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Private Network Signals New Era in S. African TV

Broadcasting: Midi, backed by Warner Bros., will offer alternative to state programming.

March 31, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Bugs Bunny will be center stage when South Africans get their first glimpse of private television this fall, an event some predict will revolutionize broadcasting here almost as much as the grudging introduction of television itself 22 years ago.

Broadcasting authorities announced Monday that Midi Television--a South African consortium owned in part by Burbank-based Warner Bros.--won the country's first license to operate a private television station that will be available free with an antenna.

The consortium has pledged to spend about $100 million to get the station up and running by October, with about $20 million of that coming from Warner Bros. International Television.

"It is very exciting to be part of something that is historic in the new South Africa," said Josh Berger, a Warner Bros. vice president who negotiated the deal with Midi. "We are equally enthusiastic about the commercial opportunities in South African television and, potentially, in the rest of Africa."

South Africa already has a pay-movie channel and a satellite television operator, but both are well beyond the means of most viewers. Television owners in some rural areas and shantytowns have no electricity and depend on automobile batteries to power their sets.

The new channel--to be called e.tv--will offer an alternative to the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp., which operates three national channels and, until a few years ago, was best known as the propaganda arm of the apartheid-era government.

Even with the democratically elected African National Congress now in charge, critics complain that the state broadcaster is too cozy with the powers that be and that competing voices--already introduced on the radio waves--need to be added to television.

"This station brings the first free opposition to the SABC, which is something that still matters in this country," said Larry Strelitz of Rhodes University, who has studied television viewing habits. "We didn't even have television in South Africa before 1976 because of the political decision that it would expose people to outside cultures and ideas."

When e.tv begins broadcasting in October, company officials say, it will reach about two-thirds of South African households and within two years will extend to about 75% of the country, giving it a broader reach than two of the three state channels.

The Midi offer was selected over six other applicants in an intense bidding war that reportedly cost each about $1 million and attracted a handful of high-profile international backers.

Among the losers were companies aligned with Fox Sports International, Britain's United News & Media, France's Television France One and Canada's United Television Holdings. Under broadcasting regulations, foreign investors were limited to 20% holdings in the bidding companies, but their presence raised the stakes.

Warner was "an anchor component of our success," said Jonathan Procter, managing director of Midi. "It would be inconceivable to start a new license without an international partner of high stature."

Analysts say the foreign dimension of the competition demonstrates that there is big money to be made in the South African broadcasting market, the richest on the continent.

Even so, many South Africans view the international presence as a mixed bag.

There is a high degree of sensitivity to interference and dominance by foreign heavyweights, a fear critics have expressed in particular about Warner Bros., which is part of the world's biggest media conglomerate, Time Warner. CNN, also owned by Time Warner, has an agreement with SABC to air portions of its newscasts.

Rules laid down by the Independent Broadcasting Authority require that 20% of programming offered by the new station be locally produced and that management offer comprehensive black-empowerment programs to ensure that "previously disadvantaged" South Africans get opportunities denied them under the apartheid system's racial separation.

In keeping with such suspicions, a public relations firm distributed Warner Bros. T-shirts and other trinkets at Monday's announcement but company officials were conspicuously absent. And Midi downplayed the might of its American partners.

"There is no way they can swallow us," said Nomazizi Mtshotshisa, chairwoman of the board at Midi, whose largest shareholder is an investment firm owned by labor unions. "We may just swallow them."

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