In part two of Howard Thomas’s Battle of the Budgets, the broadcasting veteran unpacks the story behind budgets, quality local content and high-end international product, and how ultimately, the SABC’s quest for ‘world class quality’ saw it break the budget. Ultimately, it is viewers and South African production companies who have been the biggest losers of all.
The Age of Indecision
E.tv slashed its budgets for local content. They gave out longer term commissions at lower prices. They courted sponsors and the product placers.
At the same time, the SABC gave out shorter term contracts at much higher prices, and told the audience that they spent more, which was why their programmes were better than e.tv’s.
What is “better”?
If “better” is higher budgets and more production values, then the SABC won. If better means more audiences, then e.tv and M-Net won. Because, guess what, the audience didn’t care a damn about quality.
So e.tv surged ahead and was eventually able to afford a 24 hour news programme that made money. The SABC also had a 24 hour news programme but no one watched it apart from those who passed the only screen in the SABC foyer. The SABC also continued to plough money into “world class quality”. It trebled the number of commissioning staff, it increased its quota of high quality local content, and it invested in foreign awards, until…it bankrupted itself.
And on that fateful day in March 2009 when the SABC could not pay its bills, the new age began.
The Age of the Battle of the Budgets
A couple of other things were happening at the same time. There were threats of new telelvision subscription channels from On Digital and Telkom Media, so DStv was pumping money into local content. E.tv proved its mettle when it started buying foreign stations and flaunting its successful 24-hour news channel.
DStv and M-Net came up with their Africa Magic channels, hoping to hell they wouldn’t lose too much.
They were a hit. Fuzzy pictures, with boom mics creeping into shot, hissing sound from Automatic Level Control (ALC), moving pin-sharp shadows on the walls, lousy composition and the worst actors, were fine by the viewers.
E.tv got the message and lowered the cost of its dramas – to no discernible decline in viewers.
The SABC, stunned by its own incompetence, just stopped commissioning.
It is now hamstrung. It can’t keep a board, a CEO or anything. It can’t cut staff as it has three unions that it sold control to years ago.
At the same time, the SABC left about 100 independent production companies without work, and willing to sell themselves off at any price, just to remain alive. Supply exceeds demand equals prices fall. It is simple economics.
Meanwhile DStv is now offering R90 000 for a bubblegum movie.
Now to get that shock into perspective, it means R90 000 for about 45 minutes, which is around R2 000 a minute. When last heard of, the SABC was pushing R24 000 a minute. The stuff looked lovely, but no one watched it.
Horror, who can make a film for that price? The words reverberated round the independent producers.
I’ll tell you who: the Nigerians.
Their average price for a “good” one-off Nigerian movie is $30 000 for 90 minutes, or roughly R2300 a minute. They’re smart.
They have no sets; they shoot in the cameraman’s house.
They have no costumes; the actors just wear their own clothes.
They have no scripts, just an outlines of what an actor says, and the actor uses his own words. So no “Take 2” just because he got a word wrong.
They don’t pay actors; well, just the top ones. The lesser roles pay the producer just for the honour of being in the film.
While the other broadcasters were slugging it out in the Age of the Battle of the Budgets, the SABC was still in the Age of Indecision. It spent what money it didn’t have to run international workshops thinking maybe Latin American Telenovelas were a possibility.
But come hell or high water, they were never going to compromise in their quality. So they just commissioned nothing, and depleted the storerooms of their earlier bad buying decisions.
In the last six months things have changed even more. Nigerian films are sold at Amazon.com for $12. And they sell.
The old prophets are running around saying, “I told you so. Didn’t I talk about ‘Fit for Purpose’ 10 years ago?”
E.tv has refined business models that take a hard look at repeats and reruns. M-Net has its Mzansi channel which is running popular new local content that is quite awful in old fashioned “quality” terms, but eminently enjoyable.
Now every aspirant kid in the townships is making a film. These get bought up in bulk and sold at taxi ranks. The kids lose out. Anyone who makes a film before tying up distribution will get screwed.
Independent producers are showing, to their own surprise, that they can make a living churning out cheap junk that works. All they need is a production mindset change, and a healthy respect for audiences.
Big Brother winner Uti Nwachukwu now hosts a weekly show, Jarra, on Africa Magic. It’s a mix of behind the scenes, E! Entertainment, and off cuts. But, and here’s the rub, it’s featuring Gollywood, the Ghanaian films!
Viva audiences viva!