Cape Town TV February 16, 2009Posted by Andreas in activism, Cape Town, Life, Society, South Africa.
I wrote this for The Big Issue a while ago.
Democratising the Box
“Have you heard of Cape Town TV?”
That’s how I’ve taken to start many conversations of late. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about: Cape Town TV, or CTV for short, is a brand-new, community owned and controlled television station that started broadcasting 24 hours a day at the beginning of September. It’s local, it’s free and all you need to pick it up is a TV and an aerial – no satellite dish or decoder required. What’s perhaps most exciting about this initiative is that for the very first time it provides ordinary Capetonians like you and me as well as even the most cash-strapped civil society organisation with democratic access to the television airwaves.
It might seem odd to hear someone like myself wax lyrical about TV. Let’s be honest, it’s not an institution with a very good public image and not one that progressives have had much reason to champion in the past. Parents have been warning their children for decades that too much TV will give them “square eyes”. Doctors have blamed it for our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the growing epidemic of obesity among the general public. Educationalists charge that it is dumbing down our youth and some observers believe that it is leading to an ever more pervasive Americanisation of our culture and language.
Encapsulating the nightly experience of many a trapped TV addict, Bruce Springsteen lamented the boredom of surfing “57 Channels and nothin’ on” and in 1980’s Apartheid South Africa the late Afrikaans singer Johannes Kerkorrel implored his audience to “Sit dit af, sit dit af” (Afrikaans: “Switch it off, switch it off”) because he could no longer endure the ever present image of the finger-wagging state president PW Botha on his TV screen. Similar sentiments are expressed today by Cape Town ska-reggae band The Rudimentals when they insist that “TV is bad for you”.
But is this necessarily so? Does all TV have to be boring, reactionary and bad for you by definition? Imagine a TV channel that concentrates on covering local events and issues. A channel that allows you, as an individual citizen or as a member of an organisation, to report directly and as an active participant on what is happening in your own neighbourhood or your area of interest. A channel that lets its audience help to decide what they want to watch and what they find important, entertaining and educational. A channel that is an effective community-building and communication tool. It might be difficult to imagine, but these sorts of community television stations exist all over the world from North America and Korea to China, Australia, Fiji and Europe. And now we finally have one right here in Cape Town.
South Africans have only ever experienced TV as either a state run affair or as a commercial enterprise and with the SABC being increasingly operated along conventional business-for-profit lines, the difference between the two keeps diminishing all the time. The majority of the news covered on South African TV channels is heavily biased towards international and national issues to the severe disadvantage of local and community reporting and more and more of the content seems to be determined by commercial considerations.
The same is of course true for other countries. Fully aware of the power of television, authoritarian governments such as those of China and Burma place a high premium on tight control of the airwaves. But even in so-called democratic societies many TV stations are under the sway of influential political or financial lobbies. Many observers have argued that the democratic process was substantially compromised when several TV news networks prematurely announced unconfirmed results of the 2000 US presidential elections, for instance. In 2002 commercial television stations in Venezuela which are owned almost exclusively by a wealthy elite played a very influential part in a failed coup attempt on the country’s democratically elected populist president Hugo Chavez. An Irish film crew who found themselves in the thick of the action tellingly entitled their documentary feature on the events “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
In contrast to these trends in commercial and state-controlled television broadcasting, the promise of community TV channels such as CTV is that they can use this potent technology to genuinely empower ordinary people rather than to continue to exclude them from the public discourse on the most important debates of our time. “Rather than being a means for delivering audiences to advertisers, which is what commercial and even public television services have increasingly become, the basic idea behind community TV stations is for them to be an effective communications vehicle for local communities”, says Mike Aldridge, CTV’s Broadcast Manager.
Operating out of a room on the campus of AFDA, the South African School of Motion Picture and Live Performance in Observatory and with access to a production studio at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the small but dedicated team of staff, interns and volunteers has been performing miracles in getting the channel on air. Their achievement is particularly impressive when one compares their shoestring budget with the many millions of rands their conventional counterparts have at their disposal. “We all feel that what we are doing is good for society and none of us are in it for the money”, explains Aldridge.
