Marcel Golding of eTV talks on industry envy with Denis Beckett

Marcel Golding is not a shadow-crosses-brow man. Even his worst enemies admit that. Well, some of his worst enemies admit that.
A full survey could be a major project. I’ve been speaking to him for forty minutes on matters rough and smooth, including the image of turmoil that the name eTV conjures up in the mind of the average news consumer, and not the beginning of a shadow crossed the brow.

Then we come to the old classic: but-you-used-to-be-a-trade-unionist-and-now-you-are-a-capitalist. A shadow crosses Marcel’s brow. Almost an eclipse. I can see the thought bubble.

Damn, can’t a ou have a bit of peace to get on with running a TV station? They think that’s a paddle on the Zoo Lake, or what? Did these so-called journos never hear of moving on?

I’m inclined to sympathise. Here’s David facing a tribe of Goliaths and sukkeling to get the catty to work. Crocodiles are biting his butt and snipers are lining their sights, and here endlessly come these bleddy mosquitoes from his own new profession, bzzzing up his nostril with their little stinging probosces.

What is this? Envy, maybe? Who you think you are, hey, to pop up as Mr Glamour of the media world, king of the private channel while we who were here before you keep droning away in dreary second-league print with its ever-shrinking reach?

It’s bad enough that they pounce on every grumble in the ranks like warthogs on a cracked anthill. Just let some disaffected employee mutter a gripe in a bar, and that’s another spate of ‘eTV in crisis’ headlines. Worse, they hang his past around his neck like the corpse of an albatross. Yeah, he was a unionist; he went into business. That’s a sin?

But on reflection, sympathy only goes part way. What the unionists have been telling us all along Marcel no more vehemently than average, to be true, but the entire movement in one way or another is that traditional business gets it wrong, that there is a better way of running industry. Now that we have unionists as moguls we’re entitled to look around to see what the better way looks like. And it doesn’t look conspicuously different.

What the unionists have been telling us all along Marcel no more vehemently than average, to be true, but the entire movement in one way or another is that traditional business gets it wrong, that there is a better way of running industry. Now that we have unionists as moguls we’re entitled to look around to see what the better way looks like. And it doesn’t look conspicuously different.

Nor, for that matter, does Marcel’s frame of thinking sound particularly different.

“When you swapped sides you said you’d do things new ways. What are the new ways?”

“Well, we try, you know.”

“Try what?”

“Look at it like this. The SABC has three sources licence fees, advertisements, and they know that government is always there to fall back on. M-Net has two sources subscriptions and ads. We have just ads. It’s tough.”

“I can see that, but it’s tough for lots of businesses. I’m looking for what is new or special or better in what you, coming from where you came from, bring to running a company.”

“Look, my role is to build a successful and prosperous company that is concerned about its employees. That doesn’t mean we can be held to ransom. This is one of those industries where people can get an inflated sense of their own importance. We can’t bow down to every silliness and threat.”

“That’s more of a standard employer view than a ‘new or special’ one.”

“There are some absolute realities of business. One is that in an organisation with 300 employees, not every aspiration will be met. Another is that not everyone can be happy with every decision. There are times you have to make hard decisions, and stick to them.”

“Fair enough, but are there ways that your background as a fighter for the workers has led to a decision-making approach that wouldn’t apply in other companies?”

“Yes. For example we take on staff from the outside and train them from scratch. Eighty per cent of our people never worked in TV before. We trained them, we brought them in. That was a big contribution. Unfortunately, poaching is a problem. We have ten interns now, trained in a completely new way of doing news. We train them to do everything, and do it better, they don’t just stand up and read an autocue with wooden faces. We have taken on disabled people, ten of them. We promote them, recognising ability. One started as a receptionist and is now Deborah Patta’s producer. We also put R150 million a year into local content. We produce the most news, and do it on the tightest budget.”

“You’re veering back to success-story. Right now the question is whether there’s a separate ethic here.”

“Yes. I as chief executive am available. I don’t just sit in a remote office. I go out and market. I actively create a very collegial environment. We have created an environment where people can flourish. People come here, wanting to work here. They want to be in television, they want to be at eTV. We’ll start them at the bottom, making tea, carrying loads, and they work up. They flourish. We had a 10-year-old kid insisting, I want to see the channel director. We listened. That kid is now one of our top presenters.” (MacGyver Mukweibo, now in Grade 8).

