The state broadcaster's reporting sets a low bar and puts off viewers, who flock elsewhere, writes Gill Moodie.
Six months after Lulama Mokhobo took over as the group chief executive of the SABC there is little indication that the state broadcaster can turn around its moribund news offering while rival e.tv takes the gap to bag viewers.
Although the figures do fluctuate because of many variables, e.tv's 7pm news programme gets between 2.5-million and three million viewers, according to Television Audience Measurement Survey figures from the South African Advertising Research Foundation, whereas the 7pm English news on SABC3 gets between 900 000 and about one million viewers. The 7.30pm news on SABC1, which alternates between isiZulu and isiXhosa, gets about 3.1-million viewers and the 7pm Afrikaans news on SABC2 gets about 1.9-million viewers.
In a television war that is galvanising DStv, through the entrance of pay TV rival TopTV into the market, to grow its compact bouquet aggressively and steal eyeballs from the SABC, e.tv and DStv are the winners, whereas the SABC appears to be going nowhere slowly.
"Frankly, my view is that the only way I can see out of the SABC's perpetual decline is to break it up," said Anton Harber, the head of Wits University's journalism school.
"I'm a great believer in public broadcasting. I think it plays an important role, but I think the SABC is too big to work and is too much the centre of power struggles."
Etv vs SABC 3
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago did not respond to requests for comment and Jimi Matthews, the head of its television news, declined to be interviewed.
Nowhere is the gap between what the state broadcaster has to offer compared with private players more stark than at 7pm, when e.tv news goes up against SABC3 English news.
From a media-planning perspective, e.tv's news offered higher audience ratings because it targeted a broader range of people, said Richard Lord, media director at the MediaShop. SABC3 news targeted the more monied living standards measurement group 8 to 10 (SABC1, for instance, typically targets LSM 4 to 6). But even e.tv's LSM 8 to 10 numbers are bigger than those of SABC3 news.
"It's clear that this is driven by content, and with news it is all about credibility," said Harber. "My sense of the SABC recently is that it is not beholden to any particular faction. The main issue for me is that SABC news is so damn boring. There is an ethos of no risk. Good journalism is made by pushing boundaries and taking risks … I think the newsroom culture at the SABC is to not do anything provocative or stand out."
Alette Schoon, a television lecturer at Rhodes University's journalism school, said e.tv seemed to invest in training its journalists in the classic technique of good TV journalism.
Producing good TV news
"American journalist Al Tompkins summarised the technique of producing good TV news in three phrases: shoot for the eye, write for the ear and aim for the heart," said Schoon. "I often find that SABC journalists don't bother to change Sapa [South African Press Association] wire copy much and the visuals are often just journalists listening to a ministerial press conference. Although there is an attempt to introduce ordinary people as characters, these don't go far beyond a grateful beneficiary of some project or a short comment from a victim."
Patrick Conroy, group head of eNews, said e.tv's audience for the 7pm news had been climbing steadily since 2005. Prior to that it took a hit when SABC3 moved its flagship bulletin from 8pm to 7pm.
To fight the SABC3 time change, Conroy said, e.tv put a lot of effort into getting the news team to focus on the target market and understand the key issues affecting it. It has even created a fictional viewer called "Joe Modisane" and insists that every bulletin speaks to him directly.
"There was a lot of resistance to this approach in the news department," Conroy said. "But within a few months we started to see the results and by mid-2005 the team had SABC3 in its sights. We followed up the Joe Modisane model with annual market research.
"We are [now] in a good place as far as audience feedback is concerned. The bottom line is that we are a trusted brand. It has taken years of hard work to achieve this kind of response. It literally meant fussing over every bulletin for eight years … Interestingly, [the market research tells us that] we are often seen as a champion of the underdog, the poor, or those who have suffered an injustice."
Schoon said, although e.tv did a good job in making stories personal, she believed that its focus on a middle-class target market sometimes meant it lacked broader context, for example, the realities of poverty.
