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The SABC – part of the problem or part of the solution?

Rehad Desai day is a documentary filmmaker, a socialist active in Extinction Rebellion in South Africa.

The SABC has been trading recklessly over the past year or so, its reserves have plummeted to disastrous levels and it is only getting worse. While some of this must be attributed to populist meddling by former head honcho Hlaudi Motsoeneng, any serious analysis points to the crisis of the part-public/ part-private nature of the corporation’s funding model. The SABC’s hybrid model is no longer sustainable over the medium to long term, and the failure of the government to act on this matter when it was flagged almost ten years ago is responsible for the current catastrophe.

Since 2009 the SABC management and various boards have failed to raise any convincing alternatives in terms of what should be done to turn the public broadcaster’s ailing fortunes around. The source of the financial crisis facing the SABC can be pinned to a few critical areas: the emergence of the internet and the fragmentation of the media landscape and with it advertising spend; the emergence of pay TV (DSTV) and ETV and the respective growth of those audiences primarily at the expense of the SABC; and a generalised downturn in the economy leaving us teetering on the edge of a recession.

The financial implications of the above factors, combined with a lack of expertise in public broadcasting at top- and senior levels of management and with high level political interference, has provided a toxic brew that has brought forth the scenario where the SABC’s income no longer matches its revenue.

Steps to introduce international best practice in terms of public broadcasting were never instituted at the SABC. The foundational pillar in this regard is how it spends money. At least 65% of its spend should be on producing programming leaving the remainder for overheads. Unfortunately, a full two thirds of the SABC spend goes to salaries and only 60% of those employed by the SABC are directly involved in programming.

Treasury, while aware of the problems at the SABC, has been very hesitant to provide further state guarantees on loans fearing the competency of management and the board to turn the ship around and avoid the state having to cough up the money. We all understand the perilous state of government revenues, the power of the ratings agencies and the general problems associated with a recessionary climate. Treasury have been perhaps right to be circumspect and to demand a coherent plan, but this has been coupled with some erroneous bean-counter advice.

Therein lies the rub. We seem devoid of an alternative other than to kneel before the altar of the market. Social cohesion, inclusive dialogue and development, indeed democracy-building institutions that can be part of the fight against inequality must come second to the logic of the market. The broadcaster with all its woes continues to provide a service to the majority of South Africans who simply cannot access DSTV, internet or get a decent ETV signal.

A recovery plan is therefore critical. The loss of TV and radio audiences speaks to a fundamental weakness which has to be rectified and that must figure very strongly in any turn-around strategy. If the SABC wishes to retain and rebuild audiences and maintain its present share of 48% of advertising spend, programming has to meet the needs of the audiences it seeks to serve and moreover set the benchmark for high quality programming across the broadcasting industry. Easy to state, but no easy goal to achieve in a multi-channel and converged environment where audiences can and do migrate, as the SABC can attest.

Public broadcasting in South Africa is not alone in this regard, and there are valuable lessons to learn internationally, but without the requisite political will in place, as pointed out by other writers, the much-quoted desire for an independent broadcaster which ensures quality programming based on the country’s plurality and diversity of voices will become an increasingly distant prospect.

Perhaps it is time to loudly reassert that public broadcasting is a service not a business and generally only exists where a commitment to social democracy and social equality is evident. It should also be mentioned that historically SABC programming with an explicit public broadcast mandate garnered huge audience support that was able to further enhance the offerings of the service. The focus of any turnaround strategy therefore must be to re-prioritize the spend on the production of content, with high quality public broadcast programming sitting at the centre of its schedule.

The management of the spend on content must be smart. The SABC has to take co-production with other public broadcasters and independent producers much more seriously. It has re-introduce the Request For Proposal system in order to solicit the best ideas and ensure a level playing field so the biggest 20 super indies do not continue to produce the lion’s share of all independently produced content. The ongoing financial crisis at the SABC has only served the interests of the bigger companies largely at the expense of less resourced new black talent.

The growth, health and vibrancy of the independent production sector is intimately tied up with a stable public broadcaster in place. Public broadcasters elsewhere have – some time back – woken up to the symbiosis between genuine public broadcasting and independent production. They instituted terms of trade which made it possible to bring third party financing into the equation, increasing production values in programming, only taking those rights they required and leaving the intellectual properties in the hands of the creators, often the producers themselves. Flexible and transparent terms of trade will help in raising the often low production values we see on the SABC.

The state-guaranteed loan must be provided to prop up the SABC and stave off the imminent collapse it is facing. Leaving the SABC to collapse is no answer, as rebuilding the production capacity will a slow and long process. The notion touted by the newly appointed chair, Bongumusa Makhathini, that SABC should be run like a commercial business defies any rational understanding of why the SABC is in the current mess it now faces. He – together with the new board – is respected by many and will have to provide a vision for the SABC that goes beyond bean counting.

The only basis on which the SABC can operate as genuine public broadcaster is when it can plan and implement content production that is locally and internationally competitive. This can only begin in real earnest when substantive and guaranteed financial support can be provided through the fiscus. This is the only sustainable route that can ensure that public broadcasting stays out of the Intensive Care Unit. State guaranteed loans must be the first step towards a people-service-centered vision so it becomes a meaningful part of South Africa’s solution rather than one of its problems. DM

Rehad Desai is Chairperson of the Independent Producers Organisation and the South African Screen Federation


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