Cape Town TV, the community TV service operating in the Cape Town metro since September 2008, is taking action against ICASA and the Department of Communications over their botched implementation of digital terrestrial television (DTT).
The free-to-air station has seen its viewer numbers decimated due to a change in its broadcast frequency caused by the inception of DTT test broadcasts in Cape Town. Now CTV is demanding action from the broadcast regulator, ICASA and the Department of Communications to create a fair environment in which the station can continue to serve the public interest through broadcasting community content.
After four years on air Cape Town TV (CTV) had reached an audience level of 1,3 million viewers a month – but in March this year the broadcast regulator, ICASA, relocated the station’s broadcast frequency to channel 67 to make way for DTT test transmission. Consequently CTV’s viewership dropped drastically and is only now starting to creep back up. According to the latest figures released from SAARF’s Television Audience Measure Survey (TAMS) CTV’s cumulative monthly audience for September stands at 663 000 viewers.
“It’s tragic,” says Station Manager Karen Thorne. “We worked so hard to get our viewership up to a commercially viable level, which is no easy feat for a non-profit channel, when ICASA pulled the rug out from under our feet.”
The station places the blame squarely at the door of ICASA and the Department of Communications (DoC), bodies which Thorne says handled the frequency migration in an uncaring and irresponsible manner. “We understand that there are likely to be disruptions as a result of the introduction of DTT and we are not the only channel that will be affected – but we believe it is the responsibility of the regulator to preserve and protect existing broadcasting services when such new technologies are introduced,” she says.
CTV informed its viewers well in advance that it was moving to a new frequency so it came as a surprise when the channel’s numbers dropped so dramatically after the frequency change. As Thorne explains, “What we discovered is that because channel 67 is in the upper reaches of the UHF spectrum, CTV’s signal is now much harder to pick up because the higher the frequency the more the signal degrades over distance.
“As a result many CTV viewers have had to buy wide-band, outside aerials in order to continue picking up CTV signal. But this in an investment that many of CTV’s lower income viewers cannot afford.”
The owner of aerial installer Claremont Television, Jerome Layman, says he gets many call-outs to fix clients’ CTV reception problems. “I’d say about 25% of my customers have been affected by that move,” he observes. “There are a lot of people out there who used to be able to pick up the channel and who are now missing it. This is a widespread problem in Cape Town.”
CTV approached ICASA’s Joint Spectrum Advisory Group (JSAG) in an attempt to get a lower broadcast frequency in April this year. At Sentech’s recommendation CTV applied to use channel 32, which is not being used at present but which has been earmarked to carry a third digital multiplex. However a third multiplex could equally well be accommodated on channel 67.
Says Thorne, “After six months ICASA has still not given CTV a written response, so we still don’t know what their thinking is on this matter. This has left the channel in state of limbo not knowing what to tell viewers and unsure of what the future holds. Meanwhile this is having a devastating effect on the station’s economic viability as donors, advertisers and sponsors, many of whom have remained loyal to the channel, are starting to lose confidence as the process drags on.”
Eventually CTV will have to shift to digital broadcasting along with all of the other TV stations in the country, but in the interim the station remains adamant that channel 67 is not a viable frequency to sustain its broadcast operations and that a lower frequency is required. As Thorne states, “We believe that ICASA is being negligent in failing to address this issue and moreover is failing in its function of ensuring a sustainable environment within which broadcasters can operate.
“To add insult to injury we approached the Department of Communications in December 2011 to provide financial support for marketing the channel’s frequency change because this is linked to the DTT migration process which the department is funding. The DoC agreed to assist and signed a contract with CTV for this purpose in March 2012. But six months later CTV is yet to receive a cent and the DoC is simply ignoring the contract.
“The DoC has shown a callous disregard for the plight of Cape Town’s community TV channel while they spend millions of Rands on marketing the DTT transition. Such lapses on the part of DoC bode ill for its handling of the digital migration process, which is showing symptoms of the same kind of dysfunctionality on the part of the department.
CTV finds it curious that in all the expensive full-page government adverts that appeared to market the much-lauded launch of DTT, no mention was made of community TV despite a lot being said about how this would affect the other free-to-air channels. Comments Thorne, “It’s as if, from the DoC’s perspective, community TV just doesn’t exist.”
CTV is demanding a swift resolution to this matter by ICASA and the DoC, failing which the station will once again be forced to engage in legal and protest action to ensure its survival as a public service to the people of Cape Town. Says Thorne, “If necessary CTV will take these matters to the Public Protector because we believe that the station is a victim of administrative injustice.”
As a community channel, CTV is owned and controlled by the citizens of Cape Town through a non-profit, democratic, membership-based structure. The channel is independent from commercial and political interests and provides a platform for freedom of expression by ordinary people. As Thorne notes, “Community TV fulfils an important gaps in the South African media landscape and we cannot allow the channel to be marginalised in this manner.”