Hlaudi’s SABC is full of static

CityPress - - Voices - Mondli Makhanya voices@city­press.co.za

It is telling that the most en­thu­si­as­tic cel­e­brant of SABC boss Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng’s lo­cal con­tent edict is a man whose ca­reer was buried along­side apartheid in 1994. Mzwakhe Mbuli, whose po­etry and mu­sic reper­toire con­sists of his re­peat­ing things three times, had a hard time ad­just­ing to a demo­cratic era in which real cre­ativ­ity was re­quired. With no evil Na­tional Party lead­ers and Ban­tus­tan pup­pets to snarl at, the Peo­ple’s Poet was forced to ex­plore al­ter­na­tive ca­reer op­tions. But he turned out to be as bad at his new ca­reer as he was at mu­sic and po­etry: he was ar­rested dur­ing his first bank rob­bery at­tempt and spent seven years in jail.

Since then, Mbuli has sur­vived on odd jobs and has been lucky to have old com­rades who have thrown him bones now and then. Then along came Mot­soe­neng and his 90% lo­cal mu­sic quota. So ex­cited was Mbuli at this turn of events that he com­posed a praise song for Mot­soe­neng and rounded up a group of mu­si­cians to sing it. Pre­dictably, the cho­rus has this rep­e­ti­tion rou­tine: “Hlau-di, Hlau-di, Hlau-di, Hlau-di, thank you SABC.”

Ad­mit­tedly, it is a tad un­fair to fo­cus on Mbuli. Mot­soe­neng’s de­ci­sion re­ceived wide­spread ac­claim. Artists, po­lit­i­cal par­ties and cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tions have ap­plauded him for his “pa­tri­otic” de­ci­sion, which, many say, will de­velop South African cul­ture and put bread on lo­cal mu­si­cians’ ta­bles. There has been lit­tle ap­petite for any dis­sent on this emo­tive subject. Any­one tak­ing a “let’s pause and think about this prop­erly po­si­tion” would have been a sell­out.

How­ever, for the sake of the SABC and our mu­sic in­dus­try, we must not be car­ried away by un­sus­tain­able pop­ulism. In fact, the SABC it­self was of this view in Oc­to­ber when it ar­gued against an In­de­pen­dent Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Au­thor­ity of SA (Icasa) pro­posal to in­crease lo­cal con­tent to 70%. Ac­cord­ing to Icasa’s re­port, as doc­u­mented in the March Gov­ern­ment Gazette, the “SABC is of the view that an in­crease of the lo­cal mu­sic quota should be based on mu­sic re­search with the pub­lic, thereby en­sur­ing that ra­dio sta­tions re­spond to lis­tener needs”.

“The SABC was of the view that 70% is high and will lead to loss of au­di­ences. This pro­posed quota will hin­der the growth of the pub­lic broad­caster ... The SABC has to be re­spon­sive to the needs of its au­di­ences.”

The reg­u­la­tor took the SABC’s con­cerns on board and agreed to a 60% lo­cal con­tent re­quire­ment for pub­lic ra­dio, and 35% for com­mer­cial sta­tions such as Metro FM and 5FM. These would be phased in over 18 months.

On the tele­vi­sion side, Icasa set the lo­cal con­tent min­i­mum for pub­lic broad­cast chan­nels SABC1 and SABC2 at 65%, of which at least 35% must be South African drama. On com­mer­cial sta­tion SABC3, it set the quota at a weekly av­er­age of 45%, of which at least 20% needed to be South African drama. It gave li­censees 24 months from March this year to com­ply. Other pro­gram­ming, such as cur­rent af­fairs, doc­u­men­taries, ed­u­ca­tional and chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming, would make up the rest of the con­tent at vary­ing per­cent­ages.

Now all these for­mu­las were not ar­rived at through some thumb-suck­ing process; they were the re­sult of re­search and sci­en­tific anal­y­sis of au­di­ence pref­er­ences, tastes and needs. They were also in­formed by the need to sus­tain a vi­able pub­lic broad­caster that is able to meet its man­date while not be­ing wholly de­pen­dent on the teat of the tax­payer.

As much as sup­port for greater lo­cal con­tent is cor­rect and de­sir­able, changes have to take into ac­count the re­al­ity that au­di­ences like to bal­ance their con­sump­tion. They want to be served their Mu­vhango along with the Bold and the Beau­ti­ful; their maskandi with some R&B.

A suc­ces­sion of pol­i­cy­mak­ers, ex­pe­ri­enced broad­cast­ers and me­dia strate­gists have ap­plied their minds to the SABC recipe. By and large, it has worked, mak­ing the broad­caster’s ra­dio and tele­vi­sion out­lets the first choice for mil­lions of South Africans. Qual­ity may fluc­tu­ate be­tween and within chan­nels and sta­tions, but the over­all for­mula is work­ing. Po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence may have se­verely com­pro­mised news con­tent and the loss of ma­jor sport­ing con­tracts may have weak­ened the cor­po­ra­tion’s com­pet­i­tive­ness, but the SABC is not bro­ken.

Now you have one mad­man op­er­at­ing on pop­ulist whims, mak­ing far-reach­ing de­ci­sions that are cal­cu­lated to earn him cheap pop­u­lar­ity. There are many crazy things that Mot­soe­neng has done that will leave the SABC hurt­ing long af­ter he has been dis­patched to the Weskop­pies Psy­chi­atric Hospi­tal, but his ar­bi­trary mess­ing with the for­mula will have the most de­struc­tive ef­fect. It is com­mer­cially de­struc­tive and will only play into the hands of the SABC’s ri­vals in the pri­vate sec­tor. These play­ers are glee­fully rub­bing their hands to­gether, wait­ing to wel­come the au­di­ences, broad­cast pro­fes­sion­als and ad­ver­tis­ers flee­ing the SABC’s new­found my­opia.

And when those artists ul­u­lat­ing to­day wake up to­mor­row and dis­cover that the 90% share of lo­cal mu­sic and 80% of do­mes­tic con­tent play­ing on SABC chan­nels are be­ing en­joyed by a rapidly shrink­ing au­di­ence, they will be queu­ing to of­fer Mot­soe­neng trans­port to Weskop­pies.

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