That uncomfortable feeling

The ‘premature’ launch of South Africa’s second 24-hour news television channel.

President Jacob Zuma, left, in a file image with Minister of Communications, Yunus Carrim (image: GCIS, via Flickr CC).

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)–which commands the largest TV audience inside that country–launched its 24-hour television news channel at the beginning of August. It’s the second homegrown 24-hour news channel–the other, ENCA (ENews Channel Africa), which resembles Sky News, is run by the country’s only other terrestrial broadcaster ETV. There’s also news of a third South African 24-hour news channel launching in a week or so. By the way, SABC’s new channel is amongst only a few homegrown 24-hour news channels on the continent along the local variants of “global” news channels.

The introduction of SABC News coincided with the 77th anniversary (most recently 19 frustrating years as a public broadcaster) of the SABC and President Jacob Zuma officially opened the channel as the first guest. The  response (including from mainstream print media, some owned by companies with a direct stake in the SABC’s main rival, satellite operator DStv/M-Net) has ranged from harsh criticism, to claims that the launch was ‘premature,’ to lukewarm acceptance, to firm praise.

Many of the SABC’s critics (and some have good reason) seem to be nervous that the coverage will lack the necessary balance, especially in light of the country’s upcoming election season. Others are concerned with the financial sustainability of the channel. Nevertheless, SABC News is notable because, as the channel’s Acting Chief Operations Officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, put it “it will enhance its public service mandate as we will be extending our focus on provincial stories.” So it will be good to see a channel pushing more local content since it is so often lacking on other South African news networks.

Already up against a pretty mixed reception, things took a turn for the bizarre early last Friday morning when, less than 24 hours after the channel’s launch, an awkward clip began making the rounds on Facebook, quickly going viral. The clip (below) appeared to show a blooper during the channel’s opening broadcast, with the two anchors extolling the launch of SABC News, introducing Jacob Zuma, then sitting around uneasily as the camera zoomed out revealing a third, empty chair. After a prolonged cringe-worthy silence, the male anchor, Peter Ndoro (who’s been around South African TV for a while), can be heard saying “Ummm … I feel uncomfortable…”

Turns out the gaffe was part of test footage in which the anchors were rehearsing their opening remarks, not part of an actual broadcast. The explanation evidently is that some viewers may have accidentally seen this test-footage as the network cycled through video to test their satellite link-ups. In any case, the real broadcast of President Zuma’s introduction, speech, and interview went off without a hitch.

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