R.I.P your TVby 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.
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.
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.
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.