Spare a thought for the SABC. That's what crossed my mind recently in Parliament as I sat through the Auditor General's (AG) presentation on the SABC to the Communications Portfolio Committee. Apart from repeat findings, the corporation had regressed in that there were new findings, the AG reported.
The bureaucrat in me was depressed as were the Parliamentarians - and they said as much. But the communicator in me helped me keep a proper persective on the challenges the public broadcaster faces. Here is a corporation that is walking a tightrope of being a commercial enterprise while at the same time fulfilling a public mandate without any public funding. According to international best practice, public broadcasters receive their funding from three sources: obligatory licence fees, government funding and commercial sources in the form of advertising revenue.
As a rule, public broadcasters do not rely on advertising to the same degree as commercial broadcasters or at all. This is meant to allow public broadcasters to transmit programmes that may not be commercially viable but are of educational, political, cultural and social value. That the SABC has managed to walk this tightrope - put aside its stumbling now and again - is nothing short of a miracle.
Take South Africa's international engagements as an example. In all foreign trips one has undertaken accompanying political principals, one has never missed the presence of SABC journalists and cameras. The same cannot be said about our free-to-air broadcaster and the commercial print media. They have the luxury to cite resource constraints as the reason they do not send their journalists on international assignments - irrespective of how their absence limits their audiences' understanding of the relationship of news to the global framework of nation states. But then emphasis on the bottom line has a way of being inimical to the communication requirements of a democratic society.
The SABC must be commended for its attempts to influence the mediation of international news about South Africa and our national identity on the global stage in spite of having been forced a few years ago to scale down its international operations. The question has to be asked: what is the role of the rest of our media in constructing the national and the global? In a world where the key providers of international news, even about ourselves in the South, are still predominantly associated with the US, the UK and France/Europe, the role the SABC plays in covering our foreign activities is far more important than is often acknowledged.
Then there is the conventional wisdom that the SABC is haemorraghing viewers and listeners and is providing diminishing cultural returns. Many who cannot see through the broad neo-liberal agenda of market principles and minimalist state intervention that foregrounds criticism of the SABC have, unfortunately, bought into this wisdom. But let us examine the facts.
The most popular radio stations in South Africa are the SABC's African language stations, with Ukhozi boasting a listenership of 7 289 000 and making it one of the biggest radio stations in the world. The top five radio stations - Ukhozi, Metro, Umhlobo Wenene, Lesedi and Motsweding - are all SABC owned. The SABC radio audience has been increasing against the backdrop of a general decrease in radio listening. There must be something right with the content SABC radio stations are providing. But it would seem this huge listenership is invisible or insignificant to media commentators and SABC critics.
Then there is the much talked about viewership losses in the 7pm news bulletin on SABC 3 to e.tv's news programme on the same time slot. The 7pm English news programme on SABC 3 gets between 900 000 and one million viewers whereas the 7pm English news on e.tv gets between 2,5 million and three million viewers.
To conclude that e.tv is doing better than SABC 3 on the hour is lazy analysis. Apples must be compared with apples. The fact of the matter is SABC 3 news is targeted at the higher LSM groups 8-10 (and how many are they in the country?) whereas e.tv news is targeted at a broader range of people. It sure works for e.tv just as it does for SABC 1 at 7.30pm when it attracts about 3,2 million and 3,4 million viewers for the isiZulu and isiXhosa news bulletins respectively, thus making them the top two TV news bulletins in the country. Leave aside the fact that on any given weekday, the SABC 7.30pm news bulletin boasts a viewership that is approximately two million above the total, and declining, daily newspaper circulation of 1 373 377.
Lastly, there is the allegation of diminishing cultural returns of SABC's programmes. Well, the most popular programme ever on South African television is the SABC's Generations. In spite of what the chattering classes may be saying, Generations is appealing to the cultural sensibilities of at least 7 million viewers every evening, followed closely by SABC1 dramas Zone 14 with 5,7 million viewers, Montana with 4,8 million and Tshisa with 4,5 million viewers.
Am I saying the SABC has no issues? Not at all. It has plenty and the AG pointed them out two weeks ago in Parliament. But in our criticism of the SABC, it is important that we keep a proper perspective. Not all media commentators are friends of public broadcasting, ideologically that is.
Vusi Mona is Deputy CEO of Government Communication and Information System, he served in the government's communication task team on the GFIP.