Four TV mistakes to avoid in 2010

Entertainment is a business where you have to make lots of mistakes. In film and TV it is usual for 15% of your programmes to pay for the losses incurred by the other 85%. But there are four mistakes that stick out glaringly over the past year.
Advertiser Funded Programming
As we head into multichannel and need to reduce the cost of programming, it is tempting to allow the pendulum to swing right the other way and get someone else to pay for everything. This is where we land up in the quagmire of Advertiser Funded Programming (AFP). This is a mistake right from the start. Advertisers do not intend to entertain or engage with people, they intend o sell. As people, they are also about as entertaining as vacuum cleaner salesman. They are good at buying spots; broadcasters are good at buying programming. But they can work. This year has seen some acceptable efforts like Axe Good Life, and a lot of pretty awful infomercials like Vodacom Thumb Wars.
Perhaps broadcasters need to rethink AFP, realise that when the advertiser and the broadcaster are fighting for editorial control, the one thing that will be sacrificed is engaging entertainment.
Talent Shows
A talent show is a talent show. You can license at horrific expense someone else’s format like SA’s got Talent, but for all the glitz and glamour, it’s still a talent show. KykNET will show you how you achieve the same on a fiftieth of the cost.
If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you have to assure yourself of income streams other than advertising. Spot sales could have been better, and I’m sure there was some income from cellphone votes. But the obvious was not there. There was no talent discovered that the broadcaster and producer could take ownership of that would yield returns in the future.
The winners were all vaudeville acts. I think I stage managed the last vaudeville show in South Africa and that was 1966. How do you make a CD of a juggler, and how do you sell a two hour DVD of a beat boxer and a dancer? Yes I know the audience voted them in, and it was “beyond the control of the producers”. Heard that one before. The point is, Susan Boyle was also rigged in, and if she only sells her Amazon pre-order, she’ll earn a lot more for her producers than will someone freeform dancer with a funny hat.
Loss making excesses like this will fade away as the government makes sure the SABC spends its bailout money on healthy “state information”.
Nigerian films
No fewer than five aspirants have approached me in the last month with crock of gold dreams of making Nigerian style films and selling them on DVD at taxi ranks.
Sure they’re a phenomenon, and they sell in South Africa on Africa Magic and in retail. But you have to be careful. South Africans want South African content if they are going to get value out of R30 at a taxi rank. The reason Nigerian films cost so little is that they only have two themes: gorgeous people in beautiful homes doing ugly things”, and “what happened next week in the house next door”. Both of these are easy to produce at no budget. But nothing guarantees sales.
My advice. Budget for lots of pilots and lots of stalls at lots of taxi ranks. The development and feasibility tests will not be cheap.
Show Biz shows
You can’t go copycatting everyone else for ever. Every single channel now has a badly made version of E! Entertainment. Fast paced does not mean exciting. And how can you say the audience has a five minute attention span when they happily watch a two hour movie. They have a short attention span for mindless trivia, but they don’t have an endless appetite for this trash.
People select which channel and programme they will watch for the meaning they will get out of it. They choose the one that suits their needs at that time.
This is just another attempt to cut costs without using your imagination to find a new and novel way to find low cost entertainment.
(First published in The Media Dec 2009)

