The SA debate on whether the TV licence fee should be scrapped has resonance in Namibia, where Robin Tyson, in The Namibian, considers the implications for that country.

Robin Tyson writes in The Namibian:

THE recent call by the RDP for a boycott of the NBC television licence, due to alleged bias by the public broadcaster, harks back to similar calls by the Afrikaans-speaking community in South Africa shortly after the dramatic changes to the SABC television channels in the mid-1990s, when Afrikaans, they felt, was being marginalised as a language by the public broadcaster.

However, such threats of boycotts may soon be a thing of the past, as the concept of an annual television licence fee is currently under discussion in South Africa. A draft bill, currently under discussion by their Department of Communication, has suggested that the public broadcaster’s present mode of funding needs changing, and, in particular, the idea of a television licence as a form of generating income is outdated and outmoded.

Currently the SABC generates nearly one billion rand (R97 000 000) in licence revenue. However, nearly a third of that goes towards the cost of collection. In addition, it is a system of funding that requires all who own a television set to pay a licence, whether they watch the SABC or not.

The rise of ‘pay’ channels (such as DStv) has meant that, increasingly, viewers not only expect high-quality programming (exclusive sports events, the latest movies, etc) but are prepared to pay handsomely for them. Internationally, this form of commercial funding for broadcasting is increasingly popular, as opposed to the older approach that society as a whole (whether through licence fees or taxes) must pay for broadcasting that is in the ‘public interest’.

The danger of the adoption of increased commercialisation in the current Namibian broadcasting environment is that the superficial gloss of perceived professionalism by, for example, international news channels on DStv means that there are a substantial number of Namibians who are acutely aware of international developments, but blissfully unaware of what is happening in their own country!

Coupled with that are the numerous scandals concerning the Namibian public broadcaster (funds disappearing, alleged top management corruption, even problems, through Penduka, in the collection of licence fees) that have resulted in a general lack of confidence in the public broadcaster.

Of course the amount we pay for annual NBC TV licence fees (N$204) is, for the wealthier viewer, minimal, and works out at only N$17 per month (compared to the phenomenal N$499 a month, or over N$6 000 a year) that one pays for the full DStv bouquet. Although some Namibians plead poverty, that amount handed over to the ruling party’s investment arm, through DStv, invested over ten years, would very nearly come to N$100 000 – enough to pay for a brand new small car and certainly for a very good education for the children currently wasting their days watching MTV or Cartoon Network.

Coupled with the issue of funding is the question of whether or not, in these commercialised and digitalised days, we need a public broadcaster at all. Even terrestrial commercial broadcasters (such as One Africa Television) essentially manage (on a staff of 30 and with no licence fees or government funding) to do pretty much what the public broadcaster (with a staff of hundreds and annual licence fees and an annual government subsidy of N$116 million) does. A comparison of the evening schedules will reveal local news on both channels, local sport on both channels, and local music on both channels, coupled with the popular fodder of regionally produced soap operas and international soccer.

But nevertheless, there must be an argument that, especially in Namibia, we do need a public broadcaster in order to reflect programming of public interest and public concern – issues that, on a commercial station, would not be reflected because, honestly, they would not be financially viable to cover. Here one thinks of parliamentary debates, national commemorations (such as the recent coverage of the memorial of the late Hendrik Witbooi) and political debates (vital in the run-up to this year’s elections). In addition, in support of the recent MISA statement on the issue, the public broadcaster surely has a duty to provide free (as opposed to paid for) airtime to all political parties, allowing smaller (and poorer) parties equitable access to the airwaves.

And originally this was the point of the licence fee. Back before the days of television a radio licence fee was used to fund radio services such as the SABC English and Afrikaans services. These were true public channels, carrying no advertising whatsoever (and therefore under no pressure from the commercial dictates of funding). However, although the licence fee stayed (now collected for television rather than radio receivers), advertising also became part of the funding model of the public broadcaster, and this is now why NBC faces such a critical dilemma.

The dilemma is that they are not only required to do the above-mentioned public broadcasting activities but the public (and advertisers) will also expect them to provide entertainment programmes as well.

The current South African thinking is that a levy on income tax (essentially the government subsidy that we already have in place in Namibia) would be used to fund the public broadcaster, thus releasing it from the requirement of raising licence fees. However, concerns have been raised about this plan, and in particular the fact that even those who do not even own a television set would be penalised through tax in funding a broadcaster they could never watch! One advantage, nevertheless, of the exclusive tax-generated funding model would be that, instead of the present fixed licence fee, revenue would be collected according to what one earned.

However, another solution might be on the way, taking a leaf out of the current DSTV model of decoders and ‘smart cards’ that restrict access to channels only to those who pay. With the forthcoming transition to digital terrestrial broadcasting (an upgrading of the present NBC signal on all terrestrial transmitters to digital technology), it will mean that each television set owner in Namibia wishing to watch the public broadcaster will have to purchase a so-called ‘set-top box’ in order to covert the digital signal to analogue and thus be seen on their older technology television receivers. These set-top boxes will probably have to be subsidised by government (the South African model, with a R2,5 billion government subsidy, looks at a potential cost – after subsidy – of R700 for each box), but, more importantly, the boxes can be controlled through smart cards. For those who don’t pay their licence fee, access to NBC broadcasts would be denied.

The advantage, apart from ensuring that all NBC viewers pay their licence fees, will be that, for those who claim to never watch NBC there would be no licence fee, and for those who do, they would know that everyone who was watching the channel would be paying. Income for the NBC would be dramatically increased, the income could be accurately calculated and budgeted for each year, and thus used for improved quality programmes and even the introduction of a variety of channels. The BBC, for instance, in the switch to digital, introduced new channels (BBC 3, BBC 4) for digital viewers, and new radio stations (BBC Radio 6, BBC Radio 7) for those listening through the digital set-top boxes.

The argument against such a funding model would, of course, be that the NBC would no longer be a ‘public’ broadcaster, in that only those members of the public who had paid their licence fee would have access to its broadcasts. However, surely the argument at present is that it is grossly unfair to expect some viewers to pay their fee because it “is the right thing to do” but others are essentially watching the same channel for nothing. The smart card solution would ensure a level playing field and see that all viewers paid the same for what they were watching, with no exceptions.

* Robin Tyson is a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Namibia and is currently authoring a textbook on radio and television presentation techniques.