There’s no doubt the reputation of e.tv and eNews Channel Africa has taken a knock over the past week, but becoming the story instead of reporting on it hasn’t had a commercial impact on the television channels.
The broadcasters took centre stage in a corporate drama that saw the stations’ major shareholders battle it out in the boardroom. CEO Marcel Golding resigned, followed shortly afterwards by COO (and his wife) Bronwyn Keene-Young. Accusations and counter accusations put media independence at the centre of the fight, and led to an expose on how government had paid for a series on South Africa’s infrastructure development – but that eNCA had not branded it as paid-for content.
Nevertheless, advertisers remain committed to the brands, says group chief operating officer, Mark Rosin.
“December sales figures look promising which reaffirms our belief that viewers and marketers have faith in our brands,” Rosin told The Media Online.
Britta Reid, media consultant and former managing director of MediaCom, says the media agency perspective “tends to be a relentlessly commercial one”.
“If the audiences are of a suitable profile, a reasonable size, and decently priced then the agencies will buy them on behalf of advertisers. The commercial revenue of eNCA and e.tv, would only be in jeopardy if media agencies detected sizeable audience losses on these channels. Given that the options for the average viewer still remain limited, this is unlikely to happen,” she says.
The departure of Golding and Keene-Young would be of concern to media agencies, says Reid. “As long as there isn’t an audience exodus, there is little need for them to be too worried about agency reaction. I think rather than there being concern about political interference, I think agencies will be more concerned about the potential impact of the departure of two executives so identified with the channels, but as long as there is reassurance that there is a stable depth of management still in place, there should not be a problem,” she says.
e.tv was recently voted as having the best brand reputation in the broadcasting sector in the annual Top Companies report. Rosin says it would be “foolish” to say the channel’s reputation hadn’t been affected by the boardroom battle and its fallout.
“We’re sure that many questions have been raised by concerned viewers. However we remain an integrity driven news service with the highest levels of commitment to this. We understand that perceptions may currently question this, but believe that people who follow us will see that we remain a trustworthy and reliable source of information,” he says.
Professor Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and director of the Journalism Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand, says in his view, e.tv has a “good reputation” for editorial independence. “They smartly recognised that good, independent journalism was what set them apart from their key rival, the SABC, and built their branding on reporting ‘without fear or favour’. That reputation is now damaged and they will have to work hard to repair it. If they don’t, they will struggle to stand out against the much bigger and better-resourced SABC,” he says.
In terms of advertising, Harber says if it affects audiences, “this will in time hurt their advertising. This is unlikely to happen overnight, but it might lead to a slow erosion of their position”.
Reid says advertisers tend to be swayed by more prosaic factors. “Arguably they are less likely to be positively influenced by reputation, than they are to be frightened off by potential controversy. So numerous global advertisers have prescriptive programming guidelines e.g. avoid religious programming, ‘adult’ content, extreme violence or controversy,” she says. “This caution can extend to programming that advertisers view as being too ‘down-market’ for their brands. For example, initially WWE wrestling did not garner support until one brave advertiser sponsored it, prompting other advertisers to review their opinions. But if ‘reputation’ were an issue then SABC News would not draw the support it does.”
Reid, like Harber, says news of the infrastructure series being government funded, but not marked as such, is a betrayal of viewers’ trust. “It is a complete breach of viewer’s trust not to identify the sponsor of the programme,” she says.
Harber takes an even tougher stance. “Running paid-for stories on the news or current affairs programming without telling audiences is dishonest and unethical. There is nothing valid about doing this. Native advertising at least tells you that it is paid for and that does not seem to have happened here. That is a moral, ethical and journalistic disgrace. It breaks the most fundamental ethical rules,” he says.
Rosin declined to comment on the infrastructure scandal, pointing instead to a statement issued by Sabido Investments, which owns e.tv and eNCA, late on Monday. It said it had “noted concerns” over the infrastructure series that was “part of our 20 years of democracy focus this year”.
“It was a stand-alone editorial series and government officials were not involved in determining the content of the reports. The news department retained full editorial control of the series. We stand by the facts and the reporting therein. The editorial managers and reporters involved did not waiver in this regard,” Sabido says.
“Furthermore the news division saw this as part of a broader project to reflect on 20 years of democracy which it has done throughout the year. (These were not documentaries as has been erroneously reported). Other broadcasts included the documentary The Bloody Miracle which focused on the 1994 elections and a series on land ownership among others.
“At the time it was agreed to sell advertising airtime to Brand SA, and these adverts ran independently of the news reports. Government advertising in South African media is not uncommon and most, if not all, media houses aired or published Government ads in 2014”.
Sabido says the issue came under “intense” media scrutiny in the wake of the departure of former CEO, Marcel Golding, and former CCO, Bronwyn Keene-Young. Allegations of editorial pressure on the part of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) were made. Sactwu is a major shareholder. “News management were not involved in the sale of advertising. This was done by the Commercial Time Sales Department. It was the job of the news team to produce the series only and they were instructed to report impartially,” says Sabido.
Rosin says the resignations of Golding and Keene-Young “were a surprise of course and the fall-out between shareholders is something we all wish could have been avoided”.
“However, the executive team, management and staff will continue to work to ensure we deliver relevant content to viewers of e.tv and eNCA and the executive is confident of ensuring that this occurs,” he says.
He says the past week has been “tough” on staff who “have not been through any kind of boardroom upheaval in over a decade. For many of them it’s the first time this has happened in their careers. However the two broadcasters remain very stable and the teams continue to go about their business as usual as management has re-assured them”, he says.
Now the stations have to concentrate on rebuilding trust, says Harber. “First, they need to come clean on what has happened, tell the public what their policy is on the matter, and then they can rebuild their reputation over time by demonstrating consistently that they are covering stories without fear or favour,” he says.
Sabido says while it is “understandable and also regrettable that perceptions were created of editorial influence and control”, Sabido will do its utmost to avoid that such perceptions are created again in the future.
Management at the company said they were “satisfied that the news division remains an independent, considered and quality driven unit”.
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