It’s hard to imagine Hollywood producers like Jerry Bruckheimer or Aaron Sorkin going on hunger strike to protest about cuts in the TV industry.
Yet that’s what’s happening in South Africa where producer-helmer Michael Lee began refusing food on Aug. 10 to draw attention to the South African Broadcasting Corp.’s budget cuts that have slashed 500 million rand ($64 million) from local shows.
That figure may not sound a lot to American and European ears, but Lee claims this is the equivalent of half a billion dollars in the U.S. as the TV budgets are so much lower in South Africa.
At the beginning of this month he was joined in the hunger strike by Ingi Brough, former drummer of all-girl band Clout and now a marketing consultant; media recruitment consultant Gwen Britz; and TV writer and researcher Thabiso Mafane, who worked with Lee at Mahala Media.
This extreme action is the culmination of years of skirmishes between producers and the SABC over issues including late payment and intellectual property rights that have now erupted into a full-scale revolution.
The pubcaster is $106.5 million in debt following alleged mismanagement that forced it to go cap in hand to the government for a $284 million bailout, which it has yet to receive.
In June around 1,000 industryites in Johannesburg and 200 in Cape Town marched on their local SABC offices to hand over a 16-point manifesto, declaring, “Our industry has paid a heavy price for the management and financial crisis at the SABC, which has led to company closures, retrenches and job losses. We have lost faith in the current board and previous SABC administration.”
In July, South Africa’s deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe dissolved the SABC board and replaced it with an interim board that is serving a six-month term while a permanent board is selected.
But industry hackles really began to rise when the interim board cut the $64 million for local programs in an effort to cut costs.
The industry held a mass protest at the end of August, staging a symbolic hanging outside the SABC’s Auckland Park offices in Johannesburg to represent the death of local content.
More drastically, Lee began his hunger strike. By last week Lee had lost 24 pounds and his strike had gone on longer than any of Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts.
Lee, an American who came to South Africa six years ago, says, “The SABC’s turnaround plan to get it out of crisis is to save on local content by stopping commissioning of new programs, cutting more than 70% of those commissioned last year and bundling production into a few very large companies, wiping out the hard work of building hundreds of small companies over the past few years.”
The Television Industry Emergency Coalition, which has been driving the industry response to the pubcaster’s financial mess, says it does not back Lee’s action but describes it as a “clear sign of the desperation of our industry’s current situation.”
SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago says the pubcaster has cut the amount owed to the production industry from $16.5 million to $7.5 million in just over a month and dismisses claims that the SABC is cutting back on local content.
“The truth is that, as part of managing our cash-flow problem, we are deferring some of the programs to a further date,” he says. “We would like to reassure our audiences that we will always strive to perform above the local content quotas as stipulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.”
Much of the private sector’s frustration comes from a feeling that it is being sidelined by the SABC during this critical time.
Lee, who is treasurer for the South African Screen Federation, says, “All we are asking is that they (the SABC) work with us, the creative industry, their providers, and the public, their audience, to get out of this crisis in a way that works for everyone and does not destroy what all of us, including the SABC, have worked so hard to build — to keep South African television growing, alive and vibrant.”