Rising to the challenge of beaming into Africa
After a painful period of uncertainty, retrenchments and restructuring, the SABC is well on the road to becoming a successful national public broadcaster. All the figures are now pointing up, writes CIARAN RYAN.
A REINVIGORATED SA Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has emerged from its period of transformation ready to stand on its own financial feet in a deregulated broadcasting environment.
The transformation, assisted by international consulting group McKinseys, was a painful process involving large-scale retrenchments, restructuring, an overhaul of the programming line-up and the adoption of sound business principles.
The SABC had little choice but to embrace transformation to survive. Government has made it clear that the corporation must stand on its own feet financially. At the same time it must fulfil its costly public broadcast mandate while readying itself for the new era of competition. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) is expected to issue a fourth terrestrial TV channel in 1998, with regional TV channels following close behind. All this places its advertising revenue under threat.
The SABC embarked on its transformation in February 1996 with the relaunch of its three terrestrial television channels. There was a public outcry as broadcast footprints were swapped around and viewers struggled to locate their favourite programmes. The old CCV became SABC1, broadcasting in English and Nguni, TV1 became SABC2 (which has the largest footprint) and broadcasts predominantly in Afrikaans and Sotho, and NNTV became SABC3, broadcasting in English. In the confusion, viewership figures registered a noticeable decline and advertisers migrated to M-Net, print and radio. Some viewers, outraged at the apparent relegation of Afrikaans to parity with other official languages, threatened to withhold TV licence payments.
SABC executives concede there were mistakes aplenty in the early stages of transformation. There was little co-ordination between the three channels, with the result that similar programmes would be broadcast on different channels at the same time. Scheduling was disjointed with programmes on each of the three channels often finishing at different times, thereby inhibiting cross-channel marketing possibilities.
Radio underwent a more modest transformation, kicking off with the relaunch of the English service as SAFM to reflect the views, interests, accents and news preferences of a multi-cultural SA. Again, there was an outcry from some listeners who interpreted the revamped programme line-up as a metaphor for broader societal decay. The letters pages of the print media were choked with protest from Radio Today stalwarts defending the purity of the English language.
A lesser known story is that SAFM today operates with half the staff of the old English service and at a substantially lower cost - but delivers what many advertising agencies consider to be the best current affairs and news programming.
Nearly two years after first embarking on transformation, the SABC has a different story to tell. Viewers and advertisers have returned, and its profitability restored after the R60-million loss reported in the last financial year (due to the costs of attempting to deliver services in 11 languages on radio and TV, introducing TV regional broadcasts and radio transmitter splits and giving more airtime to educational programming).
McKinseys were brought in at a cost of about R6-million to assist in the restructuring of the organisation. Staff numbers were cut from its 1993 peak of about 6 000 to 3 100, the company car fleet trimmed by 30%, an in-house clothing factory closed, the SABC's internal production house, Safritel, was shut, a number of functions were outsourced and the organisation has been revitalised and restructured along strictly commercial lines.
With roughly half the staff, SABC is able to deliver an increased volume of output and, if audience size is anything to go by, programme quality has taken a leap forward.
A new logo was adopted, symbolising the SABC's vision to become a world-class broadcaster with Africa its target.
"This logo embodies the pillar's on which our vision rests - to establish ourselves as the pulse of Africa's creative spirit through superbly produced, top-quality programming that meets the needs and wants of our audiences," says SABC chief executive Zwelakhe Sisulu.
The new logo, bedecked in rainbow colours, symbolises a break with the SABC's apartheid past and its historical neglect of African issues.
As part of the transformation, several new senior appointments were made. Govin Reddy, former chief executive of SABC Radio, was appointed deputy chief executive officer under Sisulu. He is responsible for overall programming content decisions on radio and TV.
"The hand-over of power to control programming to the highest level in the organisation indicates the importance that the new-look SABC attaches to refining its programming to meet world standards," says Reddy. "The move will ensure more focus and greater efficiency in programming, enabling the SABC to beat the competition and deliver on the expectations of its audiences and advertisers. Further to this the SABC will optimise the potential for co-operating on programme production and generating export sales, especially within Africa."
Trevor Ormerod, formerly deputy managing director of Times Newspapers Limited, was appointed chief executive for sales and marketing, a new position created to boost revenue from advertising and sponsorships. Talib Sadik, previously chief executive for finance at SABC, has moved into a new position as chief executive for business enterprises, which will be accountable for the commercial exploitation of all SABC-owned assets.
Doyen of South African journalism Allister Sparks was appointed editor of TV news and current affairs. A "news renewal initiative" was launched to sharpen the SABC's news reporting and provide greater depth of coverage. This is part of a broader strategy to build an agent news and current affairs service on radio and TV and to position the corporation as a leading news organisation in Africa - and a primary source of African news.
Communications director Enoch Sithole was given the additional responsibility of general manager of TV licences. Already there are signs that piracy is declining. Licence revenues collected between July and September exceeded R140-million, well above target.
"The broadcasting industry in South Africa is set to experience a shake-up," says Sisulu. "The SABC is moving in the right direction and will be ready to meet the challenge head-on and provide advertisers with innovative media opportunities, high-quality service, competitive pricing structures and a dynamic team of people to meet the demands of advertisers. "
Recognising that it could no longer turn to government for financial bail-out despite the onerous provisions of its public broadcast mandate, the SABC is now embarking on a process of commercialisation that will ensure its financial viability and fulfil its aim of becoming the broadcaster of choice on the African continent.