Thursday, January 19, 2023

INTERVIEW. SABC video boss Merlin Naicker on SABC+, sports, SABC3 and shaking up repeats: 'We’re evolving'.

by Thinus Ferreira 

If there's an embodiment of the mythical Sisyphus, it's Merlin Naicker, head of SABC video entertainment, cursed - or is it blessed - with the gargantuan task of trying to give everybody everything when it comes to public television in South Africa - then going to sleep, waking up and having to do it all over again.

TVwithThinus sat down with Merlin Naicker for a wide-ranging conversation about SABC+ and the aspirations and plans for this new streaming service, what his message is to producers and viewers, how the SABC wants to streamline the commissioning of content, and plans to cut down on the schedule disruption with sports programming.

Find out how the broadcaster dramatically plans to change the scheduling of repeats across SABC1, SABC2 and SABC3 within the coming months, why Merlin says SABC3 remains a pivotal TV channel in South Africa, and if he thinks the broadcaster's linear TV ratings slide can be turned around. 

Over the past six years the SABC antagonised and alienated many in South Africa's production industry with cancelling contracts for shows. There's been late payments and non-payments to producers and companies said they prefer working for Netflix now and taking projects to MultiChoice channels like Mzansi Magic or M-Net. 
Over the last few months the SABC has been doing roadshows across provinces to talk to the producers. What is the SABC's message to producers and the country's production industry about the SABC?
Merlin Naicker: Firstly, we're not comparing apples with apples. 

When the streaming services go out none of them are required to fulfil mandated requirements, so they not compelled to broadcast education, religion and kids content, they can broadcast whatever is most popular. Typically, they follow the audience, where we as the SABC talk to social cohesion and building a nation. We're not in the same boat as they are. 

We also run by volume and value larger productions than anybody else, we're running about 200 productions currently today at a cost of about R1.3 billion to put that out to air.

The message we want to get across to producers is that the SABC is a broadcaster to be considered in terms of their productions, but we have a specific way in which we operate. Since we are a state-owned entity, we have to account for every rand and cent we spent in a lot more detailed way when compared to other broadcasters out there. 

With the roadshows we were very positively received in all of the provinces, producers were encouraged to note that the SABC is going out and doing roadshows on the productions we're looking for and how they can work with us. It's about relationship building, it's also about taking the challenges that they see in terms of working with us and ironing those out so that we become a lot more efficient going forward.

What is the SABC trying to simplify?
We've introduced an e-commission portal. If you go to the SABC website you'll see the commissioning tab and you register there as a producer or as a content owner and you'll be able to submit your concepts to the SABC a lot faster. 

No longer do you need to send 7 written copies of your proposals to us. 

The system is designed in such a way that it should take your information and it will pre-qualify you based on our requirements, so you'll know before you finish your submission whether you're submission is going to proceed or not. We deal with compliance issues immediately.

In the previous way of doing this, you wouldn't know until somebody went through that proposal and came back to you and say "We don't have your TV licence data or don't have you logged on the central supplier data base".

We're also committing to turning around these concepts and proposals within 21 days after you submit something to us, we will write back to say whether we're interested or not interested. We're really fast-tracking and speeding up that process of feedback. 

As a producer you can also log onto the website and see exactly where your proposal is at any point in time. It will relieve a lot of frustration not knowing what's happening. You can't use the portal just yet, the team said let's do it first thing in 2023. We'll open the portal and really put it through its paces.

The last open call we did, we got 1284 proposals, so we deal with a lot of volume. The e-portal is to move that along a lot faster.

I remember when the SABC used to issue a request for proposals (RFP) book annually with everything the SABC was looking for. Is the SABC still issuing an RFP or has that been phased out? Will we see that again?
It's difficult to say but I want a lot more flexibility in my business. 

I can't issue an RFP at the beginning of the year, wait for that and then at the end of the year go and decide whether we got through all of the proposals. What we will do is a combination. 

We acquire content through an RFP, we have a solicited window and we have an unsolicited window. The RFP is our real long-running shows and our big value items like Generations and Muvhango

We will definitely put out RFPs for those programmes in the future. Then the solicited window is where channels and the content team have the ability to go out to the market to solicit ideas within a specified genres or a specified duration or a specified target demographic, in which case we wouldn't go through a full RFP process. The idea is to engage the industry.

