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Diss-Content… as only the SABC can

by Brandon Edmonds / 25.06.2009

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. These fantastic opening lines of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ have the strange lasting power of implication: each reader upon reading them immediately teleports themselves back into their own beginnings to re-live the emotional climate of their own family. This is Art. 

“Broadcasting for Total Citizen Empowerment”. The laughably dated radical chic vision of the national broadcaster has the humorless, leaden, Stalinist appeal of Mao’s ‘little red book’. It suggests the SABC wants, like Mao and Stalin, without the gulag and liquidation of intellectuals, though mindlessness and horror can creep up on its viewers, to change things, to make things better, to move things forward, and other clanging cliches of presumptuous social engineering. This is Bullshit.

Besides, the SABC is one very unhappy family.

Need we run through the usual suspects of post-colonial graft, greed, corruption and incompetence?
Yes, lets.
Apparently profits dropped 83% last year to 38.4 million. Cyril Ramaphosa wouldn’t get out of bed for that. It’s peanuts. Elvis made much more than that last year! This despite having having blown around R220 million on management consultants over the last two years. The SABC, not Elvis. Consultants who no doubt insisted corporate headquarters needs a Wellness Centre (boasted of in the 2008 Annual General Report). Hot rocks, whale music and Reiki massages must help keep self-delusion flowing free and reality at bay. That’s public money. Money that could have seeded and enabled the kind of programming that would make switching on and flipping channels rewarding, engaging and other stirring adjectives. Thankfully-axed Group CEO, Dali Mpofu, has a beautiful name and a way with words: the SABC is all about “creating an emotional bond with the citizens we are mandated to serve”. Fine. Good. Excellent. But the only thing most of us will feel learning that he culled a 2.1 million bonus on top of his 4.5 million salary in the context of a drowning, flailing enterprise… is the same hollow bitter loathing we reserve for the ethically challenged sub-prime lenders, rapacious investment houses, and the outrageous pyramid scheme guy, Bernie Madoff. Race has nothing to do with it. Self-serving creeps are universal.


Don’t hate the player though, hate the game. Which is rigged. 38% of the operating budget went to staff costs last year. Pretty standard for a public entity. Over a third. Okay. But only 22.5% went to film, sport and broadcast costs! New content, the very stuff that is what TV is, that grows the enterprise by keeping and attracting viewers and advertising, the very engine of the place, is lower on the totem pole than, in the bloodless parlance of accountancy, “headcount costs”. This is not to impugn the technicians, journalists and productive talent at the SABC at the bottom of the earnings bucket but to suggest that there are way too many Board members making way too much money for attending meetings, dressing well and occupying space.

And lastly, because this is tiresome, because really enough already, just give us a broadcaster we can use not abuse, though we haven’t even touched on Snuki ‘the poor man’s Stalin’ or blacklisting and booing or Zapiro and kickbacks, here is a neatly infuriating encapsulation of the problem:

In an open letter to the Dept, of Communications (whose Minister is the sole shareholder of the SABC), the Television Industry Emergency Co-alition (TVIEC), a group of producers and content spawners looking to get paid what they’re owed, some 40 million that the behemoth is refusing to part with, yes, it’s that bad, reveals that on a ‘big soapie’ with a 50 million annual cost only 6% goes to the ‘production fee’. That’s around 3 million for the year. To pay everyone involved. Everyone. From the key grip to the arch villain. The rest of it disappears like the 1.5 billion ‘not accounted for’ by the national broadcaster. Donald Trump spends 3 million on toast. Larry King’s blood transfusions cost more. It’s a joke. It’s the reason local productions look and feel like they were made in the mind of Uncle Scrooge: cheap sets, brutal lighting, obvious dull solutions to every visual and narrative challenge. No wonder local sucks – its being sucked dry as a marrow bone by the big dog’s extortionately tight procurement margins. So shitty shows means plunging revenues which means shitty shows which means plunging revenues and the merry dance of death continues. That a show as swift, arch and dark as Yizo Yizo could emerge in these conditions is nothing short of miraculous…


