Load shedding delivers another blow to SABC

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) says the twin impact of load shedding and load reduction is having a direct impact on how much television people watch.

Data published in the national broadcaster’s annual performance plan shows a direct correlation between the level of power outages and the amount of time South Africans spend in front of the TV.

While there are obvious health and societal implications to this decline in TV watching, it also has direct financial implications for the SABC and other broadcasters as ‘average minute ratings’ is effectively used as a currency to trade in airtime with advertisers. This is tracked through an online dashboard available on the Broadcast Research Council’s website.

“While the impact of load-shedding and load reduction are visible to the casual observer accessing this dashboard, what is less obvious is the impact of longer-term power outages that occur outside of the load-shedding schedule,” it said.

“Because the audience measurement instrument can and does correct this through weighting processes when the cause of non-polling by households is traceable, this unpredictability of power supply on either side of the official processes has had a marked impact on SABC’s annual share of national television audiences over the last five years.”

The SABC noted that this has been compounded by the slow progress in digital broadcast migration that has helped to grow the subscription TV market, and therefore the fragmentation of the previously large audiences on the SABC platforms.

The national broadcaster is already under severe financial pressure. At the end of March 2021, the SABC reported a net loss of R530 million, a 4% decline compared to the previous year, while 82% of TV licence holders across the country did not pay the annual licence fee.

While Netflix, DStv and other digital services would obviously also be affected by load shedding, it is typically far easier to access this content through mobile apps and web browsers compared to traditional television broadcasts.

This shift to streaming services is also being seen in other less obvious ways, the SABC said.

“In April 2020, when the country was just a few days into the hard lockdown, ICASA issued mobile operators with temporary licences for unused radio frequency spectrum, in order to ease network congestion. This meant that operators could offer their customers cheaper data.

“Even though this temporary arrangement ended 17 months later (in November 2021), South Africans had adopted data-enabling behaviours that are certain to remain.”

It also cited the national TV audience measurement survey (TAMS) for 2021 which found an unusually high number of households with faulty television sets that the owners had no intention of repairing.

While the reasons for this may be the economic pressure occasioned by the pandemic in some cases, in others this was by choice, it said.

“The SABC will continue to make national favourites available on all the platforms that its audiences frequent. That is why the organisation is also pursuing an aggressive over-the-top strategy that will facilitate all these opportunities for engagement in a single place.”

Even when the television set is a working one, it is not always used to consume broadcast content. The SABC’s data shows only three-quarters of the time spent with the television set in analogue homes is spent consuming linear broadcast content. This is down from 84% in January 2019.

Read: Big TV licence changes planned for South Africa – including a new tax

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