“CTV only really owns a couple of computers. Everything else is either donated or borrowed”, he says. One of the computers – the technical heart of the station – uses cutting edge broadcasting technology in the form of content scheduling software developed and donated by a local company called Isenzo. The innovative system connects CTV to the internet and allows it to broadcast web content including Flash animations, streaming video and websites.
Aldridge laments the lack of government support for community TV initiatives in South Africa. Beyond the seed funding it received from the Media Development and Diversity Agency, an organisation established by an Act of Parliament in 2002, CTV, which is a non-profit organisation, has to rely on donations, sponsorships and advertising to finance its operations.
In stark contrast, the so called public-access TV stations in the USA and Canada’s community channels are supported by legislation which requires cable television companies to give a percentage of their profits to community television projects. This has largely freed North American community TV stations from the pressures of trying to attract wealthy advertisers and has led to a blossoming and vibrant network of local TV channels all across the continent.
In the past the Independent Broadcasting Authority of South Africa and its successor, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, only granted one-month special events licences for community television broadcasts. In 1995 Greater Durban Television was the first South African community channel to go on air temporarily, followed by several other month-long broadcasts in Cape Town, Grahamstown, Durban and Johannesburg. Soweto Community Television, also known as Soweto TV, was the first local station to broadcast on a daily basis, starting on 1 July 2007 and is now available on DStv.
Despite the ongoing challenge to secure sufficient funding to ensure continuing operation, CTV has decided to limit advertising to no more than eight minutes per hour, focusing predominantly on providing Cape Town based small and medium enterprises with the opportunity to reach its potential viewership of between 1 and 2 million people at affordable costs. No ads targeted at children, sexist, racists, xenophobic, sectarian or culturally demeaning ads or ads for gambling or tobacco will be accepted and certain products, including alcoholic beverages, will not be advertised during prime time.
Aldridge envisages the channel becoming a tool for positive social development as well as a source of alternative information that is not dominated by commercial interests. Membership in CTV is open to any non-profit organisation in the greater Cape Town area and to ensure that the station is truly owned and controlled by the local community, elected representatives from various sectors, including education, arts and culture, labour and sports hold positions on its management board.
CTV aims to provide entertaining, informative and educational content produced in-house, as well as by outside sources and through production partnerships with established and emerging filmmakers and NGOs. In the long run the idea is to also establish a decentralised network of accredited video journalists around Cape Town who will be able to file reports and content items on the internet for subsequent broadcast on the channel.
Aldridge identifies three main pillars on which CTV’s operations rest. The first is a solid commitment to public access which allows citizens and local organisations to become involved in shaping the policies and content of the channel. The second is to become an effective bridge of communication between government and Capetonians that provides government departments with a platform to talk directly to citizens while at the same time affording civil society the space to engage the state in debate. The final pillar is education. CTV has established relationships with several tertiary institutions, including AFDA, the University of Cape Town, UWC, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and CityVarsity that will give students the opportunity to produce content material for broadcast and allow them to develop practical experience to enable them to make the transition from university or college to the media industry.
In the case of CTV then, it is surely time to convert popular calls to “turn off the TV” into an encouragement to “become the TV”. If you or your organisation are interested in getting involved as an advertiser, partner, intern or volunteer, particularly if you already have video production skills and experience or if you are a producer or film maker, get in touch with CTV via their website (www.capetowntv.org), by email (email@example.com) or by calling them on 021 448 0448.
The CTV signal is broadcast from a transmitter station atop Tygerberg hill and anyone who has a clear line of sight of it and an antenna facing in that direction should be able to pick it up. No satellite dish or decoder is required. The signal is found on the UHF band and is located between e.tv and SABC3. Use your TV’s automatic or manual search function (either on the TV set itself or via the remote control) to search the UHF band and store the CTV channel once you have located it. It may help to consult your TV’s operating manual.
Anyone living in the Cape Flats, the City Bowl, the Southern Suburbs all the way to Simon’s Town and most of the Northern Suburbs should be able to watch CTV on their TV for free. Until CTV is able to afford the rental costs for additional transmitters the signal will unfortunately not reach you if you are in areas such as Hout Bay, Camps Bay, Noordhoek, Kommetjie, Scarborough, Ocean View, Llandudno, Malmesbury, Stellenbosch and Paarl.