Anyway, let’s get back to unhappy families.
Let’s diss the content…

Imagine the SABCs trio of channels were sisters. There’s the young, dumb brash one (Mzansi fo sho!),
the slow, moony, annoyingly arty one (Feel at Home) and the pretentious, well-heeled trendy one (World’s Best Shows). The best of them is SABC one. By far. It is the closest thing we have to a commercial popular culture – music, fashion, celebrities – and its energy and style keeps the faith in a vital happening nation. That’s no small thing. If we are anything now, we’re SABC one, given how young we are, both demographically and as a democracy. The crown of the channel and the best thing on TV across all channels (besides the travails of Liz Lemon on 30 Rock) is The Real Goboza on Thursdays. Its essential viewing for anyone interested in the viciously shallow social dynamics of the new black elite. A gossip hub and celebrity booster shot, the show is knowingly hosted by Kuli Roberts (often in breeches and leather boots) and some other guy mainlining an urban mix of Jamie Foxx and the Wayans brothers. Its all frocks, parties and rides. Its all hedonism, rumours and an outsized sense of entitlement. Frantz Fanon must be spinning in his grave. It seems liberation for post-94 movers and shakers has amounted to little more than to live in a permanent 50cent video. Its great to watch but you wish for once the camera would linger outside the club and take in the homeless, the unwashed…the real Goboza. That goes for the whole Mzansi channel: its ugly ultimately to party mindlessly in the face of suffering.

Disgruntled contractors, actors and production companies march on the SABC.

On to SABC2. You will not be entertained should you land here short of the jolt of necrophilia that goes with seeing Riaan Crywagen. This is a channel awash in recipes, farmers and Gilmore Girls. Its bland.
Oh so bland. The kind of bland that stops your heart in slow motion. Key shows are 50/50 and 7nde Laan. The former could be good. Nature works on TV. David Attenborough has made more memorable images than Picasso: that opening bud, the flying snake, a deep sea fish that farts light. But 50/50 doesn’t generate its own stuff. It waits for us to send it in. It relies on us to make the show. But the kind of people who send footage of nature into a show are the kind of people who send footage of nature into a show. They’re enthusiasts. Not like us, we’re not enthusiastic, otherwise we wouldn’t be on our asses watching TV. So the show has a limited amateur quality instead of being majestic and expansive we get a lot of insect mating and birds woozily out of focus in some remote thorn tree. And the guy who presents it genuinely strikes fear in children. Yikes. Now 7nde Laan is what the country would be like if the National Party was still in power but had softened its stance and embraced diversity. It is in total denial of the full on wrack and ruin of our reality. There are no beggars on its streets. No orphans sleeping in doorways. No violence. No blood and guts. No strikes, no anger, no nothing. Its the innocently evil daydream of some ‘kerk tannie’ who just wishes we could all get along and blacks were polite taal-speakers with clean fingernails and pastel t-shirts, and a slice of melktert could still make everything better. There is nothing more reactionary on television. Mbeki never misses it.

Last and most definitely least, the channel claiming to have the World’s Best Shows. This is Bush & Blair’s Saddamian nukes fantasy. Its untrue. The bracing, disarmingly funny 30 Rock is indeed a show within a show type show but its still only one show. What else comes close in the current line-up? Survivor China’s most interesting character is a gravedigger. No better point needed about its diminishing returns.
Law & Order is as formulaic as e=mc2 and far less explosive. Prison Break had the best opening season of any show since 24 or Lost but has since devolved into emptily complicated retreads of the same idea: get caught, break free, get caught again. Oprah is what Oprah is.

More suffering artists

The show that really speaks for the channel is Top Billing. Jesus wept. Talk about keeping reality at bay. Anyone capable of sitting through an entire episode has had their frontal lobes replaced with the stuff they put inside lava lamps. Here the upper middle class treats itself to fine dining, holidays abroad, art, shoes and bespoke homes. Presenters grin as if prompted at gun point. Here new money mingles with old and mostly white boys and girls, men and women, sip from flutes in bedazzling sunshine. Its the tone of the show that’s so deadly, so indifferent, so happy to be on the right side of the fence. Michael Mol’s symptomatic smirk sums it up: a pampered, moneyed, easeful tone to be heard from Camps Bay to Zurich, wherever the cashed up flitter and finagle. Once you allow the force of the fact that the majority of this country live on less than $2 a day every day, the show becomes a hallucinatory exercise in grotesque elite excess. That understated dining room could have built a school. That fun trip to Zanzibar could have fed a family. Those pumps could have financed flush toilets. Design, architecture, media, all the hip touchstones of late capitalist ‘creativity’ just look like indulgent, indifferent excuses to avoid reality. Top Billing is about as entertaining as date rape. Use the magazine for your ablutions. And what now Top Billing, now that the meltdown has blown away any need for you?

So catch the Real Goboza on 1 at ten on Thursdays and 30 Rock on 3 at 7.30 on Mondays. Other than that wash the car or talk to your children…

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  1. Tara says:

    After a decade of no TV (causing regular questioning by regular veiwers as to what one does with their time) i have inherited one. I tried not to, asked if i could give it back.

    I have been attending meetings, where a collective of people are meant to plan and action strategies to develop an industry.
    We dont really do that, we just debate and then question if we are even debating the correct thing, forget as a collective what has already been debated, or if we should even have been debating at that specific location. It seemed crazy and i couldnt find any explanation.
    Then i switched on the TV.

