SABC wants us to pay more by reminding us why we shouldn’t

Ideas

SABC wants us to pay more by reminding us why we shouldn’t

By invoking Netflix, the broadcaster aims a big spotlight at its own dysfunction

Columnist
SABC television studios in Auckland Park.
NETFLIX LOSSES SABC television studios in Auckland Park.
Image: Kevin Sutherland

When the SABC revealed this week that it wants to extract a licence fee from South Africans who watch Netflix, DStv, or streaming content on their phones, there was derision and outrage. I understand the derision, but the outrage is, I have to say, a slight overreaction. Because the truth is that viewers of Netflix, DStv and mobile content have been paying the SABC for years.

The bulk of the SABC’s revenue comes from advertising, although this has dwindled in recent years due to a complex economic phenomenon called “People Don’t Want To Watch Kak And Thanks To The Internet They Don’t Have To”.

The same phenomenon has also affected the payment of licence fees, which account for only 15% of revenue. Indeed, only about 30% of South Africans who should pay, do pay, which means the SABC faces a huge and regular shortfall.

When you invoke the names of Netflix of any of the other streaming services in your little scheme of plunder, all you’re doing is reminding people of the immense gulf in quality between you and those services.

Stepping into this eternal gap is the SABC’s third revenue stream, as reliable as Riaan Cruywagen and unbreakable as the windows on the 25th floor at Auckland Park: the South African taxpayer, stumping up billion-rand bailouts every few years.

Yes, it sounds absurd for the SABC to demand money from people who are literally paying to not to have to watch its content. But the fact is that the SABC is already subsidised by millions of people who have never consumed anything it has produced. Millions of those South Africans don’t even own a radio, let alone a TV. But every time they buy food or pay a taxi driver to take them to work, they are sending a few cents to the SABC.

In its defence, the SABC is required by law to produce news and content for our entire society, which means that a great deal of its programming, especially on radio, goes to poor communities that are a hard sell to advertisers. Combine that with a deeply rooted culture of nonpayment (for good reasons and less admirable ones) and the fact is that being a public broadcaster is not necessarily a licence to print money.

Still, there are ways of asking for more tax, and there are ways of asking for more tax. And the way the SABC has asked this time speaks volumes about just how monumentally tone-deaf and ham-fisted its insulated, isolated apparatchiks are.

I am not versed in the dark arts of spin, but it seems to me that this really shouldn’t have been difficult.

First, you cook up an anaesthetising headline, something like “Broadening The Mandate By Engaging With Economic Shareholders Via Incremental Upscaling Of Fiscal Relationships”.

If anyone is still reading after that, you proclaim the happy news: the era of bailouts is over. In their place, you are rolling out a new concept: bail-ins. Where once taxpayers were milked like cows in tiny pens, now they are going free-range by being invited, in a compulsory sort of way, to be recognised and celebrated as patrons of the SABC in an increased and enhanced capacity.

If that’s all too difficult, just use the playbook of the last 26 years, spurring your bony nag out of the bushes, pointing your flintlock pistol at our carriage and muttering: “Gimme all your doubloons!”

It’s not subtle or clever, but it is effective. Most importantly, it’s not a shock to anyone. We know the SABC is broken and we’re no longer surprised that it’s broke. If you told us you need another billion, we’d resent it, and we’d despise you, but no more than usual, and soon enough we’d add it to that endless ledger and forget about it in a month or two.

But when you invoke the names of Netflix of any of the other streaming services in your little scheme of plunder, all you’re doing is reminding people of the immense gulf in quality between you and those services.

You’re aiming a great big spotlight at the dysfunction of it all; projecting your losses on a vast silver screen; broadcasting your limitations at a million decibels.

And in so doing, you are firming the public’s resolve to never, ever pay its licence fees ever again.