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R.I.P your TV

by Tim Greene / 25.08.2009

Kill one person, it’s called homicide. Kill a community and it’s called genocide. But what do you call it when you kill off an entire industry? To the shock and dismay of the film and TV industry, the new board of the SABC is calling it ‘good governance’. The weird thing is they may actually have a point.

Two months ago the SABC imploded, bringing to a head several years of political in-fighting, corruption, nepotism and incompetence that saw the national broadcaster slide into R800 million debt. Most of the Board resigned and an Interim Board was appointed with a mandate to steady the ship.

According to reports, the Interim Board members are generally regarded a good bunch of people with their heads screwed on and their hearts in the right place. They have embarked on a major house-cleaning operation, auditing everything and trying to get a handle on how management let the company slide so deeply into the muck – and how to get it back out. As part of a proposed Stabilisation Plan, they are implementing sweeping austerity measures. Which are a good thing. Mostly.

R.I.P your TV

Back in 2008, realising how deep their problems had become, the old Board appealed to the National Treasury for a R2 billion bailout. Not a chance, came the reply. We’re not throwing good tax-payers’ money after bad, said Treasury, first fix the management issues that caused the problems in the first place. And Treasury was right. Mostly.
Before they’ll even consider a bailout, they need to see that the Interim Board is bringing spending under control. Unfortunately the only big chunk of money that the Board can immediately stop spending is the half a billion rand it usually pays each year for local programming. So from sports and variety shows to local drama, commissioning is now on hold.

This will be a fatal blow for the industry, which depends hugely on the broadcaster for its existence. Having only just recovered from the devastating corporate annihilation of Telkom Media, the industry now faces losing a full 30 per cent of its income. There will be blood.
The SABC’s failure to pay producers in 2008 has already resulted in lay-offs and in companies closures. It took a mass march on Auckland Park, tape seizures and the collapse of the Board for the Television Industry Emergency Coalition (TVIEC) to secure a commitment to a schedule of debt payments. But with this new move, the carnage will increase and actors, crew, suppliers and producers are united in their fear and outrage.

Evil Empire
Tower of Babel?

What makes the issue so heated is the undeniable fact that the SABC brought its financial meltdown entirely upon itself. A lethal mix of greed, incompetence and politics ignited under the flamboyant but ultimately disastrous leadership of CEO Dali Mpofu and plunged the corporation into a downward spiral which is proving all but impossible to stop.

Horror stories abound: of R76 million spent on programmes bought but never broadcast; of R18 million in bonuses paid to managers while debts to producers were ignored, of how more than 50 per cent of the SABC’s budget goes on administration and just 43 per cent on programmes. And, almost unbelievably, of how DSTV sends three execs each year to buy Hollywood programmes for 21 channels, while SABC sends 20 buyers for just three. Industry insiders are understandably livid that it is they who must pay the price of the broadcaster’s excesses.

But what else can the SABC do? They are shelving local content not because they hate it, but because they simply can’t afford it. They are between a rock and a hard place. Retrenching staff is not an option. The unions are too strong and simply won’t allow it, and, besides, state bodies can’t start shedding jobs in the middle of a recession. They’re supposed to be the ones creating jobs.

And getting rid of the previous administrations’ disasters will take time. Ex-news boss Snuki Zikilala’s white elephant CNN-wannabe channel, SABC International, which started out as a grand Africanist dream and ended up as a hundred million rand black hole, is watched by no one but insomniac SABC2 viewers and a handful of people with Vivid decoders. Vivid decoders? Exactly.

Nothing f'Mahala

And so the Interim Board clearly has much work to do and most of it will take time. Suspending local production is immediate and won’t cost jobs. At least not their jobs. Our jobs. My job. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a TV director who has had a series cancelled.

Not cancelled, protest the SABC, merely postponed. Their intention is to resume commissioning in 18 months time. But by that time the damage will be done. Valuable skills will have left the industry, talented people will have emigrated, expensive equipment will have been sold overseas and, perhaps most importantly, the small but significant strides made to establish a generation of independent black producers will have been undone.
Coming in the middle of a deep recession, the SABC’s stabilisation plan will prove disastrous.

So what can be done to save the day? The answer is that only Treasury is in a position to solve the problem. They must be made to realise that without a substantial and immediate bail-out package, a six billion rand industry which supplies 2 per cent of the nation’s GDP is in peril, threatening 80,000 jobs. They must find or create mechanisms to satisfy their legitimate objections, ways of administering the money to ensuring that funds are specifically used for local production. They must bail out the SABC.