Start all over again

Now that everyone is dissecting the putrefied corpse of the SABC, perhaps its time to bury it forever, and get a brand new public broadcaster. We don’t need changes to the Charter, just a PBS that follows the existing Charter.
The self-elected moralists in the media who genuflect before the altar of “press freedom and integrity” should acknowledge that no government would ever allow its state-owned broadcaster to be objective. Its so naïve, it’s like expecting your husband to stop drooling over short skirts. Are you saying that BBC World, CNN and Sky News are unbiased? At least we now have the SABC and e.tv to choose between. Why don’t we sell off SABC3 as a sort of non-profit private PBS (like Channel 4 in the UK)? Then we can choose between three biased points of view.
We must stop a state-owned broadcaster that aspires to be “world class” and a fore-runner in winning awards in Berlin and Tokyo. The audience doesn’t care. They want programming to their taste, not super-costly stuff liked by panels of has-beens in Berlin and Tokyo. We are just another developing country in the same league (in GDP/capita) as Brazil, Argentina, Romania and Turkey. We can’t aspire to being Australia. We aren’t Australia.
This stupidity has been driven by independent producers who do it for two reasons: to con the SABC programme bosses into feeling good and commission programmes from them; and to raise the budgets on the programmes. Producers make their money out of a mark up – the higher the budget, the more the mark-up.
Let’s not fill the programming staff with academics and ex-school teachers. Let’s rather get people from the media. I’d sooner trust and ex- journo from People than an ex-lecturer in anthropology.
Get real with the profit and account properly for PBS cross-subsidisation. I fell off my chair when I heard that religious programmes get an ad sales quota. And I haven’t noticed God buying time around spiritual slots.
Get real about the independent industry. The SABC Charter says, “(n) to nurture South African talent and train people in production skills and carry out research and development for the benefit of audiences;” That does NOT say keep people in work in the private sector. Some spokesman said recently that because of the SABC crisis, “80 000 jobs are at stake.” That’s funny arithmetic when there are no more than 20 000 in and connected to the industry. If the local producers bothered to keep stats (like all industry associations do worldwide), they wouldn’t come up with laughable claims. They would also find out just how many successful South African producers make most of their money dealing directly with foreign broadcasters.
Sort out the archives. You cannot even think of going into multi-channel without proper digitised and catalogued archives. Why is there a Repurposing department when no one can find what’s in the archives? I was told that “we think we have 100 000 hours in there.” We “think”! I would expect them to be able to exactly how many, of which duration, and in which language and genre.
Send some spies into Oracle and e.tv to find out how to really sell ad time with a minimum of staff. How can you be so arrogant that you sell time, but cannot guarantee the exact time of flighting? How do you expect advertisers to road block? Why bother to have stats that tell you at what precise time the competition flighted their ad? Why are the SABC still selling AR’s and not highly defined segments? And I don’t mean vague and politically correct pre-packaged segments of Nation Builders and Global Citizens. Product managers target far too narrowly for those airy-fairy segments.
Get real with HR. Have you noticed that every time the SABC starts something new, it opens a new department? That means another R900K a year GM, and a full staff. If they conducted normally accepted job analysis and job evaluation, they’d probably get away with one person. Unfortunately the guys at the top have needed the vacancies into which to dump their unemployable relatives.
Well there’s a new tomorrow. That’s what Woodstock in August 1969 was supposed to be.
(First published in The Media Oct 2009)

Non-reaction

The tough part of television programming is not just delivering programmes that meet the audience’s tastes and needs, but also to meet the fads, fashions and tastes of the time. Radio is lovely. You can change tomorrow’s programming is something new and cute breaks.
TV is quite different. The only programmes capable of reaction of any substance are the News and early morning programmes.
How do you know what people will like in the future, when magazine programmes take anything from a fortnight to two months to make? Documentaries can take as little as six months. Dramas are usually a year or two before transmission.
TV programmers are caught on a mediaeval stretch rack. At one end is the audience hungry for the new, exciting and adventurous. At the other end are the broadcast bean counters who not only want to minimise risk – they want to do away with it all together.
That’s why, if a TV programmer wants any type of decent rest at night, he’ll take the road of least resistance and copy. Hence the copycatting in reality programmes, the spate of Jane Austin programmes we had for two years, the Harry Potter rip offs, and of course the ultimate in copycatting: buying formatted programmes that have proved to be a success abroad.
Naturally, it backfires eventually when the audience who really have the final say get gat vol of the same old thing.
So what’s in the pipeline?
The US has little to offer as the media owners reel under the recession. The UK however is interesting, and it also bears a little more relevance to us and our influences.
Right now in UK, there are over 1200 programmes green lighted. Here are some highlights and what they signify:
Children’s Eclectic mix of issue driven; fantasy entertainment; style and fashion for 11+; science; and we are about to be treated to “Bear Behaving Badly”.
Comedy Capitalising on Cult. We go back to Derek Trotter’s early years (Only fools and Horses); Last of the Summer Wine; plenty of spoof; Peep Show; Morecambe and Wise; fans discuss their favourite Vicar of Dibley moments; My Family and disgusting TV like Tittybangbang (The comedy show featuring naked needle pointers and a botched plastic surgery addict has been recommissioned for a second run).
Daytime Lots of antiques; extreme activities; house selling; celebrity talk; books (but with a reality touch to it); and a game show where you can see how your attitudes measure up to the great and the good.
Drama Lots of classics (Beau Brummell, Dickens; Day of the Triffids; Turn of the Screw) more of Skins, Hotel Babylon; Midsomer Murders; Waterloo Road; Robin Hood; Secret Diary of a Call Girl; seems to show a tendency towards series more than one-offs.
Education One offering follows five teenagers as they try to put on a gay prom for 200 British teens; another gives you Animal Autopsy.
Entertainment Usual mix of extreme game shows; bloopers; Paris Hilton searches the UK new a best friend; Most Annoying People; Deal or no deal; more Big Brother (with two spin-offs); and an awful lot of faintly disguised repurposing usually under the title of Top 50 something;
Factual Why is this the biggest genre? Celebrities travel; Documentary examining the “forgotten” history of pre-colonial Africa. Grown up Girls – The series follows teenage girls facing adult choices such as deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Other dilemmas include going into rehab, leaving school, having plastic surgery and losing their virginity.
Factual Entertainment Here’s the reality department. More Apprentice; more clean house and lots of shopping. Totally predicable.
Factual Specialist Sally Hewitt’s First Cut film takes a step back in time to meet four women who are desperate to be old-fashioned housewives. A journey into the heart of the global pornographic industry.
Religion TV for atheists
Sport Hall of Fame; Sports years (all repurposed), and some fishing.

