Local TV productions have performed very well over the past year, fulfilling language requirements as well as entertaining and inspiring often exhausted audiences.
Eighty-six percent of South African adults agree that they “like to watch TV programmes where our social and cultural issues are part of the story”, according to futurefact 2019, which surveys adults in metropolitan and urban areas.
The research also shows that local content accounts for three of the five most popular genres: in descending order they are South African soaps, music, reality shows, South African drama series and South African soccer. One might extrapolate that the power of local content is even more dominant because the study does not split the music and reality genres into local and international productions. (Local soaps have twice the pulling power of their international counterparts).
This patriotic enthusiasm extends across the Socio-Economic Measure (SEM) spectrum, although there are some nuances; in the Low Supergroup, religion replaces reality in the top five, and lifestyle and food programming displace South African drama and soccer in the High Supergroup.
The most basic test of a programme’s success is the audience ratings it attracts: good ratings draw advertising revenue, the lifeblood of free-to-air broadcasters and a handy, if small, amount of the MultiChoice Group’s revenue (just under 8% for the 1HF2020).
As one would anticipate, local programming delivers the audiences and commands the rates. Averaged over the last quarter of 2019, Uzalo (25.0 ARs against adults and a rate card 30” spot rate of R210 920) topped the charts, followed by Generations: The Legacy (21.7 ARs and a rate of R178 270), Skeem Saam (15.1 ARs and a rate of R166 040), Scandal (12.6 ARs and a 30” rate of R163 370) and Muvhango (11.8 ARs and a rate of R109 720).
Local programming prevails
Local programming prevails in the pay TV universe, where the DStv top offerings, over the same period, were Our Perfect Wedding (4.2 ARs against adults with DStv in home) and a rate of R71 480), The Queen (4.1 ARs and a rate of R49 880), Idols SA (3.8 ARs and a rate of R40 110), The Throne (3.6 ARs and a rate of R23 000) and Ifalakhe (3.2 ARs and a rate of R28 790).
Rapid Blue CEO, Duncan Irvine, believes that intelligently interrogated ratings can provide producers and broadcasters with a good measure of what programmes audiences like and provide a sound base for developing programming strategy.
In order to be ahead of the curve, broadcasters utilise other forms of research. Janet Proudfoot GM: Group Research & Audience Strategy at e.tv, says they are “constantly conducting qualitative research in order to uncover and monitor market shifts in expectations of local drama”.
With a more demanding customer and diversity of choice reshaping the local drama category, she speaks of the need “to tap into consumer culture, context and current preoccupations in deeper and more meaningful ways”. Recent research showed that viewers live “in an anxiety building world – a world of uncertainty, danger and injustice…a dilution of morals in society, extreme crime threatening lives, social and political tension and unrest, a loss of faith in the people meant to inspire them and the rising cost of living”.
Proudfoot says viewers “are just looking for ways to cope with their reality. They need encouragement, support and inspiration…Local drama plays a pivotal role in their lives and in delivering progress against their goals…to escape and be entertained, to be supported and guided, to be encouraged and inspired and to feel validated”.
She concludes it is “connection and inspiration (that) is key”.
The power of research
Morne Bosch-Serfontein, MultiChoice Group chief information and insights officer, agrees “traditional qualitative research proves most effective when studying viewer patterns and insights that resonate with the target market”. Recently, they conducted an online panel study to evaluate the audience’s impressions of each episode of a new local series that ran for five weeks. This was followed by a qualitative study at the end of the series “to deep-dive into the specifics of what worked and what did not work, providing a solid foundation in the MultiChoice Group’s goal of continuously providing relevant and quality local content”.
Indeed, the MultiChoice Group’s 1hFY20 Results confirm this goal, showing that it increased local content production hours by 12% year on year with local content spend accounting for 43% of total GE content spend.
The SABC is unique in having to serve both a public broadcasting service (PBS) and public commercial service (PCS) mandate. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) sets local content quotas of 55% for the PBS channels (SABC1 and SABC2) and 35% for the PCS (SABC3). The SABC Annual Report 2019 shows that all three channels exceeded the local content requirements: SABC1 delivered 72.92% across the full day, SABC2 75.61 and SABC3 60.39%. The PBS channels also significantly overdelivered in terms of the quotas for drama, even during a time of financial challenge.
There has been audience and press outrage at the cancellation of high-profile programme stalwarts such as Top Billing and Isidingo. The end of the first Xitsonga language series, Giyani – Land of Blood, was met by much misguided indignation, as viewers failed to understand that it was a telenovela with a limited run, not an endless soap opera.
Mmoni Seapolelo, SABC spokesperson (acting), confirms the “SABC is refreshing all its brands to remain relevant to audiences and competitive within the marketplace…We are aiming to provide a more diverse, relevant and contemporary portfolio of experiences through our content acquisitions”.
SABC’s financial stresses, now eased by the first tranche of the bailout granted by the National Treasury, impacted on the local production industry. The Annual Report 2019 describes SABC TV as “the biggest driver of growth and transformation in the creative sector in South Africa”.
Irvine acknowledges this, describing current spend on local production as “flat and lower” than it had been prior to SABC’s financial challenges. He cites the conspicuous lack of a “big new entertainment show” as an indicator of the weakened investment. As spending slows so the broadcasters’ attitude towards commissioning becomes more cautious; broadcasters are likely to prefer scripted drama and paper formats. This is reinforced by the department of trade and industry’s (dti) local production rebate model being restricted to scripted projects, something Irvine believes local producers would like to see reviewed.
A “big first” is Irvine’s description of the MultiChoice Group’s series of Deon Meyer’s thriller Trackers. The biggest original drama co-production in African television history, it was co-produced by M-Net, Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF and Cinemax. It was exceptionally well received and, on average, generated 3.9 ARs against SEM 10 Adults in the pay TV universe. The combination of large budget, great talent and production values makes it a case study for what can be achieved. What remains to be seen is how it will fare internationally.
In many instances, the very ingredients that make local drama so loved by audiences prohibit it from generating revenue for broadcasters internationally. Seapolelo points out that most of the SABC’s international sales are on the African content and observes that “African broadcasters prefer culturally neutral content with the majority of it in English…But core to our acquisition strategies is meeting our local audience preference and mandate which drives local language…African broadcasters have massive financial constraints and often cannot pay the going rates for quality content”.
Nevertheless, she confirms “SABC1 will be broadcasting a drama series, done in partnership with African distributors with the content in French”. The MultiChoice Group is also working on leveraging existing content, customising the popular South African drama, The River, for Kenya.
The appetite for local content is certainly healthy; the challenge remains funding it.
This story first appeared in The Media Yearbook 2020. To read the digital magazine, click here. Due to lockdown restrictions, we have been unable to distribute the printed magazine…yet.
Having spent some decades working in the media agencies, Britta Reid now relishes the opportunity to take an independent perspective on the South African media world, especially during this time of radical research transformation.
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