In the unsolicited window we invite people to submit idea to us that have no definition from the SABC. In this case, what will happen the producer will say "We see that a lot of this is happening internationally. Why aren't you doing these kinds of programmes? I can supply you with X, Y and Z, or I can propose this'.

So there are three different strategies. Firstly we will tell the industry about mandated content. In the solicited window we engage the industry in terms of what concepts could work, what they see as being suitable for the SABC. In the unsolicited window, it's really the industry engaging with us.

'South Africa's TV universe is on
 a growth path but the challenge
 is that people are changing
 their viewing patterns'

There's ongoing Eskom load-shedding and blackouts, flooding last year, the analogue transmitters switch-off coming,  a lack of new content - all of it contribute to the decrease in linear TV channel ratings. Can falling ratings be turned around?
Yes, definitely. You know, South Africa's TV universe is on a growth path but the challenge is that people are changing their viewing patterns. 

There are definitely a lot more TVs available but a lot of these TVs are not connected to linear TV services, they're connected to on-demand services.

What we've found is a lot of volatility in the market. The Covid pandemic has really changed people's content consumption patterns and we see fluctuations that are quite drastic. In one month we might have grown by a million people watching a particular programme and the next month it drops by 700 000. That is something we're trying to stabilise. The growth in audience numbers is a little bit flatter from an advertising perspective. 

With the analogue switch-off coming in, we've launched our SABC+ platform allowing us access to a digitally enabled consumer and gives us entry into the on-demand space.

The SABC is working on a big change regarding repeats and rebroadcasts. Repeats of SABC prime time shows on a specific SABC1, SABC2 or SABC3 channel are no longer going to repeat in the mornings on another SABC channel.
In analysing audiences, we started to look at things viewers don't necessarily verbalise to us but which you see with the data. 

When your repeat broadcast generates a significant audience - in some cases a repeat can generate more viewers than the premiere broadcast - you start to look at what is on at the time of the premiere broadcast elsewhere. What we pegged it down to is the fact that viewers have a lot of choice during prime time. 

If your content is repeated or is widely available, viewers go: I'm not really keen to watch something in its premiere slot, I can pick it up elsewhere.

It's the same thing with in the past you could only buy bread from the supermarket. Now you can pick up bread from the garage store, so you don't go to the supermarket specifically to go get bread.
Similarly, our audiences are not coming specifically to a channel for a show in its premiere run because there are so many repeats available.

Our forward-looking strategy is that if we make content available on a primary TV channel, we should exploit a repeat on the primary service. Because we have SABC+ as our over-the-top (OTT) platform, repeats are no longer a convenience factor that we should be offering on a linear service. 

You can get SABC+ free as an app and you can go and watch the content at any point in time that you like. That opens up the schedule for more premiere content and more strategically placed content on the schedule which is what informs this strategy.

From when will this be?
We have scheduled this with our new fiscal but on-demand has a nature of its own, right? 

This is not my first time doing on-demand. I said to the team, looking at the research, we really need to react a little bit faster to that, so we're looking at probably implementing this as soon as is feasible.

If you remove content from the schedule, you have to replace it with something else. So it's always a toss-up with keeping the costs in alignment but also giving the audience the content that they want. 
So between now and April 2023 we will start to implement our strategies.

'SABC3 has seen a lot of growth in the
 last year, so much so that over the weekend
the audience has doubled and tripled'

The BBC has four terrestrial channels and just said it's looking at shutting down its these linear channels in future. BBC Four is already a library content repeat channel the BBC plans to shut down. With them going from four channels to three, what is the reason for existence of SABC3? Wouldn't it be better to shutter SABC3 and consolidate and improve the offering of SABC1 and SABC2?
The two public broadcast channels SABC1 and SABC2 speak directly to African language services which we need to cover and SABC3 is a public commercial service talking to inclusivity and with content predominantly in English - so three very different portfolio of services.

We do have 11 official languages which are unfathomable in any other market. The UK faces other competition; you can also pick up over 200+ channels in the UK for instance free-to-air. Just point your satellite at a different position in the sky.

The SABC is fulfilling a public mandate. Our content is available to the entire population at no cost. That mandate will continue to exist. 

We also have a very different economic environment than Europe or the UK. A lot of their market is middle-income earners. We have a lower-income earner as well who still needs to be entertained and informed and educated on what's happening.

What we're trying to do really hard now is to really compete. As much as we're the public broadcaster, we still compete in a commercial space. So we had to make sure that our content stand head and shoulders above our competitors. We certainly get that right with SABC1. 