Unfortunately, the chair of the Interim Board, Irene Charnley, is not pressing Treasury for this. An extremely savvy and powerful businesswoman, the ex-MTN boss looks at the SABC, with all its assets and human capital and intellectual properties and reckons: I can make this work. And technically she’s right. It should work. Properly administered, there’s nothing stopping it returning to profitability.
But, by the time that happens, what will be left of the independent industry?

If we are to survive it will be because Irene Charnley sees the light and argues passionately to Treasury for speedy and substantial state assistance. Failure to do this will result in the death of an industry.

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  1. G says:

    SA in a microcosm. “Properly administered”….do you believe that is even possible?

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  2. Darrel says:

    Yes, G, of course it is possible. Tim’s point – and great piece, Tim – is that it can be done, and needs to be done, and there are good and talented and deicated people about who are wanting to get it done, and throwing up our hands and whinging helps no one and gets nothing done. It’s not at all South Africa in a microcosm, even if you could firt something into a microcosm – South Africa isn’t bankrupt and doesn’t need any sort of a bail-out – it’s a specific problem in a specific institution that has been badly mismanaged (and not all of a sudden, either, it has been badly mismanaged for so long that the problem is all but endemic) – and it needs to be approached clear-headedly and with a view to a solution.

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  3. Lisa says:

    brilliant piece

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  4. Joanne says:

    As the director of the lame, clunky newsroom drama ‘Hard Copy’, Time Greene is frankly part of the problem – mediocre local content next to nobody wants to see.

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  5. Roger Young says:

    Joanne I have to respectfully disagree, The first season of Hard Copy was excellent. Parts of the second season were brilliant too. The issues around Hard Copy’s “clunkiness” I think are more to do with the development process at SABC than Tim Greene. These development issues which resulted in a lot of lame ass shit are partially why the SABC is in trouble right now. Whether you like Greene’s work is a matter of opinion or personal taste. But we must surely agree that he, as a creator of local content, is in a position to comment on the state of the SABC.

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  6. Joanne says:

    A great show can shift a broadcaster from red to black (revenue-wise) – HBO/The Sopranos, AMT/Mad Men, and ‘Hard Copy’ never even began to reach those heights. I’m saying raise your own standards as local content creators. Do better. Much much better…

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  7. Roger Young says:

    And I wholeheartedly agree. But as someone who has also dipped into creating content for SABC and eTV I must tell you that it is extremely difficult to get this idea across to anybody working at these broadcasters. I think Hard Copy was an honest attempt to do that, but looked as if that was hampered by a slow fall into pandering to target demographics and viewership stats implemented by the station management. But sometimes the critical success of a show is more important than it’s actual viewership. That you raise Mad Men as an example is interesting. Mad Men has just had it’s season four premiere in the states. It’s stats are dismal, it is hardly watched by anyone outside of New York and Chicago. But the critical success is drawing attention to the channel and more investment. On paper Mad Men is still in the red, but it has put AMT in the black. But the SABC is run as a short term numbers game, not as a long term cultural investment. And this, it seems to me, is the problem.

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  8. Tim. says:

    Joanne has a point, and I’d be the first to agree that much of our local drama is lame and clunky.

    But I really don’t think that it’s any solution to simply stop making it. Surely it’s wiser to keep investing time, talent, money and energy in making it better?

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  9. Anonymous says:

    Great article. This whole affair is SOO frustrating and unfair, well done for putting out a well balanced peice (my article would have been severely oneside)

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  10. G says:

    Darryl, I was asking Tim if from his perspective, he does believe it is possible. No whinging here, simply genuine interest to know from someone in the industry whether they really think it would be properly managed from here on in if they had the cash.
    I don’t think it is a specific problem in a specific institution, simply look at many other SA institutions…not understanding where you’re coming from by saying it’s only this institution that has been mismanaged?
    I agree with you that there are good and talented people who want to get it done, but are they on the boards of these institutions? I think not and that is really the problem to be addressed.

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  11. Stonk says:

    This is the STATE broadcaster for god sake!
    So for starters…. stop buying foreign content BEFORE you stop buying local content.

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  12. Anonymous says:

    Amen to that, Stonk!

