The SABC operates as a hybrid model where it is part financed by the state and public, with the lion’s share generated through advertising revenue. This model is in crisis internationally for two reasons. The disruption created by the internet and other technological advances has allowed for a proliferation of channels and platforms, fragmenting advertising revenue in the process and the onset of economic stagnation. In our case, the disaster has been compounded by political interference and a rampaging patronage network joined at the hip. The outcome, a R5-billion hole, leaving the SABC without sufficient reserves to pay their liabilities each month.
A culture crept into the organisation that allowed for the crazed Hlaudi Motsoeneng to rule the roost, driving out much of what talent was left in the all-important news and current affairs, drama and factual commissioning departments. It is instructive to understand how this occurs as this undermines the core business of the SABC – the production of quality programming. Space does not allow an explanation in this article of how this happened but it does provide a clear focus to the fundamental problem at hand.
The SABC has responded to its ailing condition by attempting to mimic the commercial free-to-air broadcasters. It has scrapped its Request for Proposals, designed and introduced to get the best ideas and talent to produce for it. It has increased the number of soapie productions that air and driven down prices by offering more volume to producers. Drama and documentary have all but disappeared. The number of independent producers contracted by the SABC year on year has halved in recent years. Perhaps most worryingly for a public broadcaster, its news and currents affairs has been severely weakened to the state where audiences are questioning its integrity and consequently changing channels.
Hybrid broadcasters like the SABC have in essence one opportunity to hold its viewership in place and that is by offering a unique offering in the marketplace. That can only be achieved by staying true to its public broadcast mandate. This must mean the conception and production of excellent programming that is able to inform, entertain and educate, often simultaneously, rather than shows that simply draw huge audiences. It has to embrace the most critical element of the mandate, to get the nation in conversation with itself.
Plurality and diversity of voice and the power of story, once the cornerstones of the SABC and its democratising narrative, have been sacrificed on the altar of a toxic mixture of politics, patronage and commercial prerogatives. A turnaround strategy that is able to draw audiences back to public broadcaster will require the production of programmes that set the quality benchmark for the entire industry. This will require the requisite political will by the government and Parliament.
In the immediate future it will demand that those that are relied on outside to produce programming are not made to pay for the crisis, much of self-inflicted. It seems this has no possibility of resolution favourable to producers without the necessary bank guarantees from Treasury for an SABC loan from the commercial banks. The conundrum for socially responsible producers is that Treasury is once again being requested to pour public monies into what looks like a black hole and, more worryingly, an unofficial nod to business as usual at the HQ of the corporation.
Any strategy that has hope of success will require the appointment of a new and credible board composed of the good and the great to be brought forward as a matter of urgency. This is not to say that the selection of the interim board was bad; on the contrary, it is made up of people of good standing and reasonable knowledge. The interim board, however, will not be able to attract the requisite talent to run the organisation.
It is common knowledge that such posts at the SABC are seen as a poisoned chalice. No talented executives are going to put themselves forward for such a post without full knowledge and confidence in a board that is interim. In other words, the specific priority that has been set by parliamentary portfolio committee for the interim board to bring in new executives will not serve the purpose it is designed to achieve. The argument for the new board responsible for the hiring of senior executives from where I stand seems irresistible.
The most pressing conundrum for a turnaround strategy able to succeed in taking the broadcaster away from the abyss and on to greener pastures requires the most experienced and talented broadcast professionals available in the marketplace. Reviving the fortunes of this critical service which provides for tens of millions of South Africans will require bold, brave and visionary leadership that significantly raises the value of its offering. Direction that raises staff morale, attracts talent back to the SABC, cuts out the dead wood, innovates high quality and controversial programming, fights for state support and at the time stands up to attempts at interference and much more more. Another SABC is possible. DM
Rehad Desai is currently the Chairperson of the South African Screen Federation, a filmmaker and activist. This is written in his personal capacity