'We cannot let the SABC die' — exec speaks out on TV licences and saving the public broadcaster

Laws need to change to redefine the definition of a 'television set' to take into account how shows are consumed

29 October 2020 - 06:00 By nonkululeko njilo
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If the SABC died, it would die with millions of South Africans. These were sentiments expressed by the public broadcaster on Tuesday.
If the SABC died, it would die with millions of South Africans. These were sentiments expressed by the public broadcaster on Tuesday.
Image: Tyrone Arthur

The SABC is worth saving — and if it died, millions of South Africans would die with it.

This is according to Sylvia Tladi, the head of TV licences division, during an interview with TimesLIVE this week. She said that it was vital that the embattled public broadcaster — often seen as being on life support due to a crippling financial situation — was given a lifeline. Even if this meant finding ways to get people to pay their TV licences.

The SABC in parliament last week suggested that streaming and private satellite services like Netflix and DStv should collect TV licence fees on its behalf. While this was negatively received by the public, Tladi said this was for the best as far as TV licence collection was concerned.

“What we are in the process of doing, which started, I think, more than a year ago, is that when we were reviewing the state of the organisation, we spoke about what needs to change so that our collection can improve ... We found ourselves, a number of times, not being able to effectively collect licence fees largely because we are so legislated.

 “The furthest we have gone as the SABC is to use debt collection, and that is not sufficient. It helps but is not enough for us to be able to collect the type of revenue that the SABC requires and that we are required to collect in terms of the Broadcasting Act,” she said.

The state uses funds from TV licences to bankroll the SABC, which last year reported a net loss of almost R500m.

Tladi said the SABC sought to amend the Broadcasting Act as well as TV licence regulations, which she said were both outdated.  

“We then put forward a proposal for the regulations to be amended to take into account the fact that the Broadcasting Act is 21 years old. Our regulations are 16 years old. In that time there has been so much, especially in technology, that has changed in the media environment.

“People don't just consume content or broadcasting services from a traditional [TV] set they way they know it to be. That poses a problem. Now you have people consuming content from all over, but they are not required to have a licence.

“One of the recommendations that we made was that the definition of a television set as it stands in the legislation needs to be changed [and] expanded to take into account how the media has converged, changed and made room for content to be consumed through other devices,” she said.

The devices include — but are not limited to — smartphones, tablets and computers.

Tladi said if people streamed SABC content, a process of ensuring they had valid TV licences was needed.

“That is what we have put forward for the legislature to consider, otherwise it leaves the SABC behind because we are no longer playing in the same media environment ... We are supposed to be doing what everybody is doing,” she said.

But Tladi admitted that consumers would not get value for their money by paying for the TV licences if they only used other streaming platforms.

“There is nowhere in our legislation where there is value attached to paying a TV licence ... Whenever a person buys a TV, they must have a licence. You need a licence for it,” she said.

The corporation had made headlines for various reasons recently, including retrenchments and flailing finances. Some had even suggested the broadcaster was on its last legs. But Tladi slammed that view.

She acknowledged the corporation had it own share of issues, but it was certainly not dying. She made reference to the 2010 World Cup which the SABC aired for the nation — and also mentioned awareness campaigns which were flighted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think the past few months into the Covid-19 pandemic was a demonstration of how this country is still depending on the SABC. The amount of content, which is in my view relevant to people's daily lives, cannot be covered by anybody else.

“The biggest part of our population cannot afford subscriptions. So how do we say the SABC is dying or allow it to die without thinking about this population that would also die?

“If the SABC died, where else are they going to get their information? They can't afford data. They need the SABC, whether it is radio or TV.

“It's just the minority that will say, 'I don’t need SABC.' But the bulk of this country depends on this institution. It is our duty as the SABC to make sure that we are there for the citizens of this country who cannot afford streaming,” she said.

The proposal before parliament regarding TV licence collections has not been finalised. It is yet to be reviewed, endorsed through different processes — including public participation.

Tladi acknowledged the process remained in the early stages and added “there is still a long way to go”.


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