M-Net creates soap hour to up business

Communication Authority closes open window

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s first paybox, M-Net, is prepping for the end of its lucrative daily two-hour free-to-air time slot March 31 by creating an Afrikaans-language soap hour from 6-7 p.m., which it hopes will get viewers hooked enough to subscribe.

The Independent Communication Authority of South Africa ruled this year that the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. open window, granted M-Net when it launched in 1986 to help the country’s first paybox lure viewers, be closed to level the playing fields once new players in the pay-TV market are licensed this year.

Free-to-air rivals such as e.tv had also complained about the pay channel’s unfair advantage.

Hospital soap “Binnelanders,” M-Net’s first locally produced Afrikaans drama, has been broadcasting weekly on Thursdays at 9 p.m. for a year and has built up a viewership of 400,000 to 500,000, regularly ranking among M-Net’s top five shows.

M-Net head of local production Carl Fischer said it would be adapted into a daily half-hour soap from its weekly hour-long format and follow long-running Afrikaans-language soap “Egoli,” broadcast Monday to Friday at 6 p.m.

Fischer said the idea was to build on the lead-in from from “Egoli,” which averaged 900,000 to 1 million viewers per episode. Both shows would run with English subtitles to attract a broader viewership.

Producers Elsje and Friedrich Stark said popular actress Michelle Botes, the longstanding “superbitch” of pubcaster channel SABC3 soap “Isidingo,” would join “Binnelanders” next year.

Botes won the first Golden Horn for soap actress at the inaugural SA Film and Television Awards in October.

The paybox also will produce a second series of “Survivor South Africa,” despite disapppointing viewership figures for the first season, which ended Dec. 3.

“Survivor South Africa: Panama” was slated before it started broadcasting for choosing contestants who were too beautiful.

Pre-show hype attracted just under 1.3-million viewers for the first episode but it was downhill from there. Audience numbers dropped to 700,000 in subsequent weeks, and the final was watched by around 1 million people.

The current U.S. series of “Survivor” on SABC3 is drawing 1.3 million to 1.5-million viewers.

“Survivor South Africa” was broadcast during M-Net’s open window on Sundays.

Acknowledging criticism of the first series, Fischer said key aspects of the game such as “casting and challenges” would be looked at again for the second season.