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eMedia throws spanner in expedited digital TV migration process

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The migration process from analogue to digital TV will free up space for more broadcast channels.
The migration process from analogue to digital TV will free up space for more broadcast channels.

Broadcaster eMedia is heading to court to challenge government’s plan to expedite the digital TV migration process.

This after new communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni yesterday gave a March 2022 deadline to complete the digital TV migration process.

Cabinet last week approved the revised integrated analogue switch-off implementation plan, which is a schedule to complete the remaining areas by March 2022.

Furthermore, Cabinet endorsed the collaborative approach adopted towards fast-tracking the finalisation of the migration of the whole country from analogue to digital platforms.

However, eMedia, the parent company of Etv and Openview, believes the move to switch off analogue signals in March 2022 will kill the businesses of free-to-air broadcasters.

Etv is the first and only privately-owned free-to-air television station in SA. 

The company’s court challenge is expected to further delay the digital TV migration process, which has been up in the air for some years.

South Africa has been trying to migrate from analogue to digital TV for over a decade. However, the analogue switch-off process has been beset by numerous challenges and controversies over the years, bogging down the process even further.

Although it committed to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU’s) call for all nations to switch to digital terrestrial television, SA missed the mid-2015 deadline to complete the full switchover. The ITU called on nations to migrate to digital to allow radio frequency spectrum to be freed up for mobile broadband services.

Uncooperative partner

Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.
Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

Speaking on eMedia’s eNCA news channel, Khalik Sherrif, CEO of eMedia Holdings, said the broadcaster is not an agreeing partner to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies’ move to switch off analogue signals in March.

However, he noted the company is not against the move to digital TV but the timeframe given is not feasible for free-to-air broadcasters to stay afloat.

“We are not agreeing to the plan because we don’t believe it’s achievable at all. We are, of course, of the opinion that analogue switch-off must happen. Absolutely, it must happen, but the way it is being rushed now, it is absolutely unachievable to do this by March 2022.”

He cited the global chip shortage, as well as the logistical challenges in installing set-top boxes (STBs) as some of the challenges the mooted expedited digital TV migration deadline will encounter.

“How is this going to be done? We have about 5.6 million households in this country that rely on analogue transmission. How are you going to get all of them across the line?

“You need to produce about 500 000 STBs a month to meet the deadline. It’s not going to happen. This is a real problem the country is facing because there are people who are going to be left in the dark. There’s not going to be television for millions of households, and that’s the problem,” said Sherrif.

Also speaking during the eNCA interview, Gary Whitaker, CEO of the Broadcast Research Council (BRC) of SA, concurred with Sherrif that the timelines for digital TV migration are not feasible.

“We ran TAMS, which is the Television Audience Measurement Survey, and that is a tool the industry uses for trading and for the broadcasters to sell their ad inventory. That’s done via a passive viewing panel – these are households in South Africa that are representative of the TV universe in SA.

According to Whitaker, the TV universe in SA is roughly 15.9 million homes. The BRC’s panel comprises of over 3 000 homes and they represent the 15.9 million homes, he explained.

“Within our panel, we have various segments and one of those segments is analogue-only homes and we measure their viewership. They make up about 28% of our panel but if you weigh that up to South Africa’s real numbers of the 15.9 million, that’s 5.6 million homes,” he said.

“If we were to turn off the analogue signal, our homes will be affected. We have to reflect what actually is happening in the market. So any one of our panel that loses a signal, we don’t throw them out of the panel – they stay on and they get measured as no viewing or zero viewing. Their viewership cannot be traded as a currency, meaning the broadcasters cannot make money.”

Jeopardy at stake

Sherrif pointed out that free-to-air broadcasters make their money from advertising. “So if you switch off everybody at a certain date, advertisers will be disappointed, markets will pull away and we, the free-to-air broadcasters of the country, will be in jeopardy because we will lose our businesses.

“But we are not saying it [digital migration] must not happen. All we are saying is there must be a planned approach. What we are saying is it can happen in 15 to 18 months – that will be the first phase.”

In the first phase, he said, what the country needs is to give spectrum to the mobile network operators – that’s the urgent need.

“The spectrum that is needed by the mobile network operators is above certain megahertz. So we have a plan in which we can release the spectrum to the mobile network operators within 15 to 18 months. We presented that plan – a logical plan – and it was not heard at all,” Sherrif charged.

He said there has been no consultation to fast-track the digital migration process. “We were called to a steering committee meeting two weeks ago on a Friday and we got a presentation that we have never seen before.

“Immediately after the presentation was made to us, we were asked about our opinions, and we asked at the end of our opinions why there wasn’t any more objection to what was going on. So subsequently, we were kicked out of the meeting.

“Subsequent to that, we were called to another meeting last Friday where we presented what we think is a feasible plan but we were not heard.

“Digital terrestrial television (DTT) – that’s where we should be going, because we are in the digital age. Unfortunately, in our country, it has failed and is failing. Over the last 15 years, just about 600 000 have been connected to DTT. As it stands in South Africa, it’s an inferior product because the world is going to HD; not even HD, it’s going to 4K.

“In South Africa’s plan at the moment, if you go to DTT immediately, normal South Africans who are not able to pay for TV will only be able to get eight channels which are HD.”

He said in other countries, they get up to 25 HD channels. “Is it the plan of this government to keep this country behind when the rest of the world is in HD and 4K? I think it’s unfair.

“We can only take the only recourse that is available to us. We are fighting for free-to-air television in this country. And what is the recourse? We have to go to court. There is no other way because we are definitely not partnering with the Department of Communications on this matter,” he concluded.

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