Africa's satellite news Breakthrough: New 24-hour channel attempts to plug holes in coverage of long-ignored continent.

November 30, 1998

OF ALL THE world's continents, Africa has the least-developed press and electronic media. That's why a 24-hour satellite television channel exclusively devoted to its news and development is such a breakthrough.

So fragile is Africa's information infrastructure that in most cases even its own media rely on reporting from the large Western news agencies. In contrast, SABC Africa will have "Africans reporting Africa to Africa," editor Allister Sparks promises.

Launched by the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp., the channel is now seeking outlets in the United States, Europe and Asia. It has been greeted with quite a bit of skepticism in its homeland. Not only is it a shoestring operation in a field dominated by such around-the-clock news-gathering giants as CNN and the BBC, but SABC's previous satellite venture collapsed with millions of dollars in losses.

If SABC Africa and a second channel devoted to African entertainment can find U.S. distributors and make money that way, the picture might turn out to be brighter.

In recent years, the number of foreign stories on U.S. network television (and many newspapers) has decreased dramatically. This trend is likely to continue now that ABC, CBS and NBC have announced cuts in their news departments and plan to buy more material from CNN.

Even though global crises still prompt extensive reporting, the networks' routine foreign coverage has so diminished that some 40 PBS stations recently began airing a 30-minute nightly newscast from London's ITN. Another group of PBS television stations shows a BBC world news roundup, which also is available from a home satellite provider.

As technology advances, such alternative sources of foreign news are likely to increase. This is a niche where SABC Africa, with some luck, could thrive.

The irony is that it is likely to have less impact on its home continent, where people are generally too poor to afford satellite dishes to receive it.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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