Get the drift? Low cost reality, tabloid sensational, and repurposing old material until the videotape wears out. Animal Autopsy! God help us! Next years it will live vivisection!! Unfortunately I can’t ask what the SABC has green lighted, as someone forgot to pay the electricity bill and the green lights all went off.
(First published in The Media Sept 2009)

A good Win

I sometimes like to watch TV with an eye to making some money for a change. The question I ask is, “Would I put my own money into this?”
This is a tough test. After all, your hard earned money is close to you. I accidentally hit into a programme on e.tv last April. Called “The AXE Sweet Life”, it took me all of five minutes to say out loud, “Shit, I’d put my divorce settlement money into this one.”
It seemed to have everything, sex, beautiful people, and an activity that would appeal across the age groups. This is rare. One of the big barriers in audience appeal is age: age groups watch their own programmes. But this one, all about hunks chatting up birds, is relevant to those about to do it, those doing it, those not allowed to do it anymore, and those too old to do it. I was even commenting to the screen, “I’ve been trying that line since the Sixties, and it’s never worked.”
Sure, the language of chatting up birds is always specific to the culture and the language dialect, but the body language is universal. It’s pure sex without the sexual scenes. It puts the sex into the imagination – about the only place and time when it never goes wrong.
Let’s see if I was right in having the confidence to mortgage my house for this.
It attracted about 1 820 000 viewers. This is at 8:00 pm when 40% of people with TV are watching: about 12-m. Of the 12-m, over half are watching Generations on SABC1. The rest, 5-m, are shared between SABC2, 3 e.tv and DStv. So a viewership in the region of nearly 2 000 000 is a great performance. It’s hard to work out what the show cost, but I would be surprised if it was more than R150 000. Only E.tv and Axe know how much Axe paid to sponsor it, but at R150 000 a week, it would be a steal. It’s pointing straight at a target audience of a million males a week, in your face, for half an hour. The reach may not be great, but the intensity of the message is mind-boggling.
It’s also a fingerprint of E.tv’s scheduling strategies. It seems that SABC strategies are to keep on battling to be on top (and only sometimes winning), whereas both M-Net and e.tv look at the landscape of the time slot, and ask, “Can I get the audience I want in the face of what else is on? If not, I’ll put on something cheap, be grateful with what audience I get, and save my big guns for when the SABC is weak.”
But for the advertiser/sponsor, in the face of unprecedented media clutter, the decision is not only based on numbers. Attention, intensity, and emotional involvement are prime factors. Nowadays you want to set your exposure in a context and environment that gets the audience emotionally bonded with the brand.
Well, you can’t do better than a row of hunks with plenty of armpit exposed, chatting up gorgeous chicks, and in the absence of underarm moisture, both sexes salivating at the sight of each other.
The numbers also show surprising trends:
Age B W C I Total
0-6 55000 3000 21000 2000 81000
7-12 192000 22000 41000 21000 276000
13-15 169000 8000 35000 3000 215000
16-24 301000 19000 32000 20000 372000
25-34 312000 16000 66000 45000 439000
35-49 325000 52000 99000 73000 549000
50+ 234000 84000 90000 48000 456000
Chart Aug 2009

1. The viewership rises through the age groups with more 50+ watching than 16-24. Dirty old men with memories. (The climb is noticeably steepest among the Whites and Indians.) In fact here are 7-12 and 13-15 put in equal strength.
LSM B W C I
4 247000 1000 6000 1000 255000
5 401000 1000 15000 1000 418000
6 395000 1000 101000 35000 532000
7 240000 11000 147000 65000 463000
8 60000 49000 59000 55000 223000
9 41000 70000 55000 35000 201000
10 22000 73000 1000 22000 118000
Chart 2 Aug 2009
2. Viewership peaks in the 6 and 7 LSM groups, which compares nicely with AMPS data on the use of these products.
3. If you look at the viewers in each province in relation to the number of viewers in each province, they are roughly in line. This indicates that local culture is no inhibitor.
4. The reality format allows for a contemporary context, and most of the audience will fall for “The producers claim there is no acting.”
I have no idea what the sponsorship deal was, how much money it lost or made. I will never find out – broadcasters are more secretive about their deals that the Burmese military junta.
But I would still back it:
When multichannel comes, it’s the ideal mechanism – one sponsor, naming rights and timeless enough to give it some years of repeat value.
I would have the programme turned into a format, copyrighted and sold to other broadcasters. Initially I would target Africa. Botswana and Uganda would be the first customers. Then I would head with the format to the global markets. It’s about time we stopped insulting our local production talent by buying in the formatted junk from abroad – at enormous expense I would add.