"Although the SABC also does not give adequate voice to the poor and activists dealing with issues of poverty and often overemphasises the voices of officials and therefore the ruling party, I do think there is often more of a sense of our country as struggling with these difficulties and life beyond a middle-class bubble."
Harber, meanwhile, believes that the dullness of SABC news has a negative effect on the state of journalism in the country. "The BBC sets a high bar for news coverage in the United Kingdom. If one was really concerned about improving the quality of journalism in this country, the best vehicle to set high news standards would be the national broadcaster."
TV revenue not the problem
If the SABC was struggling to turn itself around, it was not a revenue problem but a management problem, said Professor Anton Harber, the head of Wits University's journalism school.
Naspers, the owner of DStv, said last month on releasing its annual results that its advertising revenue was up by 18% in South Africa year on year (for the 12 months to end of March 2012).
AIS/AdEx Nielsen figures show that in 2010 the total advertising spend for television in South Africa amounted to R13.4-billion, compared with R9.4-billion for print. This rose to R14.6-billion in 2011 and R10-billion for print. In the five months to May 31 this year, the total adspend for TV was R5.7-billion and R3.8-billion for print.
In 2011, DStv's MultiChoice (excluding the eNews satellite channel) got R4.5-billion, e.tv R2.8-billion, SABC1 R2.3-billion, SABC2 R2.1-billion, SABC3 R1.4-billion and the eNews satellite channel R4.3-million.
AIS/AdEx Nielsen figures exclude self-promotion adverts, but cannot factor in discounting.
"It was a good year for TV," said the Media Shop's Richard Lord.
"Because economic times are tough and consumers have less money, advertisers will tend to default back to the media types that they know work best and television is tried and trusted."
People 'loyal to content, not channels'
Television audience figures in South Africa come from the All Media and Products Survey (Amps) and the Television Audience Measurement Survey (Tams) compiled by the South African Advertising Research Foundation.
Amps gives broad numbers for the TV channels and is based on interviews with people in Amps surveys, according to Richard Lord, a media director at the MediaShop, whereas Tams gives specific information about programmes and is based on the so-called "people-meter" system.
Tiffany Tracey, senior technical support executive at the foundation, said a people meter was a box fitted to about 1700 households across the country that monitors TV usage. The number and demographics of households are extrapolated from the foundation's Amps survey and members of the households and guests log in and out of the people meter to show when they are watching what.
In planning ahead, media planners will strip out special events that may result in bigger-than-normal audiences, such as the Olympic Games.
Tams produces figures for the same shows repeated throughout the week as the viewership of the prime-time news bulletin, for example, can fluctuate enormously because weekend viewership is different to that of a week day and a popular show that precedes the news will result in higher audiences.
"The reality is that people watch programmes," Lord said, "they don't watch channels. What it really boils down to is content."
SABC group chief executive Lulama Mokhobo's assertion in Parliament in May that pay TV was gutting SABC viewership does not seem to tally with the Amps figures for the various TV stations.
In 2011, all the SABC channels were trending up: SABC1 was up to 27.6-million viewers a week, SABC2's weekly reach rose to 24.6-million viewers, SABC3 was also up at 20-million viewers in an average week and e.tv held steady at 23.5-million weekly viewers. Pay TV subscriptions showed excellent growth in 2011 to constitute 27% of households – up from 24% in 2010 – and DStv rose to 9.1-million weekly viewers. TopTV was up to 551000 weekly viewers.
Lord said Mokhobo was correct in saying pay TV was affecting SABC's viewership. The growth of the DStv compact bouquet, which is cheaper than its premium bouquet, means that even though the SABC's Amps figures are trending up, people are watching fewer SABC programmes as they flick between terrestrial TV and DStv.
Naspers revealed last month in its annual financial results that DStv had grown by 684 000 subscribers in South Africa and Africa in the year to the end of March 2012 and now reached 5.6-million households in Africa.