The pay-TV operator MultiChoice says its sympathetic to the South African public broadcaster's money mess but has slammed the SABC for being "opportunistic" and disingenuous for suddenly wanting the broadcasting regulator to change the so-called "must carry" regulations under which pay-TV operators are forced to carry the SABC's TV channels but in exchange get them for free.
The SABC has written to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), requesting an "urgent public review" of the country's so-called "must carry" regulations.
The SABC urgently wants a change to the must carry regulations under which pay-TV operators like MultiChoice's DStv and StarTimes Media SA and On Digital Media's (ODM) StarSat are forced to carry the SABC's TV channels, SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3, but then get these channels for free.
The SABC wants pay-TV operators to pay for these channels.
In response to the SABC's letter to the regulator, MultiChoice responded, also with a letter to the regulator and also responded to media enquiries asking for MultiChoice's comments on the SABC's sudden about-turn regarding the almost decade-old "must carry regulations.
MultiChoice says it's opportunistic for the SABC to use its financial problems to suddenly want an urgent change to the "must carry" regulations.
What "must carry" has meant is that the SABC that provides public access channels for the public, has been able to get the public to see these public channels - with the help of satellite pay-TV services, all over South Africa, especially in a lot of places where the SABC's individual, still-analogue transmitted, SABC channels don't reach.
People living in places where they can't get SABC1, SABC2, SABC3 or a combination of these channels - something they're supposed to as part of the SABC's public access mandate - have been able to see SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 through a service like DStv, StarSat, OpenView HD (OVHD) since these digital satellite TV services cover the whole of South Africa.
In exchange for being forced to carry these public channels, the pay-TV operators are not asked to pay for these channels.
MultiChoice told TVwithThinus that it has taken note of the SABC letter and that MultiChoice "doesn't agree with the SABC that the must carry regulations have failed to protect the integrity and viability of public broadcasting services, or that MultiChoice has commercially benefited from the regulations at the expense of the public broadcaster".
"The regulations had great benefit to the public broadcaster and the public at large as SABC channels were made available nationwide on all pay-TV platforms, including DStv, to fulfill the SABC's universal access mandate."
MultiChoice says "the must carry regulations were debated extensively during the integrated ICT white paper review process".
"The draft white paper on audio-visual and content services is currently before cabinet. It addresses, amongst other issues, the must carry regulations and the funding of the public broadcaster."
"We believe this matter should be dealt with in this policy process. The white paper process will most likely consider the changing nature of television and whether new over-the-top (OTT) operators should also be subjected to regulations, including the must carry regulations".
MultiChoice says it believes that any stakeholder, including the SABC "that does not agree with Icasa or think the regulator acted outside of its powers, can have the process reviewed through the courts."
"The SABC chose not to do so when the regulations were made 9 years ago."
In its letter to Icasa, MultiChoice says "MultiChoice is sympathetic to the financial difficulties currently faced by the SABC".
"However we believe it is opportunistic for the SABC to use these difficulties to motivate now for the urgent amendment of regulations which have after all, been in force for some time."
"As the SABC itself acknowledges, the main causes of its current financial crisis lies elsewhere."
"It is also disingenuous for the SABC to seek an urgent amendment of the regulations on the basis that they are ultra vires, 9 years after their coming into operation, in circumstances where the SABC failed to review them in the courts of law."
MultiChoice says "further we take exception to the singling out of MultiChoice ... as having commercially benefited from the regulations at the expense of the public broadcaster. The must carry regulations govern all pay-TV broadcasters that carry 30 or more channels.
"Globally the purpose of must carry obligations is to extend universal access to public interest content."
"As the regulator and various policy documents have stated, the must carry obligation is critical to universal access and the objective of providing public broadcasting services to all citizens, rather than for the purpose of funding the public broadcaster."
MultiChoice told Icasa that "In South Africa, there has undoubtedly been great benefit both to the public at large and to the public broadcaster, from having the SABC channels available countrywide on pay-TV platforms, including on DStv".
"Carriage of the public broadcasting services in terms of the regulations gives the SABC 100% geographical cover and service availability throughout South Africa. Not only do consumers benefit from this, but the SABC benefits from extended coverage, larger television audiences and increased advertising revenue at no extra cost."
MultiChoice says the must carry regulations "create the appropriate balance between ensuring universal access to public broadcasting services by all and the imposition of carriage obligations on subscription broadcasting services, and we do not believe that an amendment of the regulations is necessary."