A dose of SABCitis

Let’s get this crisis into perspective. (That sounds a little like that guy on Russia Today, who is a cheap imitation of Chris Rencken and Cliff Saunders of the Apartheid days, who in turn were cheap imitations of Lord Haw Haw of the Nazis.)
There’s a near-death crisis at the SABC about every ten years or so. I vividly remember the Great Crisis, of ’84-’86, the Armageddon of ’97-’99, and now we have this one. Ho hum, here we go again.
Each time it’s the same: government, the Board and management become complacent. It encourages empire building, which in turn leads to cronyism, rampant corruption and the employment of the unemployable.
To keep the incompetent in jobs, the SABC creates structures that do away completely with accountability and responsibility. This means that everyone can blame everyone else, do nothing and get rewarded for it.
The SABC always stays on the air and weathers the crisis because 20% of the staff regards public broadcasting as a serious career. They keep it going, as they keep it going in the good times as well. It’s the same every time.
As usual the SABC hits the headlines because the rest of the media put it on the headlines. It’s a heaven-sent opportunity to pillorise the government-supported Jabba the Hutt that gobbles 65% of TV adspend, and wastes half of it. The other commercial broadcasters dream of what they would be able to do with that extra adspend like we dream of winning Lotto.
There are lots of ideas for solving the problems, some of them not easy, others not possible. Here are some:
1. Get rid of a third of the staff. If you take the headcount of 15 commercial radio channels and three commercial TV channels, you land up with less than half the SABC headcount. BUT the SABC has three unions on board and, can you believe it, many managers belong to the unions. It would cost a fortune in retrenchment settlements.
2. Be honest just for once and say that the SABC is a state broadcaster, like every other country in Africa. Concentrate on the mandate and not on commercial ambitions which no one in management is either experienced or competent to do.
3. Do what a PBS is supposed to do, serve the public with content that the commercial broadcasters regard as high risk and non-commercial. And NOTHING else. Don’t sanctimoniously pretend that their news is objective and impartial. SABC news and current affairs never have been and never will be. No government in South Africa would ever allow the state owned broadcaster to be independent. It doesn’t make sense. It’s like being bitten by your own dog.
So, convert SABC2 into a Pubic channel with no advertising, keep SABC1 as an income producing public youth channel and sell SABC3.
Remember the Presidential Inauguration? E.tv and SABC2 ran live broadcasts side by side. E.tv was exciting and interesting, as one would expect from a commercial station. On the other hand, the PBS coverage (SABC2) had no subtitles, offered no background or contextual commentary, and stuck to English. It bore every sign of having been produced by committee.
Instead of insisting unrealistically that the state owned broadcaster be independent, rather widen the media landscape and let freedom of the media and speech follow that way.
4. Reorganise content acquisition. The independent producers regard the SABC as obliged to support them, and they have a point when you look at the SABC’s dominance in income and waste. Canning SABC3 would solve a little of this problem. The SABC is mandated to broadcast about 70% local content. Reducing broadcast hours would help reduce the cost of local content. It would also reduce the import of foreign content. Foreign acquisition could then be done by three people and local commissioning by 15. Compare that to current headcount!!
5. Increase local content requirements by the commercial broadcasters. Since the SABC’s share of adspend is reduced, let ICASA regulate the commercial broadcasters to invest some of their windfall in extra adspend in more local content.
No easy answers, but there never were any in the previous crises.
(First published in The Media July 2009)

