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 Slow, patient struggle pays off for SA’s only community TV station


 Twelve years ago, six idealistic people crammed into a small room at the back of a film school in Observatory, Cape Town, to start the community television station Cape Town TV.

Yet the most remarkable achievement of Cape Town TV, which broadcasts a mix of local, home-grown content, independently produced programmes and international news, is that it has remained true to its original idea:  a station owned and run by the community in the form of a network of 200 community-based organisations.

Station director Karen Thorne, who pioneered the Cape Town TV since its inception, describes early-day struggles that are typical of nearly all young businesses: cramped spaces, makeshift equipment, battling to pay the rent, and extreme multitasking as she had to do a bit of everything to keep the ship afloat.

But then she also describes a set of challenges that will make even battle-hardened entrepreneurs’ hair stand on end. In order to stay on air, the station has to pay steep monthly transmission fees. The problem is not only one of having enough cash to pay the fees, but Cape Town TV has had to fight for every bit of the free-to-air frequencies that it occupies (channel 67 and 32) as well as its DSTV channel (263).

The struggle was against the seeming indifference by the Department of Communications and the South Africa’s broadcast frequency regulator Icasa to the idea of community TV. At one stage there were threats to cancel Cape Town TV’s licence to free up its frequency for mobile TV.

For years, Cape Town TV struggled to get a channel on DSTV, who initially only took in former community TV stations that had been taken over by large media groups. Cape Town TV persevered, resisting many take-over offers from commercial groups, and today is the only remaining truly independent, community-based TV station in South Africa.

Their DSTV channel, which they won five years after they started broadcasting, was a major boost for the station, giving it a national reach, with the growth of its viewership in Gauteng starting to rival that of Cape Town. Karen says despite its Cape Town focus, South Africans elsewhere are drawn to its independent voice, its emphasis on information and education and great documentary programming.

Karen’s interest in television, as well as her fierce commitment to independent community-based media, is deeply rooted in the anti-apartheid struggle which she joined as a journalism student at Rhodes University in the eighties.

In the nineties she worked for various organisations that were involved in crafting policy and laws aimed at fostering media diversity in the newly democratic South Africa. It was slow, frustrating work, says Karen. She had always been convinced of the ability of television to empower the disadvantaged, but was constantly disappointed that community television always seemed to be overlooked and deprioritised by the local and national authorities.

But, says Karen, “I learned patience”, and she and a group of organisations and volunteers set about mobilising community organisations to form a community TV station. The legal entity was established in July 2006 and in the period launching up to the launch the Cape Town TV Collective based their operation at Community House in Salt River.

Finally, in 2008, Cape Town TV was established with a grant of the newly formed Media Diversity and Development Agency. Karen and five other staff members moved to a small office based at the Afda film school in Observatory.

The fledgling station soon moved to a nearby building, a beautiful old heritage building that used to be the old Lever Brothers headquarters in the Observatory Industrial Park, which belongs to Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS). They have been renting it ever since and have expanded to two further units in the BUSINESS/PARTNERS complex.

Initially completely grant funded, Cape Town TV has managed to diversify its income so that today its revenue consists of 60% advertising and sponsorships, and 40% donor funding. Karen believes that a community TV station should always strive for a mix between donor and commercial funding so that a single dominant income stream does not threaten the independence and community focus of the station.

Increasingly, Cape Town TV’s revenue comes from an innovative symbiosis that it has established with a network of independent content producers. With the promise that the content will be broadcast to Cape Town TV’s viewers, the producers are able to raise sponsorship for the programmes they want to make, and Cape Town TV, in turn, can use the promise of good content from the independent producers to raise further sponsorship.

The next ten years will probably be just as challenging for Cape Town TV as the first, not least because of the disarray in which internet has plunged the traditional advertising model for the whole broadcast industry.

But Cape Town TV will be facing its next decade with more confidence than ever. As part of Cape Town TV’s rebranding for its ten-year celebration, BUSINESS/PARTNERS has granted its request to paint the building in bold, beautiful colours so that it becomes an icon, a beacon for community media in South Africa.




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