The launch of e.tv's new 24-hour news channel is a big step for SA TV journalism, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. But the challenge of filling all those hours with interesting content remains a substantial one.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

WALK around the sparkling new hi -tech newsroom that e.tv has built for eNews, its 24-hour news pay-TV channel, and you sense a small station coming of age. E.tv has always had a small newsroom run on a tight budget, which is why it has sometimes felt like a one-woman show.

Yet within those limitations, in the decade since its launch, it has managed to assert its independence and tell stories more fluently and freshly than the Goliath across town, the SABC.

E.tv is now the number two domestic channel, overtaking M-Net, SABC2 and SABC3 and, with about 11-million viewers, is only dwarfed by SABC1.

With the launch of a dedicated pay-TV news channel, their news operation jumps to almost 200 journalists and technicians in a state-of-the-art operation. One cannot fail to be impressed by their new studios and the investment they have made in software, hardware and some of the best-known names in South African news broadcasting.

However, if this is a large step for e.tv, it is a giant leap for South African broadcasting, which is catching up with the revolution in broadcasting news started by Ted Turner when he launched CNN in 1980. It was the first 24-hour news channel and gave us, memorably, the first live war coverage when the allies invaded Iraq in 1991. By the time of the second Iraq invasion, there were a number of global news stations competing for our attention, and by then the news was not just live but fully mobile.

Most recently, Al Jazeera arrived to give us the first global news channel based outside of the west. Hopefully, e.tv will be able, in time, to project an African and South African view of global news. But that will take some time, as they have neither the resources nor the reach to do it yet.

Up to now, we have had to be content with the old style of packaged news at set times domestically. SABC launched SABC International last year, but it has had little impact as it is only available on Vivid decoders, of which there are a handful in SA.

ENEWS’s launch brings us into the 21st century news age, for better or for worse. It promises the excitement of live, instant coverage of major events. The drawback, however, is that this kind of news coverage can, on most days, be mind-numbingly boring. On slow news days they have to fill massive amounts of time and do it cheaply — and the result is usually a rotation of the same stories and a proliferation of talking heads.

E.tv initially applied for a licence to start its own satellite service, but canned that in favour of a deal with MultiChoice. No doubt MultiChoice made them a lucrative offer to be a partner rather than a competitor, and one suspects that this is what e.tv had in mind all along. It is a smart move for e.tv, but it does meant that the licensing of satellite broadcasters, which was supposed to bring competition, has so far only strengthened the MultiChoice behemoth.

Inevitably, e.tv is having a rough time in its first few weeks. Keeping the screen full all day and all night is nightmarishly difficult, and that is why you are seeing so much of the station’s own promotional material and logos, repeated again and again, and why there is such a chorus of apologies for technical glitches.

An interview I first saw last Tuesday morning on the Judge John Hlophe story was still running on Wednesday evening. Keeping the screen filled is hard enough; making it interesting is a Sisyphean task.

The critical test will be the first big running domestic news story, when eNews — if it gets it right — should be able to gather as wide an audience as it can on satellite TV (about 10% of households).

E.tv and eNews may never be the biggest channels in the country, but this latest move could put them on the path to becoming the TV news and information leader. And that is not bad for a small, young station up against the mighty SABC.

# Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 11 June 2008.