Mining audiences

On the basis of current business plan criteria, multi-channel TV just does not make sense. The television viewing population is 8.675-m households. Divide that by the current TV environment, and you get:
Channel Past 7 days ‘000
e.tv 18 057
M-Net 2 119
SABC1 22 220
SABC2 18 851
SABC3 14 934
DStv 4 762
26 229
(SAARF Trends 2004-2008)
Now let’s launch three, four or five more channels. The total available audience doesn’t change. It remains at 26.2-m. So what happens to the share per channel? If advertising income is based on a rate in Rands per AR, then they all head for bankruptcy. Audience drops, income plummets and costs remain the same.
That leaves two alternatives: subscription, or a new way of getting money from advertisers. Since subscription is not the channel’s choice (it’s ICASA’s prerogative), then we need to find a new way to hike rates per spot based on attention rather than eyeballs.
The solution is to mine niche audiences. KykNET, Summit, Teletrack are all examples of successful local channels with very small audiences. Yet they work and make the required profit.
Looking for the “lost audiences” is now the talk of the town, and the latest “discovery” is the Coloureds.
Just to show that niche audiences are not as simple as they may look, let’s use this “lost Coloured audience” as an example.
At 18:30 every evening there are three soap operas, running head to head. The Coloureds gravitate to 7de Laan, and markedly away from Rhythm City and Isidingo. Since Rhythm City draws the Black youth, 7de Laan the upper income White Afrikaans, it seems as if Isidingo picks up the rest, but not the Coloureds.
The argument going round is that the Coloureds have little in common with white Afrikaans-speaking except the language, and that they default to 7de Laan for language reasons because they find nothing in Isidingo with which they can culturally identify.
The proof offered is that KykNET does not have a large Coloured audience. There are also no other identifiable programmes that seem to be directed to the “Coloured” audience. So the conclusion is that here is a lost audience, just panting for its own channel.
But are we sure of that?
Let’s look at numbers first, and from that data, start extrapolating the qualitative stuff:
Where are the Coloureds? For convenience, I have used Stats SA, which even though based on the last Census, it gives me a guide as to whether to pursue further or not. (It’s also free of charge).
The figures show me that there are 4-m Coloureds, of which 3.2-m speak Afrikaans. So far so good, we appear to have a neat little homogenous group, and of a considerable size.
Now, where do they live? Guess what? Three million live in four different areas. On top of it, the monthly income data shows that there is only a small number with a monthly income over R3 200 a month:
Province Total Pop Pop > R3200 pm
E Cape 426 066 21 030
Gauteng 218 515 44 906
N Cape 410 011 12 635
W Cape 1 976 534 145 439
3 031 126 224 010
It’s getting to be a small audience. OK, we are using data that is some years old, but the question at this stage is, “Is this a viable audience worth investigating further from data that is less easy to get?”
An audience of 225 000 could be desirable to advertisers according to current criteria. These people may also be potential pay-TV customers. It all makes business sense until we get ask the question, “What programmes do we broadcast to attract this niche audience?”
Is this a culturally homogenous audience?
Doubtful. There are significant differences between those in Gauteng, the Northern Cape and the E&W Cape. There are perceived class differences, religious differences, and identity differences. You can see these clearly in the HSRC “South African Social Attitudes”.
Is there such a thing as “Coloured programming”? What do we mean by that? Do people gravitate towards each other in South Africa in 2009 simply because they are of mixed descent? Or do they identify with each other because they are of mixed descent and come from the same geographical area, where they speak Afrikaans with the same accent, use the same dialect, and share the same social values? A niche audience is one where each identifies with the other through the programming that is broadcast.
Anyone can write a business plan, but it takes very special people to design the programming to attract a niche audience.
You may be able to find the clues to a niche audience by means of stereotypes, but turning them into a viable business plan is not so easy.
(First published in The Media June 2009)

When the going gets tough, the tough run

Yes it’s all true and more. There is a serious cash shortage at the SABC. Staff and option freezes are common knowledge.
But the SABC is not the only broadcaster with declining cash reserves. More than one radio station is selling ads at less than the admin costs, just to put on a good face.
Local TV productions are frozen. What usually happens is that after a producer has pitched his concept, the broadcaster issues a letter of intent, which is near as dammit, an option. These are simply not being taken up.
It’s not just the “slight downturn” (Trevor Manuel), or the “severe recession” (everyone else). It goes much deeper.
Advertising revenue seems to be down between 15% and 17%. This is serious. Also history tells us that in a recession, TV viewing goes up, because visits to restaurants and cinemas go down. So much so, that even DStv is taking is new subscriptions – people would rather pay R500 a month for lots of TV nightly; than R500 for a night in some franchise restaurant for two hours of plastic food. But that does NOT mean that advertisers buy the extra eyeballs. They are under pressure. Why advertise when no one is going to come into the shop anyway?
But they will buy spots if the broadcasters can prove that they are getting more ATTENTION. During soccer broadcasts, people are so glued to the screen, they watch right though the ad breaks. They don’t get up to get another beer in case they mist the pick up of the game.
Some TV broadcasters conduct TVQ research which to a certain degree measures “appreciation” which is not quite the same as “attention”. But advertisers will look at a parcel of data which together will add up to “attention”. Then they will consider buying TV spots in a downturn/recession/depression.
Then there’s the issue of multichannel. If broadcasters are cancelling local TV contracts (I wonder how they are going to meet their ICASA quotas?), then how will they fill all these new digital terrestrial channels we are supposedly going to get any minute now? E.tv and M-Net will get at least one extra channel each, and they should find them easy to fill with special interest programming, as their local content quotas are quite manageable. They will probably shift from day part scheduling towards what the call “zoning” which means niche programming at different times of the day.
The SABC will have bigger problems: if it wants to repurpose from the archives, then it has to have a fully digital asset management system first. Then it needs experienced staff. Telkom Media shows us they are in short supply. If it wants to commission programmes from independent producers, it has to reduce prices by anything up to 20%.
This is possible. The TV production philosophy of Fit for Purpose allows that. This means you make throwaway programming super cheap, and invest heavily in that which promises large returns. Such as the Nigerians and Ghanaians do. What local South African producers deride as “amateurs-ville”, is raking in the crowds on Africa Magic.
But even if filling the channels with cheap content is hard enough, how do you pay for them? It is highly unlikely that the promised digital terrestrial channels will be subscription TV, so that means local advertising revenue. The sums just don’t add up.
TV adspend was about R10-bn last year for five terrestrial channels plus DStv. If it’s going to decline by 15% then it will be R8.5-bn for ten terrestrial channels plus DStv. That’s not economics – it’s not even arithmetic.
Moreover, there is no 2010 World Cup windfall. The financial boffins in the broadcasters will tell you the money is already spent in next year’s budget. It was expected, it was certain, it’s in the books, and it was predicted. It’s a separate matter from this new crisis. This was NOT predicted, and not planned for.
(First published in The Media April 2009)

