Death of Television (CP)

Written September 6th, 2009

I have always sought pastimes that allow me to escape from the trials of reality, albeit temporarily. From books, film to music and games, I’ve been known to shut myself off from the real world for extended periods of time. In fact, a strategy game called Age of Empires nearly killed my marriage in its first year. I would sometimes get home from work and play this PC game from 6pm to 6am. And the first time I bought a Playstation? It was Christmas season and I was home alone for a full ten days, including Christmas Day. I played from 10am to 5am every day, only breaking to nap and eat. I think I only left the house twice in that period.

This isn’t something that just started yesterday. It has been part of my make-up for as long as I can remember. Before there was the internet and games, I spent time glued to the television, so much so that, at some stage, I actually started developing television concepts for production companies, creating content and producing TV shows. As with most industries, it is the final product that looks glamorous and seamless. The actual behind-the-scenes is hard and gritty and often gruelling but also very fulfilling.

Before I started working on specific productions, I used to consult for various production houses that were looking to get productions on SABC. When the briefs came out, they would give me a list of specific programmes they wanted to pitch for and, with their people, we would create shows. In one year I worked on about 30 for various clients; only two were commissioned, and one only two years later. During this period, I remember sitting with someone from SABC who was lamenting the lack of good locally-developed talk shows. I had recently worked on two for clients. They weren’t commissioned.

There is a wealth of talent and creativity in the television and film industry in this country. From actors, directors through to camera, sound, writing and make-up, there are people who continue to explore all that their profession has to offer, constantly developing their craft. Many cut their teeth on productions created for SABC, often on tight budgets with crazy hours. The number of times one would hear that there was no money to do some of the things that could be done to creatively enhance productions cannot be counted. Understandable – to a certain extent – but it must be within reason. One cannot always allow creative people to run free with boundaries but you do have to give them leeway to truly stretch the limits of that creative.

And now here we sit. The extent of the financial crisis facing SABC has been reported extensively over the last two years. And, after SABC drastically cutting budgets on productions, insisting that independent production companies keep costs low, clearer reports of how funds have been allegedly wasted come to light. Now, I’m no expert and I cannot say that what has been reported is fact but the possibility of even half of it is scary enough. The dodgy deals are said to run well beyond a billion Rands which could have been used to continue to commission and develop productions from local production companies.

Instead we have an entire industry on the verge of collapse because, to turn things around, the SABC is said to be cutting the majority of local productions, even ones that were already commissioned. This year has been difficult enough for most with jobs being lost across the board due to the global recession, now this. The television production industry is traditionally erratic as it is because most people within the space work on contract and you are not guaranteed your next gig. A lifestyle show running for 26 episodes will keep you employed for 4 – 5 months and, if you don’t have anything lined up after that, you could go for months without income. This applies to all, whether you are a presenter or a production assistant. In fact, it is often harder for an actor in a soapie or drama to get another solid acting job because of the association.

Now think of your favourite actors and presenters. Think of all the people who work behind the scenes. We let them into our homes every week. They become friends, companions, sometimes enemies, through their work. Those behind the scenes, while not seen, contribute to this relationship through their dedication. They mirror our joys when times are good and inspire us to reach for dreams during troubled times, and what makes them even more special is that they look like us. They speak like us. They like what we like. The world they live in is our world. Think of the impact that Yizo Yizo had. Think of the millions that have grown up with Generations. Or how Top Billing changed lifestyle magazine programming. And how Soul City challenged our prejudices. Think Isidingo, Home Affairs, Cutting Edge, Emzini Wezinsizwa, A Place Called Home, The Lab, etc. Some will stay but many will fade from screens, perhaps never to return. Those who worked to create them will have to find other ways of living. Many may fall by the wayside. All because the few were concerned about themselves.

I remember recently, when SABC3 messed up the broadcast of the finale of Survivor, there was great uproar.  We have an industry on the verge of collapse with the hope of thousands of people brutally ripped from beneath their feet. We cannot let this happen. We just can’t.

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