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TV Channel Aims to Bring News by Africans, for Africa

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If your image of Africa, gleaned from CNN, is one of pain and suffering and senseless death, the South African Broadcasting Corp. hopes to brighten the picture.

If it makes some money doing so, that would be nice too.

Beginning this week, the state-owned television network is broadcasting a 24-hour news channel devoted to Africa that pledges to fill the “cosmic black hole” in Western coverage of the world’s poorest continent.

In doing so, it faces a mammoth news-gathering task that only a few big-league broadcasters have managed to pull off.

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“There is no reporting of the good things that happen in Africa,” editor Allister Sparks said in launching SABC Africa. “We are not going to be covering up the bad things or ignoring them, but that won’t be all that is reported.”

For now, the English-language satellite channel is available only on the continent to pay-TV subscribers of MultiChoice Africa, a digital satellite company that is in partnership with the South African broadcaster. SABC Africa is shopping for cable companies in the United States, Europe and Asia to buy what it is promoting as Africa’s only home-grown news network.

Sparks said the station expects to fill a global niche market of people interested in Africa but unhappy with the prejudices and neglect of many mainstream media.

“The news [about Africa] is filtered through Western eyes,” Sparks said. “Here it will be Africans reporting Africa to Africa.”

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The idea of Africa as a profitable news commodity is so new that nobody can say for sure if it will work. Sparks said he came up with the idea last year, getting final approval from the broadcasting giant six weeks ago.

Officials from MultiChoice, also based in South Africa, say they expect to make money, though they won’t say when and how much.

The National Cable Television Assn. in Washington says there is no precedent for a 24-hour news channel on U.S. cable dedicated to one continent, but there is a long list of entertainment channels that have prospered by targeting blacks and other ethnic groups. BET, an African-American channel, ranks among the top 30 cable networks in the United States with more than 44 million subscribers, according to the association.

The very cost of the South African service, however, precludes most Africans from ever setting eyes on it.

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The basic equipment required to receive MultiChoice channels costs about $400, and the company charges an additional $39 a month for service, more than many African families earn. Of the 300,000 subscribers in 37 countries, only one-fifth live outside South Africa.

SABC Africa is also running on a shoestring. The agreement between SABC and MultiChoice sets an annual budget of $3.6 million for the channel--less than CNN spends in two days, according to CNN spokesman Steve Haworth. SABC spokeswoman Marj Murray said the new station is being staffed largely by employees of the company’s three domestic channels by “doubling their workloads.”

Most of the programming is repackaged news already broadcast in South Africa. Sparks said the station is negotiating with various state broadcasters across Africa to buy additional programming, but that requires money. Despite its South African bent, SABC Chief Executive Hawu Mbatha said the network will be free of government interference.

“This is a business venture that does not have political connotations or motives,” he said.

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The good-news pledge may also prove tough to honor.

Sparks, who was head of SABC television news before taking over the new 24-hour channel, had a similar philosophy in his previous job. The approach often was rendered irrelevant by the sheer volume of bad news, and much of the good news was dismissed by critics as government boosterism.

“If Africa continues to erupt in the ways that it erupts, that will be the story,” said Raymond Louw of South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute. “No matter how good-intentioned people may be to televise the more positive aspects of news about Africa, those stories will dominate.”

During its inaugural hours, the new channel’s main stories were about fighting in Congo, civil war in Sudan, killings in Algeria and a tornado in South Africa. The good news came from faraway Iraq: War with the United States averted.

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