    Television is a tool which has the power to overturn plutocracies, uplift entire nations and enhance culture – it is like having the best data-base around, a tool which can communicate to the nation in the most sensory and asthetically pleasing way – instantly – and hence get the quickest and most effective come-backs. Human beings love their own reflection, and if we see healthy eating, culturally active people on TV, we will strive to be so.

    That is what it could do.

    Instead, TV seems to be broadcasting the stencil for bad communication, lying, poor or partly informed opinion, LYING and during ad-breaks more often than not fast food, lying and chemical companies (whether its for underarms/toilets/floors/killing insects). And lying. And bad story plots which build in drama and then come to unfathomable sudden results without any of the logical in-between lead-to. Who needs that. But you know what we need? Lies.

    No wonder these meetings i’ve been going to are so bad, we live by TV and we live badly by TV, its OK to communicate horrendously, TV endorses it. And you have the remote control.

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  2. Sindy-Lou says:

    Wow, this is an awesome piece!

    I only watch SABC 3 for Isidingo, the comedies and perhaps the news and reality shows, other than that it’s all pretty much crap. It’s like a magazine you have but only one article manages to capture your attention.

    I despise Top Billing, it’s incredibly tasteless to the point of nausea.

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  3. Joerg says:

    Love the piece.

    I wonder how much longer TV is going to be around for anyway. Does anybody still get value out of it? We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift – away from TV, and toward the Internet, where you don’t get dumbed-down “broadcast” shoved down your throat, and can actually participate in the culture. All the old media is now available on the Internet – from phones (Skype), to radio (last.fm) to TV (youtube) – where they all mix freely together – including email and messaging and social media. And YouTube is a lot more entertaining than SABC.

    I can’t figure out what the TV offers me, that the Internet doesn’t. I downloaded all five seasons of The Wire.

    I feel outraged filling the SABC’s board’s personal pockets. I feel outraged that the producers – the actual content providers – the doers – that they are the ones NOT getting my tax money.

    It doesn’t make sense, and is unsustainable. Sure – not all of us have Internet – but that will change over time, while the Internet slowly replaces all old media from magazines, to radio, to telephone, to newspapers, to TV.

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  4. Zoe says:

    Awesome article.

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  5. Dave says:

    Hit the nail on the top bit. Being forced to watch SABC TV to research this piece musta been a living hell. Maximam respek

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  6. Big Bob Igor says:

    Great article!

    I personally have long abandoned broadcast television for:

    -internet tv (watch a lecture on fusion one day, Obamas full inaugaration speech and mindless youtube the next)
    -the video store (pick what you want to see) and
    – (less ethically) harddrives full of stuff from friends.

    I am not sure how long this type of viewing will take to saturate our population, maybe another 10 years? No place will exist for the Snukis of this world in that new order.

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  7. Nathan Zeno says:

    The problem with just getting all your shit on the net or off hard drives is essentially it’s all from another country that finances that stuff through television broadcasts and cinema distribution. As we know, nobody in this country watches enough local cinema because generally it’s not that good. Why isn’t it good, because TV is where you learn the craft of storytelling. And The SABC, ETV and MNET certainly aren’t helping that along right now by commissioning anything remotely individual or non derivative. So yeah, wo hoo! Lets watch shit on You Tube, one world channel here we come! You probably liked Transformers 2 for the story (Not the giant fighting robot breasts)

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  8. Dolla says:

    On point.

    Have to disagree about one thing though: a slice of melktert does makes everything better.

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  9. Testing says:

    At the risk of being a snob, there are alternative voices, telling great stories, with powerful and invovating non-cliched.. visual metaphors etc.
    One can see a lot of this new cinema at the Durban International Film Festival and Encounters and other fine festivals, and it is even possible to meet the creatives!
    Independent cinema, and new voices must be heard. And yes if we ever get good internet these and other voices will be readily available.
    Who can give these fine voices a space on the tube? Only with the hegemony of commercial support can they get on TV and these forces will only support stories that tell the lies that make us all buy and buy more. Thanks for the great reporting and comments thus far.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    Great article; very good and entwertaining read. All I want to know is ;WHEN AM I GETTING MY MONEY?! Jeez,man. Just pay us,guys!

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  11. Alex says:

    Go Brandon! Write about cricket so you can reference Palahniuk. Tolstoy for the SABC. How ingenuously po-mo amigo. What’s next? Well the cops are cooking the crime-stats now that’s just dripping with potential for pearls from Chomsky, Foucaul, Orwell and then some!

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  12. Anonymous says:

    eloquently put – well played

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