Alternatives

The nice thing in being in the TV local content business is that the stress kills you before the cigarettes do. The lousy thing is that everyone wants to get in on the act. It’s the highest profile business in the world, but the fame and fortune is elusive except to a fraction of 1% of the aspirants.
The business in South Africa all hinges around local content quotas, which are not in themselves particularly onerous. This despite the fact that local production costs 7-10 times as much as imported foreign programming.
In fact it can be made to work for both broadcaster and producer. And it does for some, which it why it’s such a pity that it doesn’t work for others.
Local content sits at about SABC1 and SABC2: 55%; SABC3: 35%; e.tv: 45%; M-Net: 10% (the actual quotas are complex, so it’s easier to generalise.)
Broadcasters one
M-Net and e.tv have a mandate to meet their quotas and that’s all. Despite this, both broadcasters spend a lot developing the industry – training, supporting workshops and bursaries. They know that it is their interests to develop their suppliers – and that this is ongoing, as many producers get stale very quickly, which doesn’t help the audiences’ ongoing appetite for innovation and creativity.
Because they have no other restraints, they can acquire their content from the creative independent producer best equipped to handle it. Thus, their commissions usually go to the established production houses, and newcomers get in only when their concepts are stunning, and they can show they have experienced expertise on board.
Broadcasters two
Then there’s the SABC, which has all sorts of mandates apart from the quotas. These include developing the industry, giving opportunities to newcomers and spreading their commissions over a broad base of suppliers.
This is a hard act, especially as the SABC accounts for about 80% of all the work handed out to independent producers. But then, argues everyone else, they have the license revenue, and the footprint that gobbles up 80% of the ad revenue, so it should be no great headache to the SABC.
Independent producers
The established producers get work because they deliver on budget and on time. They might not be exactly BEE in the strictest definition, but they employ a lot of people, and spreading their risks over volume, they can afford to deliver at a reasonable cost. They also get work from e.tv and M-Net.
Then there are those who barely make a living out of the SABC – they are a growing number, but if they don’t get two or three productions a year, they go under.
Finally there are those whose talent is undiscovered because they just don’t get a chance, unless the SABC feels that they haven’t achieved their quota of “new entrants”. In this case, they get a small production which they often mismanage
The big picture
Globally, countries that South Africa wants to emulate are four times richer, with far greater adspend and wealthier populations. They can afford the high budgets that it takes to sell the product on the global markets, which is where the profits ultimately lie.
South African content doesn’t fly globally. We just don’t have the budgets that will stand up against the telephone number budgets of the big countries. We sell good wildlife on the foreign markets, but precious little else. These markets only want programming in English, and the South African accent is harder for global English speaking markets to understand that the Scottish of Rebus, the north country of Dalziel and Pascoe and the Ozzie of Maclean’s Daughters. Global markets have no problem with accents they have become accustomed to over the decades. Few audiences in global television have heard a South African accent, and those who have find their toes curling.
The reality is that we stuck with ourselves, or with our neighbours in Africa.
The economics
The core of local content is a contract between the broadcaster and the independent producer, which both parties are obliged to keep confidential. Therefore the business tends to be highly secretive, and there is no published data.
Also anyone who tells you anything verbally has personal agenda so all data gets distorted accordingly. Commentators like myself have no option but to rely on that lovely girl URS (Usually Reliable Source). She has been extremely helpful in compiling this article and I will be quoting her often.
