Public TV in South Africa faces questions about budget and mission

JOHANNESBURG – Similarities can be misleading, but at first glance the South African public broadcaster faces many of the same challenges as his or her counterparts in the U.S..

Severely short of money, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) received a government loan of 1.47 billion Rand – about $200 million – in return for a promise to reduce its spending. However, many are skeptical that SABC can resolve its longstanding issues of budget and organizational structure.

“I am not convinced we are out of the woods on this one,” said Roy Padayachie, South Africa’s communications minister, according to published reports this week.

As in most of the world, public television was the first broadcast channel in South Africa. Unlike in the U.S., where commercial channels were the pioneers, SABC had no competition for years. It was not until the 1990s that the South African government licensed the first over-the-air commercial TV network. Now, with SABC facing numerous commercial broadcast and satellite competitors, the South African government is reviewing the mission of public television and the resources that are needed to support it.

In the U.S., by contrast, public television began as a supplement to commercial television – a national service for experimental programming as discussed in my previous blog. This may not describe current programming on PBS, but that was its original mission.

Here in South Africa, public television’s mission from the start was to promote national unity and, through programming in multiple languages, reinforce the country’s diverse cultures. This included, when SABC began, South Africa’s apartheid policy of forced racial separation. (Under apartheid, there were even separate daily newscasts broadcast for black and white viewers.) SABC’s mission has expanded in recent years to encompass “restoration and dignity” and “building a common future,” according to its website.

However, SABC’s prime time programming is now devoted largely to American movies and to TV entertainment programs also imported from the U.S., which critics say is not the best use of limited public resources.

The government promises that its review of public television will be complete by 2013.