The SABC is about to launch its own 24-hour television news service
aimed across the continent, writes Michael Tsingo.

Branded SABC News International, the channel is due to launch test transmissions on June 6. It is hoped that President Thabo Mbeki will attend a formal launch ceremony on July 20.

“SABC News International will provide on-the-hour news bulletins and news updates,” says Alwyn Kloppers, Manager of Resources at SABC News, who is also a member of the task team planning the service.

Fashioned on similar lines as the big international services like CNN, BBC International and Al Jazeera, SABC News International will seek to compete commercially.

“We hope to make it commercial and we hope to come up with a solid commercial and marketing plan,” says Kloppers.

The channel will replace the existing SABC Africa service carried on DSTV, whose broadcasting contract expires in March 2008. The new channel will be available on Sentech’s relatively unknown VIVID satellite platform. It will be free to air, but users will need to buy a special decoder.

The PAS10 footprint used will cover Sub-Saharan Africa from Nigeria to South Africa, according to Miranda Abrahams, Product Manager of Signal Distribution at Sentech.

Initially, broadcasting will be mainly in English, with French as the second main language. Other languages like Portuguese could be added in due course.

Kloppers says a temporary studio will be used for the first broadcasts, while its own permanent studio is built.

About 50 people have already been hired for the channel. Kloppers says negotiations with several African countries are at an advanced stage for the establishment of channel bureaus.

The channel will use content produced for domestic news slots as well as producing its own material. It will relay SABC 3’s main news bulletins daily, as well as SAFM’s 8 – 9 am radio debate.

At 10.30 pm every day, the channel will screen repeat programmes until the next morning at 5 am.

The SABC initiative comes amid several other continent-wide TV projects, many driven by a sense that Western networks consistently misrepresent Africa.

Africans Together Vision (ATV), led by Samir Amin, are planning a pan-African channel with the name A24 TV. In 2006, ATV announced that it aims to give a voice to the continent and that it targets free-to-air television and radio stations complemented by mobile and internet services before autumn 2007.

"We've modelled it around Al Jazeera Arabic, not Al Jazeera English. Obviously we're not aiming to be as controversial as they are … What they do well is give a voice to people in the Middle East. In Africa, we don't have a voice," China Daily reported Amin as saying on April 6 2006.

According to the report, Amin, CEO of a Kenyan-based media company, Camerapix and son of famous Kenyan journalist Mohamed Amin, claims that delays are not due to financial constraints but rather to the group’s determination to make this a truly African initiative.

"I've got funders willing to give us all the money we need. But that would destroy our credibility. It can't be a single entity running this show… We're hoping for shareholders round the continent so the look is pan-African," Amin told China Daily.

Amin “foresees small, two-person bureaux in all of Africa's 53 countries, with programming initially in English and French but eventually also including Portuguese, Arabic and Swahili”, according to the paper.

Meanwhile, CNBC Africa has just begun broadcasting as sub-Saharan Africa's first 24/7 international business news channel. It replaces CNBC Europe on DSTV channel 54.

“By focusing on the financial, business and economic news of the region, we aim to provide a platform to an ongoing inter-African discussion on globalisation, employment, career, business and investment opportunities, living standards, infrastructure development and other relevant issues,” the channel's chairman Zafar Siddiqi told Media 24 last year in November.

When fully staffed, the channel is expected to employ more than 130 people with news bureaus in Cape Town, Botswana, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania; and correspondents in London and New York.

Recently, to give more coverage on Africa, Al Jazeera added another portfolio called Al Jazeera Africa to its Al-Jazeera International (AJI), the new 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel and sister of Al-Jazeera Arabic News Channel.

And in East Africa, a new pay-TV is being introduced in five countries, later to be extended to 13 other Sub-Saharan African countries.

“The direct-to-home, satellite-based Pan-African pay-TV, GTV, a subsidiary of UK’s Gateway Broadcasting Service will be available from June 22, with a phased roll-out across sub-Saharan Africa,” reported Phillip Nabyama in the East African Business Week on May 21 2007.

The report says that subscribers need to buy a decoder, smartcard and a dish to access GTV plus other international channels, as with any other satellite service provider. However, the paper says GTV programming will be tailored to meet local needs, and will be more affordable than the traditional Multichoice.