South Africa's SABC faces fiscal woes, protests

While 2009 was a bad year for many, pubcaster South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) seemed to suffer more than most, battling serious money and debt woes, suspending content commissions and enduring a publicity nightmare that threatended to crater the local independent production sector.

That sector underwent violent upheavals last year in the wake of the SABC’s decision to pause its commissioining of local TV shows due to serious cash-flow problems that saw the public broadcaster apply to the government for a R1.473 billion ($193 million) bank guarantee.

Many companies in the local independent production sector were reliant on the SABC as their only source of income, so the massive fallout included company closures and massive job losses.

In response, the sector waged war. After years of minor skirmishes over recurrent issues like late payment and monopolistic intellectual property clauses, the industry unified for arguably the first time. Producers, filmmakers, guilds and other unions banded together to form the Television Industry Emergency Coalition (TVIEC), which launched mass protests, a series of hunger strikes and a concerted publicity campaign to highlight the sector’s plight.

To an extent, it worked, with widespread media coverage and government intervention.

The SABC’s board was dissolved, an interim board was established, and a new board was appointed in December.

And while the government approved the SABC’s money request, a chunk of it is dependent on the development of a detailed project plan by the SABC committing the public broadcaster to explicit revenue targets and cost-cutting measures.

However, despite these small victories, the struggle is far from over.

The interim board left the SABC without meeting its promise to the independent production sector to pay all outstanding debts to producers, writers and actors by the end of November. Some TVIEC members fear the new board could take months to settle in before resolving the situation. In its defense, the SABC points out that it only received its additional funding in December.

Moreover, the interim board allowed repeat broadcasts of programs to air without paying actors and writers their contractually agreed repeat fees.

“The interim board’s view that payment of repeats should be sorted out by management and was not their responsibility is very disappointing, and the TVIEC views this as an abdication of fiscal responsibility,” the TVIEC said in a statement.

The inherited debt is just one of the issues that the new board and management will face. The recently released SABC 2008/2009 annual report shows a loss of $120 million.

“The economic downturn inevitably impacted on the SABC’s revenue, but it would be disingenuous to blame this alone for the results,” Irene Charnley, the chairperson of the interim board, says.

She points to the sustained battles at the leadership level while the chief financial officer’s statement in the annual report highlighted schedule instability and an increase in discounts offered to clients and agencies, plus “fruitless, wasteful and irregular expenditure” and “noncompliance with company policies,” noted by outside auditors in the report.

Charnley concludes, “There are no quick fixes to a crisis of this magnitude.”

There are still many hurt feelings. “As a fairly new company, when the crisis hit, we were totally blown out the water,” says Charl Blignaut of Moja Movie Factory, which produces the country’s most-watched show, youth drama “Tshisa.” “We retrenched all three permanent staff, but more seriously, our crew of over 100 who had worked with us for two years were instantly unemployed.”

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