SABC3 has seen a lot of growth in the last year, so much so that over the weekend the audience has doubled and tripled.

We definitely see all three services definitely continuing, standing alongside each other. It's a matter of trying to find that balance between public mandate and commercialisation that we're busy working on.

Sports programming on the SABC has caused schedule disruption. Something would at short notice come in - for instance suddenly cricket then pushed on SABC3 and then you lose your Isidingo prime time audience for a week. 
With SABC Sports now in existence as a channel, how do the SABC envision streamlining sports content allocation and reducing schedule disruption?
We had always conceptualised and thought of a sports channel as something after analogue switch-off - in which case all services would have the same distribution on the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform.

It means SABC Sport would have the same coverage as all of our other linear services, so we wouldn't be competing from a schedule perspective because whatever audience you get on SABC Sport would be the same audience you'd get on SABC1, SABC2 or SABC3.

The challenge for us has been that the analogue switch-off has been delayed, so that strategy hasn't really borne fruit for us.

The first part is to recognise that with the analogue switch-off we will have the same distribution, so we would have three TV channels that talk specifically to general entertainment, and one thematic channel that talks to sports.

The idea was that we would remove all sports content from the other services so we could really deliver on our mandate and drive our schedule from an entertainment perspective, and then sports content would sit on SABC Sport, without disrupting or displacing any revenue on the other services.

The strategy on sport is from a public service mandate to cover all sports of national interest, as well as sports which include the South African national teams across all disciplines. We've been really working hard at it and I think we've been fairly successful. SABC Sport commands a huge audience even when we broadcast content that some of our competitors have as well. We see larger audiences on our services compared to the other platforms.

 There's definitely an appetite in the market for sports content and we will continue with that. 

With SABC+ that we've launched it also makes it easier for us to offer "events" on an event-by-event basis. 

We could continue the main channel as SABC Sport and we can now also have a pop-up channel come up like what we've got now with the SABC Festive channel on SABC+. It allows us to experiment as well and a pop-up channel gives you that flexibility as a broadcaster.

For the  Women's World Cup we're definitely looking at doing a pop-up type channel.

Would you ever put first-run, original content, made specifically for SABC+ first on the streamer to make that a compelling destination? for instance commissioned eOriginals going first to eVOD to lure viewers there, and then it gets a linear airing on months later.
It's important to note that we are the public broadcaster so our strategy is not going to be the one you're seeing from other broadcasters.

Everyone assumes that once you've launched a video streaming service you start commissioning content for that and continue. We do not get funded like everybody else gets funded. We exist to provide content to the South African audience on a free-to-air basis. SABC+ continues that but in a digital realm. 

Ultimately we'll get to a critical mass where SABC+ will stand on its own. 

And it's entirely possible that at that point in time we'll start to commission shows for OTT as a first-run and then it may come back to a linear platform as well. There's definitely a lot of fluidity we're seeing right now. 

We're not prescribing how we're going to roll out the model but for this first phase of its lifespan it's about access and it's about capturing a digital audience. 

As we go forward, once we generate the required traction and we get that critical mass in terms of numbers, most likely we'll be able to fund content directly for SABC+.

'This 85-year-old organisation
still has a lot of life in it'

Lastly, what message do you have for the viewer?
This 85-year-old organisation still has a lot of life in it. 

We acknowledge that our consumers sit across a very large age spectrum. They're diverse culturally and in their value spectrum and there's something for everybody on the SABC at any point in time. SABC+ really brings that about for everybody to understand. 

I had some comments from people who said they've never watched Shaka Zulu and they're seeing it now on the OTT platform and they're "wow, this is fantastic stuff, we didn't know that the SABC did this kind of content". 

If we as the SABC make the content more discoverable, a lot more available ... certainly the feedback has been overwhelming. A lot of people have been very complimentary to the changes and we want to continue that success.

We will start to introduce user-generated content, we will start to introduce interactivity into our services - viewers will start to vote and participate. We also launched on the same day our sports portal - that's everything to do with sports whether we have the rights for it or not. 

That's something that's also very integrated into the SABC+ platform, so we really are putting content together, as opposed to separating it and spreading it out on multiple platforms. If there's anything you want on the SABC, you just go to SABC+ and pick up everything there. Keep watching. This space is growing. We're evolving.