It’s simple. Take the most profitable of all SABC local content programmes, Generations. URS tells me costs about R7000 per finished running minute (pfrm), or about R160 000 an episode. URS also tells me that all advertising is fully booked, in fact oversubscribed. This called in the industry a “full house”.
The rate card sells 30” spots for about R65 000. There are 12 slots per programme.
So the sums for each programme look like this:
Revenue 65 000 x 12 R780 000
LESS cost of sales (discounts, commissions etc) 40% R312 000
Net revenue R468 000
LESS programme costs R160 000
Profit R306 000
So, according to URS, Generations costs about R40-m a year, and brings in about R75-m.
By contrast, broadcasters pay about R1 000 ($100) a minute for foreign soaps like The Bold and the Beautiful. You can work out the difference in profitability between local and foreign content.
However, few local programmes (notably “Jam Alley” and “Egoli”) have this excessive track record. Local content on both M-Net and e.tv is generally highly profitable, but rarely on the SABC.
URS has been out on the set of some M-Net and e.tv programmes, where the audience popularity is high, and reports that they are produced quite fast, the crews are lean and mean, and there are seldom disasters.
However URS’ older sister, (Highly Reliable Source – HIRS), tells me that SABC crews are much larger, and that only the producers who have been in business for seven years or more seem to run efficiently.
At the other end of the scale, the small producers get a five to seven part documentary series are R5000 pfrm, which comes to (5000 x 25 x 5) R600 000, of which the SABC’s bureaucratic system allows a margin of 16%. Thus after maybe three months work, the producer walks away with a net profit before tax of R100 000 with which to keep his company going until the next job. Pretty lousy life.
The SABC usually loses on this type of deal. It may be broadcast when a slot costs R20 000, and only 70% of slots are sold. Using the formula earlier, you can see that revenue will just top R450 000. So there has to be some neat footwork to cushion production costs with sponsorship, trade exchanges or archive material.
What’s coming up?
Multichannel is going to make or break the broadcasters. The ability to pack 7-10 channels into the same spectrum as one analogue channel means that everyone will probably get two digital channels in addition to the one they currently have. Fifteen channels have to share the same 30-million-strong audience as the five. They also have to share the same adspend pot.
Content costs have to come down, and programming will have to focus on a small, dedicated niche audience, like we get on satellite TV today.
KykNET is a prime example. No one is going to claim that KykNET’s programming is high budget and world class. In fact, it’s LOW budget. But the audience love it. It is what we call a niche audience.
KykNET’s magic combination is a culturally specific audience that is starved for their own programming on other broadcasters, and where the programmes are made by people who come from this cultural group and who therefore find it easy to push the right emotional buttons in the audience, and have them consequently forgive you for low budgets.
URS and HIRS tell me that lifestyle programmes that cost R3000 pfrm on SABC cost only R650 pfrm on KykNET. Ten years ago we called this Fit for Purpose. The budget fits the value of the needed product. Broadcasters are now going to have to take Fit for Purpose very seriously.
If production costs have to come down, it makes sense to use archive material instead of going to the costs of shooting new footage. In fact, it would be cute if we could write a new script and use only archive material that presents itself as a brand new exciting programme.
Abroad this happens all the time, and reduces production costs to as much as 20% of the cost of a new programme. But you have to have:
• A fully functioning archive, where each shot is catalogued and material is digitally retrievable,
• Researchers and scriptwriters who are geared to sourcing this material, and fast.
HIRS tells me that the SABC’s efforts to try this highly desirable state of affairs has resulted in programming that costs more than brand new material.
Reversioning is supposed to make programming FFP at a low cost. But it requires expertise and experience.
(First published in The Media March 2009)

