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SASFED / IPO on SABC'S turnaround strategy

Wed, 20 Apr 2011 11:31

To coincide with crisis-stricken public service broadcaster SABC’s presentation of its turnaround strategy to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications on 20 April, the South African Screen Federation (SASFED) and the Independent Producers Organisation (IPO) have released the following joint statement expressing their concerns.

We are concerned that the SABC’s turnaround strategy appears to be going ahead without meaningful consultation with the production industry. This despite a stated commitment from the SABC in January to follow through with substantive engagement with the independent production sector in advance of the SABC presenting to the Portfolio Committee.

The IPO, SASFED and the TV Industry Emergency Coalition (TVIEC) have for the past year tabled a range of ideas about the turnaround of the SABC. These ideas are designed to ensure that the public broadcast continues to stay in the forefront of the production of quality and innovative content. This is important in two respects. Firstly, it is important to the independent production sector which has been decimated by the financial collapse of the public broadcaster, and secondly in supporting the sustainability of the public broadcaster and maintaining its central role in the lives and development of our society.

The ideas that have been tabled include making use of the Department of Trade and Industry production rebates: encouraging conditions for co-production and co-financing of local content; revisiting the intellectual property regime to incentivise the production sector to maintain quality in the face of smaller budgets; reviewing the terms of trade that the production sector operates under to eliminate the huge cost and bureaucracy involved in micro-management of the sector and freeing up producers to distribute their own content so that the SABC can benefit from sales revenue.

In addition, the independent production sector is the custodian of decades of insight into the operations and mechanics of the public broadcaster. They have offered their skills and support in the turnaround process on a number of occasions. Despite this the management and board of the SABC has paid lip service to the sector. As a key stakeholder, we are looking for a much deeper engagement.

The independent production sector employs in excess of 300,000 people, many of whom are dependent on a vibrant public broadcaster.

We are deeply concerned that in the process whereby a financial turnaround is being planned, the central importance of content, and particularly local content – which is ultimately the broadcaster’s key mandate – receives the due respect and diligence that it requires. This is within the framework of a clear and committed vision for public broadcasting, growth conducive policies, and effective and efficient operational processes. A bakery does not stop producing bread to save money; the broadcaster has to consider how to continue to produce excellent programming too.

We believe government, parliament and the South African public must be well appraised of the requirements for a meaningful and successful turnaround of the SABC, which includes policies and operational matters that related to the independent production sector, a key stakeholder and partner in public broadcasting.

Here is a summary of the many proposals and issues raised by the independent sector and we once again appeal to the SABC to engage in a meaningful honest way with content creators.

The meaningful and sustained turnaround of the SABC cannot be mechanically based on its bottom line driven by cost cutting measures - which historically has seen production budgets, already stagnant for at least the last five years, as a foremost casualty. It is little appreciated that the independent production sector significantly subsidises SABC production, with no Intellectual Property or other form of return.

The SABC is indeed required to be viable and in need of measures to overcome wasteful expenditure, including a much reduced personnel bill at managerial level. However its real turnaround is dependent on positive, growth conducive policies and practices within the framework of a clear and committed vision to public broadcasting. The SABC is required to develop a distinct public broadcast identity in a highly competitive environment and be shed of costly and cumbersome systems and practices that negate its economic potential and that of its independent production sector partner.

It needs to be asserted that independent commissioning is a regulatory gain of democratic transformation following the years of monopolistic state broadcasting under apartheid, and makes good sense for reasons of content innovation, diversity, independence and competitiveness.

Working in isolation of any concept of stakeholder partnership with the independent production sector, the SABC in effect micro-manages this relationship through systems and procedures that are costly and that frustrate the core function of content generation and procurement and, the development of a dynamic broadcast and production industry.

Based on an appreciation of the role of independent producers, the SABC should instead facilitate the easiest, smoothest and fastest possible procurement of content - and through a variety of means in addition to commission. This is to cumulatively capacitate the industry (to better meet the broadcasters’ needs), to be competitive and to share the burden of investment through such procurement options like licensing, co-productions, pre-sales and co-financing. The increase in the cost per minute realised by the latter would also bear positively on quality and competitiveness.

The need for effective procurement of content in a competitive environment is also dependent on skilled, empowered and responsive, if not proactive, Commissioning Editors. This is sorely lacking at the SABC.

The lack of appreciation for the role of independent producers underlies a range of administratively costly, non-core functions that the SABC would be better to dispense with. These include:

· the one-size-fits-all cash flow and cost reporting systems that in addition to being cumbersome and time consuming, often taking years to reconcile before final payments may be made, also disallows advantage to the SABC from the resource capabilities of better established production companies;

· the Asset Register system that indiscriminately requires all items purchased for a production, most of which have no second use value, to be returned (for chaotic storage) before contracts may be concluded and final payments expedited;

· the obligation to use its preferred production insurance facility and other suppliers, that are neither value adding nor necessarily conducive to production needs.

Another factor of control over producers that impacts on the dynamic application of budgets and the best possible decisions for quality programming, includes the practice of cost capping talent and other budgetary line items.

But top of the list of requirements to facilitate an improvement in the fortunes of the broadcaster is the need to unlock Intellectual Property (IP).

All intellectual property in and to productions is vested in the SABC – beyond the rights required by a public broadcaster. Hugely unexploited value, accumulating over decades, is literally sitting on the shelves of the SABC as a result of content creators not owning IP rights in their work and the SABC being unable to market and effect follow on sales. This implicates the promotion of South Africa’s identity globally too, stunting long-term international growth prospects.