Digital Terrestrial Television will open up the airwaves, but what does this mean for local content production?
The age of convergence is here and TV fans will soon have multiple channels from which to choose on a variety of platforms. This means nothing, however, if there isn’t enough quality content to fill them.
CEO for production company Urban Brew, Mzimkulu Malunga, says there will be a proliferation of channels and content in an increasingly competitive environment. Malunga, whose company produces shows for the SABC and MultiChoice, says TV is soon going to find itself where print was 10 years ago. “There are serious disruptions coming our way. It’s an exciting time, but it comes with a lot of challenges. Only the fittest will survive.”
e.tv last year launched a bouquet of free-to-air satellite channels and Chinese-owned StarTime entered the market, buying into On Digital Media’s TopTV. This means more commissioning of content. “StarTime will be creating new opportunities,” says Malunga. “And the colossus that is MultiChoice is commissioning a lot at the moment.” DStv last year launched a number of new channels, which include Msanzi Wethu, dedicated to local entertainment like game and reality shows and the hit Zulu soapie, Isibaya.
Producer Ben Horowitz, who is currently working on Isibaya, says, “No one really knows what the repercussions of digital will be. DTT will simply increase the number of platforms. More channels need more content, so we’re going to get a lot of really crap shows, like game shows and reality shows about some famous person’s grandchild. These are cheap ways to fill airtime.” But, he adds, prime time viewing will only get better.
Technology is making TV production more accessible to more people. Fewer cameras and a smaller crew are needed, editing can be done on a laptop and distribution can be done via channels like YouTube.
“The low entry level in storytelling means that more people can make content. You don’t need big corporations anymore,” says Horowitz.
“Broadcasters are bogged down with corporate directors. They have mandates to fill, they have bosses and boards, there’s little individuality in our broadcasting. New media is going to start competing with that because it makes production so much cheaper.”
Yet the industry faces many challenges in producing quality shows. Horowitz says that budgets are tight, skills are lacking and the transfer of skills to black writers has been slow. Most head writers are still white, says Horowitz, though writing for mostly black audiences.
“Our biggest problem, though, is that South African TV is conservative… Our characters are still mostly inspirational. TV drama here is not cutting edge storytelling or exploration of character. The SABC wouldn’t even look at a South African Breaking Bad – yet that’s the god of TV! That will change, though, and I don’t think we’re in some sort of crisis,” says Horowitz.
“Maybe if the South African Breaking Bad came from a different source, a skilled black team, it would be more acceptable. This is the kind of breakthrough we are looking for in this industry. We’d also like to create something exportable. We aren’t doing this, and that’s partly because of our broadcast mandate. Something like Isibaya can’t travel, and it’s not meant to.”
Isibaya has been very successful, with an average audience of about half a million in 2013, and that’s because Zulu audiences are starved of quality content, says Horowitz. The show’s script foregrounds the language and fans love that. Horowtiz says, “You can watch Isibaya and get a sense of the Zulu world. Our dramas play that role of introducing us to one another. Especially when you get away from boring rainbow nation-type representative stuff.”
South Africa’s most watched show is SABC drama Generations, which attracts an average seven million viewers per episode.
But many doubt the ability of the SABC to fill the extra channels DTT will provide. The public broadcaster says it has no more money to spend on programming, say the Save Our SABC (SOS) Coalition. Yet, as the biggest consumer by far of local content, the SABC has the ability to stimulate the local TV industry and provide South Africans with empowering content as is its mandate.
SOS chief co-ordinator Sekoetlane Phamodi says DTT offers a great opportunity for public broadcasting. With 18 channels running 24 hours a day, the sky’s the limit for educational programming, better language group representation and more diversity. But the coalition is not optimistic. “For all the commercial broadcasters, it will be business as usual after DTT, just on a larger scale. But at the SABC it’s another story,” says Phamodi.
The troubled broadcaster already relies on repeats to fill its time slots, despite spending R700 million on programming in 2012, say industry players like the SA Screen Federation (Sasfed). Sasfed last year threatened legal action against the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), whose alleged lack of monitoring “resulted in an increasing reliance on the same recycled, mostly American, series” and a “dramatic increase in repeats of local series and films dating back almost 10 years” .
Carol Mohlala, also from SOS, says, “Our biggest fear is that DTT, if it even happens, will be repeat, repeat, repeat. The SABC are not commissioning enough… They rely on historical archived content to keep them going. This makes no sense in terms of what viewers want. It’s imperative to have new, local, relevant content.”
Malunga, however, thinks that the SABC “are overcoming their challenges now. They are supposed to be putting out a request for proposal (RFP) book. In 2012 they didn’t put one out, but we were told there’s going to be one next year and that it’ll be the biggest yet. The SABC have realised that we need to start accumulating content.”
SABC GM of Television Channels Leo Manne announced the RFP in July 2013 and said it would be ready by September, but it still has not been issued. The Media approached Manne about this article, but he did not make himself available for comment. SABC employees say the RFP is still awaiting approval by the board, which has been in a state of much disruption.
But Malunga says the future is full of opportunity. “We live on a continent with a long and rich history, which is only just beginning to be told. Africa is the next big thing. People who do business here want to know what makes us tick.”
Says Horowitz, “It all comes down to storytelling. People need stories like we need oxygen and food… If you’ve got a story to tell and you’ve got the skills to make TV, that’s what’s going to make breakthroughs.”
This story was first published in a special television supplement in the March 2014 issue of The Media magazine.