The SABC's latest plan to help lessen the billions of rand lost in fruitless and wasteful expenditure is to "reclassify" the TV content that it had bought and wasted because it didn't broadcast it in time, as not being wasteful.
The beleaguered and loss-making SABC, more than any other South African broadcaster like e.tv and M-Net, ends up buying food for the TV fridge that just sits there, rots and ends up as waste that must be thrown away, not scheduled and consumed in time.
The SABC annually racks up massive content losses in this area on its balance sheet, wasting SABC TV licence payers' money by buying programming it doesn't show before the broadcasting licensing right windows expires.
This happens because the SABC wastes money by buying programming that is inappropriate for the audience and channel demographics, because there’s no space on the SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 schedules – or because the content acquisitions hub and schedulers don't make sure that the TV that's bought is broadcast before the "use by" date.
The SABC keeps failing to properly assess and align the public broadcaster's playout needs in terms of scheduled number of hours with what it ends up buying. The written-off glut of TV programming bought and paid for but that that ends up never being shown, is annually classified as part of fruitless and wasteful expenditure – the same as with all broadcasters.
Now the SABC wants to "reclassify" some of this wasted, bought TV content through no longer seeing it as "fruitless and wasteful".
'They throw in other titles that you don't need'
Although all TV broadcasters – public television services and pay-TV operators – all operate under the same playbook, the SABC's acting CEO, James Aguma now wants to shift the blame for fruitless and wasteful expenditure in terms of some programming costs to content distributors and content sellers.
James Aguma, now blaming TV content distributors and content sellers, is taking the same page as the disgraced former SABC chairperson dr Ben Ngubane, who also previously told parliament the SABC can't really be held responsible for all of the TV content it acquires and fails to show in time.
James Aguma told parliament's portfolio committee on communications this week that the SABC is busy reworking how the TV content that the public broadcaster buys and ends up wasting – marked as fruitless and wasteful expenditure on its balance sheet – is seen.
James Aguma, an accountant and auditor from Uganda, told parliament that "a lot of fruitless and wasteful expenditure at the SABC arises from two sources. One is writing off content. You go and buy content, lets say 8 titles."
"But your schedule only allows you to broadcast 3 or 4 programmes – and you actually only want four, but they sell you a package. The parlance in broadcasting is you buy the dog and fleas".
"So we're saying if we do not have space to broadcast that because we only have 3 channels, then inevitably you'll find at year-end you have to write-off that. Because the rights that you have are time-based."
"They [international content distributors] are giving you rights to broadcast something. But you know that you only want four titles. Then they throw in other titles that you don't need. And it's take it or leave it unfortunately in the broadcasting industry."
"So you’ll see that we're continuously showing that as fruitless and wasteful expenditure," said James Aguma.
"But we're having a debate at a principal level whether it strictly meets the definition of fruitless and wasteful. Because it an amount that could have been avoided if reasonable steps were put in place."
Take cows and donkeys
"If somebody says: 'I want 4 cows', and he says 'No, take 3 donkeys, buy it as a package' and you say 'No, I want the 4' and he says 'If you want the cows, take the donkeys' then I don't think those 3 strictly meet the definition of fruitless and wasteful," James Aguma told parliament.
"You may not have gotten value, but what could you have done to avoid in that industry to avoid the buying of the dog and fleas so to speak? So we’re going to adjust that note also in conjunction with the Auditor-General (AG)."
Fanny by Gaslight
While the SABC's James Aguma is correct that TV content acquisitions are sometimes "bundled" – premium programme buys come attached with lower-tiered series and movies, other broadcasters worldwide, as well as e.tv and M-Net in South Africa, are much better at managing, scheduling and working away the flotsam with the fantastic so that it doesn't end up as a liability and content write-off.
For every How I Met Your Mother and Anaconda: Hunt for the Blood Orchid on e.tv that the red letter free-to-air broadcaster actually wanted, there's a Fanny by Gaslight scheduled and burnt off in a near-midnight slot.
It's also not just international content. The SABC also runs rougshod over local content that equally contributes to fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
In December the SABC for instance abruptly ordered an end to the contract of the weekday local prime time drama series High Rollers on SABC3, produced by Rous House Productions.
With months left on the signed contract of the recently ordered third season, the SABC suddenly wanted High Rollers on SABC3 shut down and off the air, citing "changing programming needs".
With the remainder of the contract that must be paid out whether the public broadcaster has anything to show for it or not, the SABC is wasting and essentially paying money to a production company to not deliver local content – episodes that it ordered and wanted just months ago.
As far back as 2013 dr Ben Ngubane warned that content purchasing decisions at the SABC will no longer be made by one executive.
In the past the SABC several times have sent people not skilled or versed in international programming acquisition – and flying business class – to foreign film festivals and content markets where they signed deals and picked up programming wholly unsuitable for the SABC.