For the first time in South Africa, political parties could soon be flighting adverts on television — but not if the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has its way.
The public broadcaster told the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) on Monday that the flighting of political party messages could cost it up to R91,8-million in lost advertising revenue.

“It’s a lot of money … Eighty percent of our revenue comes from advertising,” said SABC news chief Snuki Zikalala. “[It will] dent our finances, badly, badly.”

Icasa finished public hearings on Monday on draft regulations that provide a framework under which party political broadcasts in the electronic media will be covered in the run-up to general elections next year.

The regulations stipulate that broadcasting licence holders must make available four two-minute time slots every day for election broadcasts and adverts on radio and television.

“It will be a first for South Africa,” said Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) spokesperson Lilian Mlambo.

She added that this was the norm in countries such as the United States, where, according to a Reuters report in July, presidential candidates in the 2008 race were spending an estimated $800-million on TV adverts.

Icasa’s Brenda Ntombela said the SABC would still be able to charge money for political party adverts, but that it would have to flight messages from political parties, called “party election broadcasts [PEBs]”, for free in terms of its public-service mandate.

Mlambo said there were subtle differences between PEBs and party adverts. “PEBs are like placing an advertorial in a magazine. It’s subtle advertising … but for the purposes of not getting jurisdictions crossed, we call it editorial.”

An advertising body like ASA would only regulate the party adverts and not the PEBs.

“It would be a nightmare to administer the PEBs,” said Mlambo.

The SABC would have to flight the PEBs at no cost, which meant it could lose millions of rands, said Fakir Hassen, the acting general manager of policy and regulatory affairs at the SABC.

“The estimated loss of revenue through giving up traditional advertising time, as envisaged in the draft regulations, will be between R58,8-million and R91,8-million.”

Hassen proposed that the regulations be changed to exclude television.

He said the SABC was willing to “bend over backwards” to accommodate the draft regulations on radio.

“Our sound broadcasters will provide 100% coverage to the electorate … [but] we should not be compelled to do any PEBs [political election broadcast] on TV at all,” said Hassen.

But lawyer Mark Rosin, representing both the free-to-air channel and its 24-hour news service that is a channel on MultiChoice, said his clients were “grateful for and welcomed” the draft regulations.

“Advertising is the very bread and butter of as a broadcaster,” he said.

Rosin asked Icasa to consider extending one of the definitions in the regulations to permit the 24-hour news service to sell airtime directly to political parties. With the current definition, the sales would have to be done through the licence holder, MultiChoice

Also, Rosin said his clients wanted to withhold the right to reject an advert that did not adhere to’s and e-news’s “internal policies”, such as defamatory or racist adverts.

Icasa councillor Robert Nkuna asked Rosin, hypothetically, how the broadcast of PEBs for free would impact on a television channel’s finances.

“It would have enormous financial implications,” replied Rosin.

‘Creative solution’

Nkuna had earlier asked the SABC if it could not produce a more “creative solution” to its concerns.

He pointed out to the SABC that it had known about the draft regulations since 2006.

“The SABC knew this thing was coming. The SABC should have anticipated this was going to happen … We would have expected the SABC to come with a creative solution,” said Nkunu.

Asked if the adverts could not be flighted outside prime-time slots, Zikalala rejected the idea.

“No one watches between 11pm and 3am … It will be a waste of time and the political parties will agree. Unless you get funding from someone … from government. But we won’t get funding from government. Even for elections, we don’t get funding from government,” said Zikalala.

Hassen argued that the proposed regulations would not only have a negative affect on the SABC’s finances, but would also fail to create a level playing field for political parties.

He said the smaller parties would not have the finances to create television adverts, which would give the bigger parties an unfair advantage.

Hassen also pointed out that political parties would not make adverts in all 11 languages and that it would be unfair toward “smaller languages”.

The political messages and adverts will start once the “election broadcast period” is announced by the government, which may not be prior to the closing of the submission of the lists of candidates, and may not extend to more than 48 hours before polling starts.

Political parties will be allocated airtime according to their size and level of representation in parliament. — Sapa

Source: Mail and Guardian – Fienie Grobler