Coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial is on a temporary hiatus as the athlete undergoes a court-ordered psychiatric assessment. The Oscar Pistorius Trial: A Carte Blanche Channel (DStv Channel 199) has ‘popped down’ and will pop up again on 30 June when Pistorius returns to court. In the meantime, The Media asks: Does the ‘trial of the decade’ advance the media in any meaningful way?
As Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1991, CNN journalists Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman kept the world updated on the unfolding events via telephone from a hotel room in Baghdad.
In the same way that the channel’s coverage of the Gulf War changed how 24-hour news was consumed by audiences, Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial has been a turning point for the way the media handles stories of significant public interest in South Africa.
High court Judge Dunstan Mlambo’s ruling allowing the trial to be televised made way for media houses eNCA and Primedia’s Eyewitness News (EWN) to broadcast rolling coverage of the trial, and for MultiChoice to partner with EWN to launch a 24-hour pop-up channel on DStv.
eNCA group head of news Patrick Conroy says the time and effort put into the trial was not for financial gain. “You cannot interrupt a court feed for advertising – not unless you want to seriously anger the viewer. This means you actually reduce the amount of time available to advertisers and this can lead to a loss in revenue,” says Conroy.
The bills stack up when covering an ongoing story of this magnitude: a permanent satellite line between the Pretoria court and eNCA’s headquarters costs US$3 500 (R36 000) per day and the broadcaster’s large crew has to be accommodated in a hotel. If other stories break elsewhere, eNCA hires extra satellite trucks and staff, which could cost in excess of R150 000.
Primedia CEO Ryan Till agrees. “It’s not a highly commercialised environment,” he says. “In fact, there is no sponsorship around it. It’s costing us a lot of money, but content costs money to make.”
Conroy admits that ratings have something to do with why they do it, but it’s a very small part. “Ratings are important and the higher they are the better for future advertising prospects. But the Oscar Pistorius trial will have highs and lows. We have seen TV and online audiences ebb and flow depending on what is happening in court. There was a great deal of interest in the first few days, but this faded until the next dramatic step in the trial,” he says.
According to Conroy, the fact that you can access the court feed in so many ways also effects ratings. “Nobody has a monopoly and so you would be foolish to think that it would guarantee large audience numbers,” he says.
The trial’s exposure by Primedia’s different radio stations has to be seen in the broader context of creating captivating content that can be consumed on several different platforms, says Till.
“Whether you’re talking about a viral clip of 30 seconds or a case like this, everyone is on the edge to see what the outcome is going to be. These are recipes for great content,” he says.
In addition to broadcasting live audio from the trial on Talk Radio 702, 567 CapeTalk, 94.7 Highveld Stereo and 94.5 Kfm, Primedia has broken new ground by creating an online pop-up radio station called Oscar Extra.
It broadcasts a live audio stream from the trial daily on all four of the companies’ radio station’s websites. The audio streams have been made available to international listeners across different time zones and on streaming apps via smartphones.
George Mazarakis, the executive producer of Carte Blanche and the Oscar Pistorius Trial channel, has called the relationship between EWN and MultiChoice “synergistic”. The pair pooled their resources to bring the channel to television. Channel 199 makes extensive use of EWN reporters on TV, while Primedia’s radio platforms has access to MultiChoice’s audio recording of the trial for broadcast.
“This is an entirely different approach to broadcasting – embracing a social media approach, not just with how we transmit and consume information, but also how we engage with our audience,” Mazarakis told Thinus Ferreira, an independent TV critic and journalist.
Till says that Primedia is not making money off the additional content at this stage, but that the challenge will be to find commercial models for these kinds of ventures in the future.
He says that having the content packaged on so many different platforms allows people to choose how much of the coverage they want to consume. “We’re running this in parallel to our normal content which means that if Oscar fatigue sets in, people will vote with their mouse or their phone,” he says.
At eNCA, an ‘Oscar fatigue’ contingency plan is in place too.
Says Conroy, “We have to break away from the Oscar Pistorius trial to bring viewers other news. If you are solely broadcasting the trial, the burden of content creation and filling airtime is greater and therefore costs will go up too.”
He says the media is in this because, despite the huge costs, it cannot afford not to be. “Pistorius’s trial may be attention grabbing and sensational in some respects, but it lays down the rules of the game for the next trial which could involve high profile politicians. Who knows?”
This post was first published in the May 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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