The way public TV is funded is fundamentally flawed in my opinion. I am sure when it was conceived it was a sound financing model. The law simply requires anyone who has a device that can receive TV or radio signals to pay a radio or TV licence regardless of whether they actually utilise the service or not. Now if that sounds grossly unfair it’s because it is. Judging by how many people avoid paying their licence in Zimbabwe and South Africa a lot of people think this is a stupid model too.
That’s right, it’s not just ZBC that is struggling to make people pay for their TV and radio licences. South African state broadcaster SABC is having a hard time collecting licence fees owed to them. According to SABC’s Chief Financial Officer, Van Biljon:
- While they have 9.5 million TV licence holders on their database only 2.5 million suckers paid for their licences this year
- The state broadcaster had sent out bills totalling about US$200 million to these people but they only received US$56.5 million
- That sounds much more than what ZBC would receive even if we all paid our licences here in Zimbabwe but you have to consider that it seems 76% of South Africans who received bills from SABC simply tossed them into the bin without bothering to pay.
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the reasons for “licence evasion” are similar to those proffered by people in Zimbabwe when it comes to not wanting to pay their ZBC licences. A lot of people reacting to this information on social media cited maladministration, corruption, biased content, unresolved scandals, little influence on content and programs as some of the reasons why they were unwilling to pay for their licences.
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People also felt it made little sense to pay for something that they didn’t use. A lot of South Africans, the affluent and vocal ones at least, prefer DStv and Open View to SABC. Others use Netflix, Amazon Prime, Britbox and Showmax to stream movies. They don’t watch any of SABC’s channels and feel like they shouldn’t have to pay.
Taxation without representation is tyranny
A lot of the reasons given resonated with me. All my friends have TVs but none of them has paid a licence fee-ever. They also cite the above reasons. I share their sentiments on the issue. Despite the many scandals at ZBC the people accused have been “released” as the saying goes. I find no legitimate reason for them to demand that I pay them when they don’t consult the paying public when it comes to programming.
I have never watched it on any of my TVs. I mean never, not even the Supreme Court case in 2018 or the World Cup changed that. The only time I listen to state radio is when it’s forced on me during a Kombi ride. Again if I have no say in it and if the government uses it as their free publicity tool why should I be paying for it. The state broadcaster makes little attempt to be neutral and informative, it doesn’t ask our leaders hard questions like the BBC’s Hard Talk for example. They choose instead to ask to be servile and fawning.
If it’s of no use the public shouldn’t be paying for it. Our State Broadcaster doesn’t even bother to publish its audited financials in a timely fashion.
Again much like at ZBC, those in charge of SABC seem unfazed by these arguments choosing instead to bury their heads in the sand. They actually are not going to ask themselves why people are not willing to pay. They would rather find ways to make sure people have no option but to pay. Some of the proposed solutions include:
- Forcing DStv to collect TV licences and make sure they only avail their services to people who have paid their licences.
- To boost income they want people to pay licence fees for their laptops, tablets and DStv decoders instead of on just traditional TVs
- They are also floating the idea of a household levy. Every household would pay a fee to SABC regardless of how many gadgets they have. The argument here is that all households have a realistic ability to access public broadcasting content because it’s pretty nigh impossible for a house to not have at least a radio, TV or device that can receive SABC.
Just change the model
South Africa has already gone digital and Zimbabwe is headed down that direction too, if we live long enough we might see it happen. Digital receivers can be configured to restrict access to those who have paid their licences. If someone hasn’t paid they shouldn’t be able to receive public TV or radio signals.
That will be the fairest settlement. If I think their programming is trash, biased or have some reason for not wanting to pay I don’t get access, simple. This way state broadcasters will be forced to be more neutral and produce/provide content that people want to watch. It’s a win-win.
It’s either that or they have to emulate the BBC, TVNZ and SBS. These are neutral stations that don’t pander to politicians in power and instead focus on providing content that people want to watch and information that is of public interest.
They should consider public feedback like what the BBC does. Take for example the death of Prince Philip, people were not thrilled by the fact that their usual programs were cancelled so that the heroics of the late Prince could be forced down their throats. The BBC listened, here stern government officials would most likely lecture us about the importance of heroes and such and ignore the feedback.
All three networks also operate on a commercial basis. They embrace streaming and social media instead of whining about money and asking for handouts. They partner with companies like Netflix to create culturally relevant TV shows and movies thus earning money and turning a surplus.
Again the licence model is an outdated way of doing things. ZBC should be privatised and people given shares in it. It should be allowed to fail or it should be neutral and operate on a commercial basis. The same goes for SABC.