Connections

Everything is interconnected. Like the pleasure centre of the brain and what going to happen next month.
There’s a part of the brain that really affects all of us. The boffins call it the nucleus accumbens, part of the limbic system. It plays a large role in sexual arousal, and the “high” derived from certain recreational drugs.
The interesting part about it is that it seems to operate under the same law as that in economics called, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. In economics this means that the additional unit of something yields a decreased usefulness in return. It also means that when we experience pleasure, we get a thrill from it. The next dose of the same pleasure yields less of a thrill. Ando so it goes on until it becomes boring and passé, so we either want more of it to get the same “high”, or we look for something else.
Like the current world economic crisis. It’s all put down to the greed of bankers. This is common with new money. We get it – it’s great, but the more we get, the more we want. That’s greed. It’s pushing the pleasure centre over the edge. Remember that Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld testifying before Congress on the Lehmann Brothers collapse? For him yet another $500-m was nothing really!
Just like any junkie really, got to get more of it to get the same high as before.
So how is the greed of the world’s bankers connected to our industry? We’re in show business and our job is to sell pleasure. That pleasure may be derived from something unpleasant , like a horror movie or a disturbing report on Special Assignment, but the pleasure is derived from a simulation of the pain or fear, but not actually experiencing it. We’re safe in our armchair.
Let’s go back in time. In the 1930’s, the Hollywood musical became all the rage. But after fifteen years, they died away. People had had enough of them, they’d had their high, and now they were looking for something else. So they latched onto the gritty stuff, and hence “Rebel without a cause” became the stuff of pleasure. When that became passé, then audiences moved to something else that was on offer. In fact the changes in taste in film, radio and TV are just long term fads, in the way that some fads are short term like Pet Rocks, Hula Hoops and Rubik’s Cube.
Cultural tastes change too because people don’t derive pleasure from them anymore. The psychedelic -mania of the sixties drifted into the “Good times, and bad taste” of the seventies. This in turn metamorphosed into the Video decade of the 80’s, and the digital decade of the 90’s and the reality TV decade of to 2000’s.
This decade is nearly over. It has been brought o its knees by the “credit crunch. The next decade is about to unfold.
Two things now worry me. The first is talk radio, and the second is reality TV.
Are they getting past their sell-by date? Are they no longer stimulating the pleasure centre as much as they used to?
Phone callers are given less time; more are jammed into one programme. This reflects the host’s need to get a wide range of views. It’s drifting away from the truly meaningful niche. A new focus on the niche is needed, even if it means niching in day-parts.
As for reality, coming up with new versions of an old formula means inevitably moving to the mediocre.
The industry is so risk averse that it avoids trying something new until the person who took the risk shows that it works. Then we all get into copy-cat mode and flog the horse until its dead, and then keep flogging until someone else arrives of the scene with a young filly.
My guess is that the predicted “two year recession” is going to be a three year depression. Lot’s of media will go to the wall. The explosion in radio and TV will slow down. Music will slow down in pace and rhythm (as it has done before during depressions). People will revert to the thrill of real communication with real people in real time.
We see the signs right now – real-time SMS messages subtitling talk shows, social networking on the web and phones, the rise in live entertainment. The train is pulling into the station.
(First published in The media Jan 2009)

Delusions of grandeur

What is really wrong with South African local TV programming? It’s pretty dire, and the rot set in thirty years ago.
In the beginning, long after the rest of the world started TV broadcasts, South Africa had a dual language single channel service (English and Afrikaans). The novelty of TV meant that everyone wanted to watch it, and many of those excluded from the target audience did.
Apartheid had brought on fearful embargoes on programming, and the only available foreign programming came from America, and some from France and Germany. Occasionally there was a British programme, acquired in mysterious ways.
But the programmes had enormous production values. Vast amounts of money were spent on lavish sets and costumes. Next to the local programmes made by the greenhorn “instant producers”, they looked spectacular. We (I was one of them) had no choice but to aspire to have our programmes at least look like the foreign ones. There was only one channel, so local programmes lay uncomfortably close to the glitz of the foreign ones. They were easy for the audience to compare.
At first, all we could do was to try and gloss up the logos, which we did. But as we became more experienced, we carried the logo techniques into the programmes themselves.
Somehow, content and meaning came second, at least in the English programming. Afrikaans shows were different. They were emotionally intense, and had higher budgets that the English programmes.
Then came the BIG CHANGE. From the nineties, management changed and democracy brought in new prerogatives. Gone were the culturally specific programmes, and in came the joy and adventure of democracy which had never been experienced in South Africa.
Euphoria came to South Africa.
South Africa’s iconic leader was a bigger film star that Tom Cruise; the world hailed us for a bloodless revolution (even though it was bloody); they praised us for the most liberal constitution ever written; we earned World Cup events. We were up in the air. We were at last accepted. We had made it. We knew we were a mixed economy, part western and part developing, but as far as we were concerned, “We are First World.”
We would show them through TV programming.
Our programmes had to win awards and prizes all over the world, even if our home audiences didn’t like them.
They had to have glitz and glamour – digital effects schools popped up all over the place. As long as the camera jerk-stepped as it zoomed, picture swirled and the editor cut it at the pace of a commercial, it was great! The Germans and Japanese gave us awards (they had to, if they hadn’t we would have burst into tears in public).
We became precocious, big-headed and quite frankly, arrogant. Other Africans laughed at us.
Producers demanded more money so that they could afford this “new look”. The SABC gave it to them. We won more awards. No one asked the public what they thought. The SABC blew its trumpet when the audience overwhelmingly voted “the most trusted broadcaster”. They weren’t asked “the most enjoyed”.
Nowadays, our programmes race at a break-neck pace, look flashy, and have precious little meaning. They are as sterile as pop art was in the seventies. They are masters of trivia, no context, and with the emotional depth of the commercials from which they are indistinguishable.
I cannot get out of the back of my mind that famous description of the socially orientated British theatre producer Joan Littlewood, “She did not seek to rebuke her audience. She sought only to educate and inform, and in the process, she broke their hearts.”
The greatest tribute the audience can pay to a TV programme is to cry, for it to reduce you to tears. (“It’s was so byeutifool, I crard and crard.”)
When has a South African TV programme ever reduced you to tears?
Well, not in that way.
(First published in The Media Dec 2008)