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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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