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  13. Jean Barker says:

    Firstly, @joanne, Hard Copy was one of the better TV series’, local or international, that I’ve come across. Secondly @joanne, you’re right on the whole. But the bigger problem is that WHEN there was something worth watching the SABC usually failed to promote it. I remember struggling to get a press release out of SABC 1 for a locally made show. I sent five emails, and made two phone calls to answering machines of the PRs the filmmaker supplied. No response. I still haven’t had a reply to my email from the SABC PR, a year later. (I run an entertainment website called channel24.co.za which is part of News24/24.com and has over 100 000 local readers monthly). SABC 2 is better run – I have a great contact there called Lebo who rocks – but the on the whole, the place is a mess, with no clear plan for how things work, a shockingly crap website, and no plan for monetising the vast archives of content they could be selling – the old series so many expats WOULD buy and the music they recorded during the apartheid years that nobody else has. I’m no business manager, but I could do better in my sleep. Look for new blood? Sure, but cutting budget for local content seems like a mistake. I’d start by firing about half the permanent staff. When most of the good stuff is outsourced, that’s the first step.

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  14. Mark says:

    Jean mentions ‘firiing half the permanent staff’. Actually, I was under the impression that half the permanent staff already left to join Telkom Media, which then lost about R2 Billion…More than double the SABC.

    No one has really complained about Telkom writing that amount off, because they’re a supposedly profitable company. Of course, they’re only profitable because our phone calls are so expensive…

    So the mess really goes round and round. The government must take responsibility for this and inject enough money to enforce their own local content requirements first. Maybe they can tax Telkom Media…

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  15. Lesedi Rudolph says:

    Wonderful piece, and some interesting responses…

    Firstly, it’s clear that horrific mismanagement led to the hole the SABC now finds itself in, and only some real leadership and a bailout is going to sort this out. The government spends billions on things we really don’t need, so why are they being difficult about a meagre R2 billion in this case.. I mean how much has been flushed down the SAA black hole, and lord knows we don’t actually need a state owned national airline when the private ones are staying profitable without any assistance.. and the R50 billion eventually spent on the arms deal for weapons we not only didn’t need, but are likely to never actually use??

    It seems as if Irene Charnley could be the person to spearhead the new regime, and fact is now the eyes of the entire country will be on how SABC goes about spending any bailout money they receive, so as long as everything is transparent from here on in, what is the objection the bailout which is needed urgently.

    Secondly, while the quality of some local content does leave a bit to be desired, maybe its a sign that we need to be pumping more money into skills development, rather than complaining about the fact that we’re not producing shows that match the standard of international content. The only way to improve the standard, is to keep creating local content, and offer opportunities for the producers of such content to learn from those with better skills.. simply slating a show you disliked, and claiming they’re part of the reason the industry is in such a mess is because of them serves no one!

    @Joanne – have you ever produced a series, or anything noteworthy?

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  16. Chrisco says:

    @Lesedi: Unfortunately I have to say: if we lived in a world where the end of any argument was “Well have YOU done it before?!”, we’d be a crap society with much lower standards.

    Joanne has a right to her opinion – as do all the ‘amateur’ viewers who decide not to watch some of the complete rubbish that is made locally. If we let only producers crit anything, companies would just be awarding each other statues and slapping backs three times a year. Save that awesomeness for the advertising industry please.

    At home I ONLY have SABC – no E reception – and I’ll rather turn the tv off than watch most of what’s been scheduled.. it feels like SABC is nothing but cheap studio-limited soap-operas from 5 till 9 every night. Awful. Depressing. Either so ‘real’ and mundane that it’s thoroughly boring or populated by so much script or acting theatrics that it’s embarrassing.
    That said, there is great local stuff too – I actually think Hard Copy seemed to be a pretty good effort – good acting and pleasing to the eye. There are more apt examples out there of dire local content.

    I’d guess there’s too few people at SABC with any critical sense of Taste balanced with a respect and understanding of both intelligent marketing, patience AND an eye on the ratings. The same goes for E.

    Ultimately cancelling local content gets you nowhere better though – I say slash the SABC workforce, leaving the best and hiring some more, throw in some form of bailout and keep local out-source production kicking. The only unit that should have heavy staffing is News, and some overall Quality Control would go a long way..

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  17. mampoza says:


    I’ like this one it proves proper management skills even in the government departments (DSTV sends three execs each year to buy Hollywood programmes for 21 channels, while SABC sends 20 buyers for just three.)

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