That old aunty of Auckland Park, the good old South African Broadcorping Castration, the SABC, has been a source of irritation, aggravation and, where sense of humour didn’t fail, a source of bewildered amusement for decades and decades.
Advertisers, their agencies, viewers and listeners have been victim to myriad muckups by management. Decisions that somehow did not defy logic seemed to be imposed with the sole purpose of making things difficult for all concerned, both internally and externally.
But in 1997, only three years after South Africa became a democracy, a rainbow appeared over Auckland Park and there seemed to be a very clear and distinct indication that things were about to change. And change quite radically.
The SABC was on the verge of being transformed from monopolistic monolith to a corporate citizen of fine standing.
At the time, the SABC chief executive Zwelakhe Sisulu − yes indeed he was an ANC cadre − told me that the process of change at the SABC had been brutal. He did not enjoy it, but he made no apologies for what had to happen. The corporation trimmed its staff from roughly 6 000 employees to half that number. Traumatic in anybody’s language.
He also told government that if society wanted public service broadcasting it “would have to pay for it”. Straight talk in anybody’s language.
Election coverage, for example, would no longer be free. Would no longer cripple the SABC’s resources. Tough talk. But business talk, not political talk.
There was no doubt that winds of changed had blown like a gale through the SABC, blasting away all the cobwebs, intrigues and bad business practices of the past and leaving in their place the desire to do what was right not only from the consumer point of view but as importantly, from the advertisers’ point of view.
Sisulu admitted that he wasn’t a broadcasting expert. (He was however, a journalist and struggle editor with the highest possible credentials in both)
He argued that his job was to be the SABC’s communicator. To talk to all the stakeholders continuously, internally and externally. Business talk, not political talk.
He created the post of chief operating officer who would be a broadcast specialist.
But more important, particularly to the advertising industry, the SABC board also approved the new position of chief executive sales and marketing.
And the man who has got this job was Trevor Ormerod, then deputy managing director of Times Media Limited.
Quite clearly a great choice. Someone high up who understood advertisers and their needs. Who understood the frustrations of advertising agencies. And certainly a man who had a lot of respect in the media business.
Ormerod’s big challenge was not going to be creating better relationships between the SABC and its advertisers nor was it going to be marketing a new improved SABC to South African society.
His big challenge was influencing something that had caused advertising more frustration than anything else this decade: programming.
In particular that annoying habit SABC had since it re-launched its three channels a year before, of moving programmes around between time slots and channels like a high-speed game of draughts.
Sisulu insisted that the solution lay in the fact that the head of programming and chief executive of sales and marketing would not only be on the same hierarchical level but would be part of an operational team.
Sadly, Sisulu was never able to fulfill his dream. Ormerod was enticed away by Primedia and was followed my Mark Jakins who achieved record revenue levels for SABC before he too departed out of sheer frustration.
Hopefully, the new SABC board that is made up entirely, for the first time ever, of devoted ANC cadres, will look back on what Sisulu achieved and dreamed about. Maybe they will learn something from this prominent member of their party and be just as courageous.
Frankly though, I am not holding my breath because the ANC of 1997 was very different to the ANC of 2013.
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
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