Inquiry looms into free use of cash-strapped SABC channels by pay-TV operators

04 July 2019 - 09:14 By BEKEZELA PHAKATHI
The cash-strapped SABC wants pay-TV operators to fork out for its channels.
The cash-strapped SABC wants pay-TV operators to fork out for its channels.
Image: 123RF/marcociannarel

SA’s communications authority will soon conduct an inquiry into regulations that compel pay-TV operators to carry the SABC’s free-to-air channels, and whether this should still be done free.

In 2008, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) introduced “must-carry” regulations that force pay-TV companies to carry the SABC’s free-to-air channels – SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 – to support universal access.

However, the SABC, which is desperate to unlock new revenue streams in a bid to remedy its dire financial situation, argues that the rules have had a serious negative impact on potential revenue. 

The public broadcaster, the main source of news and commentary for most South Africans, is on the brink of collapse and has warned that it could be forced to go off the air at any time, unless the government comes to the rescue soon. It has requested a R3.2bn government guarantee to stay afloat, but its bid for funding has so far been unsuccessful.

Executives at the public broadcaster told MPs on Wednesday that without the legislative changes, such as the must-carry regulations and reduction in signal and distribution costs, the entity will have a cumulative net loss of R1.5bn for the 2019-2020 to 2021-2022 financial years.

The broadcaster has crippling debt of almost R2bn, an enormous infrastructure maintenance backlog, and a huge and unsustainable wage bill.  

MultiChoice has previously stated that it is irrational for the public broadcaster to now require its DStv bouquet to pay to carry the three channels as they are freely available in any case. But the SABC argues that MultiChoice has benefited from the channels on DStv, claiming they are among the most watched on the platform.

Icasa said it will conduct an inquiry into the must-carry regulations' efficacy before deciding whether they should be amended.