Many, many years ago, back when Coke Light was still Diet Coke, a news editor asked me to please take what we call the “SABC beat”. As a journalist always on the hunt for more information, for a good old-fashioned political saga with twists, turns, backstabbing and multimillion rand payouts, I became eternally grateful for that beat. I can think of no other story that has provided me with nearly as much sheer entertainment as the SABC. And the great thing is, it is really a political story, dressed up as TV drama. And just when I thought the farce around whether Hlaudi Motsoeneng was or was not its “Acting Chief Operating Officer” would be the highpoint, my glee has actually risen. Because, ladies and gentlemen, someone somewhere, has decided what the world really needs now, is more SABC, more often. And so, hold on to your hats, we're getting a 24-hour SABC news channel. And it starts today. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
(Note to readers: Grootes is so obviously highly conflicted in the writing of this piece, that we haven’t bothered to actually read it, edit it, or touch it in any way. Proceed at your own risk. – Ed).
Over the years, Auckland Park has really been Series Four of Game of Thrones. We’ve had various kings take to the throne, then they get surrounded by the hostile barons, and eventually, their heads have been chopped off in particularly gruesome ways. And we’ve seen the odd soldier being lost along the way.
But the Duke who’s probably been the most fun is Hlaudi Motsoeneng himself, the man who was acting operating officer, wasn’t, and now is again. And he seems to be the person behind the brand-spanking-new news channel. For our imperious young Duke, it’s all about the SABC’s mandate. It’s about informing people, about providing news, about making sure that everyone in the country really knows what’s going on.
Now, Duke Motsoeneng of General Deployment has a point. A news channel, will, by its nature, inform, and provide news. And, hopefully, it will have an audience. The problem is that the audience will be only those with DStv decoders. Who tend to be richer, more urban, and generally pretty well informed already.
And there’s another problem. Those with DStv already have plenty of other news channels to choose from. They run the gamut from Bejing’s CCTV, to Russia Today (which you really have to watch from time to time, if just to see Vladimir Putin’s Pike) and then onto what you might call the more traditional BBC, CNN and Sky. And yes, there’s a South African broadcaster there too in the form of the still clumsy off my tongue eNCA. So if the SABC’s new channel is going to find an audience, it’s really going to have produce a better product than all of those, or find audiences which aren’t served by them.
This means the real competition will be between the SABC and eNCA.
Motsoeneng points out that the real strength of the SABC is that it has bureaus in all nine provinces, and thus can carry news from all of those areas. And he says that no one else is doing this. Well, yes that’s true, the SABC does have tentacles all over the place. But, at the risk of engaging in what Atul Gupta of Waterkloof will no doubt call a cheap shot, his little newsletter carries news from all of the provinces as well, and no matter how many free copies he gives away, it’s still not getting any audience.
However, where our Duke of General Deployment is on very strong ground, is that this channel will provide news in all languages. That certainly is in keeping with what the SABC is supposed to do, and no one else is doing it, not to the level he’s talking about. If that’s managed well, it could work. But it does have to be managed well, actually, extremely well. You can’t just throw a bunch of reports in many languages on any old how and hope for the best. Instead of people tuning in, they actually get tired of waiting, and tune out – especially if they already speak English, which they’re likely to do if they have access to DStv.
As anyone in the broadcast news industry, and particularly in the 24-hour news business will tell you, a channel like this consumes content like nothing else. It is an all-time hungry beast, all the time; it takes a large number of people and huge resources to fill the beast. There’s a reason you see the same TV packages again and again, or hear the same reporters saying the same thing in different ways on Sky News or CNN. It’s a hard job to do, and it’s really hard to do it well.
Our favourite young Duke claims he has more than enough content, but he can’t use it all right now. That is almost certainly true. But one has to ask, is the reason it isn’t being used because it’s actually not very good? And if that’s the case, then what’s the point of putting not very good content on a platform that already has plenty of news?
So, I have to go to the question of motive here. Why is the SABC doing this? General Deployment says this channel is also a pilot project for when the digital TV changeover happens, and then everyone will be able to watch it. But we’re still a couple of communications ministers away from that happening, so it’s a pretty weak excuse.
But for those of us who are long-time watchers of this drama, another reason looks pretty obvious: if you have a 24-hour news channel, and you need content all the time, why not fill it with live broadcasts of political speeches? And when you run out of content, well, just broadcast that speech again. So, stand by for speech after speech by King Jacob of Nkandla, or Angie of Limpopo-Textbook, or Blade of Praise-Singer. Somehow we don’t think Prince Kgalema of Mangaung will get much airplay.
Just think, our saintly Cabinet on repeat, all day. And all night. It’s going to be an absolute winner. Politicians will be able to get their message out, completely unedited by the pesky independent commercial liberal media, which, as everyone knows, is the greatest threat to our democracy. What a wonderful way around that old foe, independent journalists.
It’s also going to be great fun to watch. There will be massive fights over it all the time. Someone in Helen of The-Independent-Republic’s office will be forced to monitor the thing, to see how much airtime they get compared with the ANC. And then there will be row after row about “you covered this speech, but not my speech, you’re just a political broadcaster” etc, etc ad nauseum.
Suddenly, all makes sense, in a same way the New Age makes sense. There’s cheap, plentiful content that can provide thousands of ad breaks that can be graciously filled with government-aligned advertising. Voila! So many massive problems solved with one move.
So folks, if you’re ready for more SABC, more often, it’s time to reach for the remote. Channel 404. I simply can’t wait. DM
Grootes hosts the Midday Report for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. That means he works for another broadcaster. He probably should not have been allowed to write this.
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