 pandemic, regional broadcasters had a direct line to their communities, helping viewers understand, digest, and make sense of our new reality.
Many in South Africa still prefer to receive their news in their language of choice, and most only ever receive their news from one broadcast source.
That's where regional broadcasters come in.
It is here that people can receive their news in their home language, while others enjoy it for entertainment, recreation, and an escape from the rigours of everyday life.
One such television station is Soweto TV, based in Gauteng province.
"It's been a tough year. With the newsroom, very early in the pandemic, there was a high spate of infections within our newsroom, and as a small operation it affected the team quite badly. But they did not miss any bulletins, and that speaks to the dedication of the staff," says Mandla Ncinitwa, Programmes Manager at Soweto TV.
"The important thing is that at the height of the 2020 pandemic, Soweto residents looked to local TV for local news, for what was happening in the local clinics. Local transmission was very, very key, and that news was very important to the community."
Language, community, access
Soweto has a unique place in South Africa’s history, and is in many ways a microcosm of the broader South African story, with people from the length and breadth of the country calling Soweto home.
"We cover almost all South African languages. Soweto is made up of everyone who comes from everywhere in the country. We have isiZulu, IsiSotho, Tshwana and isiXhosa programmes as the dominant languages the channel pushes a lot."
The content ranges from news bulletins, entertainment and sports content, and some of the highest rated episodes or series can receive up to 90 000 viewers a month.
Soweto TV, along with GauTV, 1KZN, Cape TV, Tshwane TV, and Mpuma Kapa TV are part of the DStv platform.
The partnership with Multichoice allows more viewers to gain access to these crucial regional TV stations and gives Soweto TV the opportunity to reach beyond their province.
"The opportunity to be part of DStv's platform is a big plus. Without them, we wouldn’t be talking to an audience in the Free State, KZN, and other spaces that the channel is able to reach. It's the biggest highlight," says Ncinitwa.
Church services, Diski Challenge
The partnership also allows regional broadcasters to meet content quotas to maintain their broadcasting licences, a crucial component in continuing to operate.
And with it, it has brought many successes for the local community, exemplified during the national lockdown of the past year.
"The issue of taking church services live during the pandemic, it started with community television," says Nciwintwa.
"It was part of the government messaging to keep out of crowded churches. Soweto TV was one of the first to take the pastors live. So, it served two purposes, where the audience needed their faith during that time, and Soweto TV provided it in a safe, live, stay-at-home space."
"MultiChoice also gives us the DStv Diski Challenge for free, live matches that a lot of our community members enjoy watching and we get good ratings at those times. It’s a project that is worth millions of rands."
Young, talented musicians too also get a shot at exposure on the regional station, in the hopes of catching the eyes of national broadcasters.
Training and reach
MultiChoice has a strong partnership with regional TV stations and supports them with state-of-the-art equipment, content development and skills development.
It is this partnership and assistance, that is critical in allowing regional television stations to continue to operate, says Ncinitwa.
"If you look at the type of support they give us, they took our technical team and gave them training around camerawork and directing. We’ve got four of our staff that are attending different courses with Stellenbosch University, and that is done through Multichoice. There is so much they are doing beyond resourcing these channels with equipment and technology to broadcast."
This also includes Final Control Centre technology, which vastly improves the picture quality for thousands of viewers and takes them into different homes.With their support, it allows passionate media workers like Mandla the opportunity to continue to reach people who would otherwise have little other access to media.
"It gives me the opportunity to tell the kind of stories that no one is able to hear," Ncinitwa concludes.
This post was sponsored by Multichoice and produced by BrandStudio24 for News24.