Friday, May 6, 2016

After SABC scraps RFP book, South African TV producers are fearful and upset over the future: 'Are we really now going to play Dragons' Den?'

South African TV and film producers are fearful, scared and upset over the SABC's move towards largely scrapping its existing modus operandi of issuing - although irregularly the past few years - a Request for Proposals or so-called "RFP book", saying it will be damaging for the public broadcaster as well as for local producers and the TV industry.

The SABC's controversial and famously matricless chief operating officer (COO) Hlaudi Motsoeneng announced last week that the SABC is scrapping the RFP book it used to issued to the TV production sector.

The SABC that's supposed to assess and know its annual new commissions and recommissioning in terms of ongoing TV requirements,  in terms of type of content and volume minutes, is moving away from being programming prescriptive.

Instead, SABC TV content executives are now going to want TV producers - especially new and emerging producers - to tell the SABC what shows they want to do and what they think the SABC should be broadcasting.

The SABC's system of issuing an annual RFP book completely broke down in 2009 when the public broadcaster came to the brink of financial collapse after years of internal mismanagement and bad decisions and ran out of funds to pay producers for new local content.

In mid-2010 SABC executives scrambled to put together a badly done "temporary" request for proposals book, the first since September 2008 calling for some content.

It was however only in November 2011 - three years later that the SABC finally managed to put together and issue its first "real RFP book again, although it was very limited in scope.

Since then the SABC's new RFP book appeared irregularly and no longer annually, and although the SABC kept saying it allocated millions of rands to new local production spend, producers have been openly wondering whether new content is actually being commissioned.

"We are getting rid of RFP book, said Hlaudi Motsoeneng last week.

"SABC we dictate for people what kind of content they should pitch which kills the creativity within those individuals. So we are saying allow people to come with their own creativity and their own ideas so that we can compute with other broadcasters," said Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Insiders and TV producers are calling it a recipe for disaster and overreach by the public broadcaster that posted a R395 million loss for its last declared financial year.

This week TVwithThinus spoke to several longtime TV producers to get their thoughts on the matter.

They all spoke freely on condition of anonymity since they've had direct dealings with the SABC, are in business with the SABC, hope to continue dealing with the SABC and don't want to jeopardise existing and future business relationships.

"A responsible parent knows better what a child needs to eat and sets the diet and consumption within a budget," said a longtime local TV producer.

"Imagine I ask my kids every evening what they want to eat and then pander to their whims? Unimaginable. The kids are not the ones who should be making the decision within this set-up."

Another producer called the SABC shift "disheartening" and "disappointing", saying "it looks lazy, like they don't want to put in the effort of knowing first what audiences want and then breaking that down into focused specific requests for us so we can apply for it."

"Certain genres will suffer," said another TV producer.

"The mindset [of producers] is to make what's popular and commercial. With RFP, people sent proposals because that's what was available and they [SABC] wanted like a religion show or doccie series. Will people pitch for those? I wonder."

"Honestly, I don't see the difference," said another longtime producer. "Even with RFP you'd do your calculations and diligence and send your proposals and then it takes literally months to hear back, if you even hear back from the SABC."

"Then when you ask, they tell you they're still considering. Meanwhile the costing is completely off and irrelevant now because months lapsed. You'd wait for the RFP issue but then nothing happened anyway."

Another TV producer likened the change in process to a BBC show.

"Are we really now going to play Dragons' Den?" said a longtime producer, referencing the show in which untested entrepreneurs bring their ideas to a table of business moguls to be scrutinised and possibly be picked up.

"It's about viewership, ultimately, and getting audience. Now the SABC wants to make content with people who might have an idea but no experience, backing or background as to how brutal it is to be in this for even established companies".

Another producer wondered: "You wonder if these people have ever been to Hollywood? There's a reason shows for instance don't accept unsolicited scripts. The legal risk and issues are madness. Now everyone must pitch their ideas to SABC."

"Imagine the SABC gets flooded by ideas and pitches - all of which they receive. What happens if someone claims the SABC took an idea or part of it and gave it to another producer or show? We need more clarity".

The acclaimed film producer Rehad Desai isn't scared to add his name to criticism of the SABC's plan to drop its RFP book, saying scrapping the RFP will spell the end of South Africa's independent TV production sector.

"Many of us have spent many years of our lives fighting for the SABC to commission, license and co-produce independently produced local content - local content that speaks to the truths of people's lives," he wrote on Facebook.

"We have done so because we believe in the power of well-produced TV and we hold this is the only way to produce a diversity and plurality of voice and yes to build our democracy. No RFPs‚ however badly managed‚ will spell the end of what is left of independent production sector."