All of which is fine and well, but less than apocalyptic. Back when Marcel & Co started planning to own enterprises rather than nationalise enterprises, they were gonna show the pinstripes how progressive companies should be run. They had social revolution in mind, not the chief exec selling ads or the channel director snatching cradles.

Back when Marcel & Co started planning to own enterprises rather than nationalise enterprises, they were gonna show the pinstripes how progressive companies should be run. They had social revolution in mind, not the chief exec selling ads or the channel director snatching cradles.

So what happened? Does the role change the man: idealist gets into big bucks and acquires memory loss? Perhaps it is more a lurch in the learning curve. You can yell “go left, go left!” loud and clear in the back of the bus, but when you get up to the driver’s seat you see a ditch that would topple the vehicle.

Personally I’ll swallow a lot from People Who Do It. I spent too long swallowing too much from People Who Tell People Who Do It How To Do It. Marcel is Doing It. Rather a tough outfit that will next year enlarge its payroll than an angelic one that will next year beg for rescue. Is that what Marcel is Doing?

Close enough. The figures, as Marcel presents them, glow. e.TV’s audience grew 35 percent over AMPS last year, against a 16 percent dip for M-Net and minor wriggles for the three SABCs. “In respect of loyalty [time the average viewer spends watching], we’re outright winners among English and Afrikaans. For Nguni and Sotho speakers, we are second to SABC1. We have a 50 percent African viewership, 50 percent WCI (white, coloured and Indian). We have a full spread, income levels across the board, LSM 4 10. We have it all.”

Including profits?

“That’s coming, from January. We have overcome the prejudice against the newcomer. Now people know we’re here, okay. Their jaws drop when we show them our growth, but we still have to overcome the prejudice against a wide audience. It’s an easier life, you know, if a media planner can just say ‘a luxury product goes to M-Net and gets the LSMs 9-10’ or ‘this is a mass product, SABC1 gives us LSM 4.’ People don’t want to think intellectually about their clients’ needs. With us, they have to do a bit of thinking, which gives them a more cost-effective campaign when they do.”

“Now that we have dramatically surpassed SABC3’s viewers we should be bringing in more revenue than they are, but there’s a difference in philosophy. They position themselves as reaching the high earners, we say bring in everyone. They say that we ‘waste’ viewers, that your ad is spilling into wrong markets. I say that they’re ignoring growth, people moving up. The guy who is LSM 4 today is 5 tomorrow. He’s fascinated by brands before he can afford those brands. We say ‘bring him in’.”

What of the World Cup? The figure bandied about is that Golding paid R100 million and is rueing it.

“The figure is wrong. I’m not telling you the correct figure as I want to protect our bid for next time. From that you can see that I rue nothing. We garnered a broader base of viewers. We delivered a world event with no glitches. We confirmed our status. We built a good franchise on the Cup. Many stations around the world saw it as a loss leader, and used it to take themselves to a higher plane.”

“The figure is wrong. I’m not telling you the correct figure as I want to protect our bid for next time. From that you can see that I rue nothing. We garnered a broader base of viewers. We delivered a world event with no glitches. We confirmed our status. We built a good franchise on the Cup. Many stations around the world saw it as a loss leader, and used it to take themselves to a higher plane.”

Golding isn’t coming across the way he’s supposed to. He’s supposed to be scuttling a bit, apologising for all the disasters and balls-ups. Actually his defensiveness is no more prickly than the average middle-embattled CEO, his big-talk no more grandiose, and his manner rather more engaging. Moreover, he does have one hugely big stick in support of the talk. No matter what, eTV has clawed its way up the barchart, passing SABC3 and M-Net and banging at the gates of SABC2.

How is it then that your average detached observer sees not nearly as much coverage of the success side of the equation as the turmoil/crisis/circus/zoo side? A nasty suspicious mind, if anyone knows where to find such a thing, might even get the feeling that the media settle into a kind of pattern. When M-Net is the subject the tone is worshipful, breathless fanning of the flames of national obsession with vital issues. Will Big Brother’s Jane bonk Johnny before Jenny bonks Jack? When it comes to eTV or SABC, different headlines line up in wait: collapse, quittings, sackings, bizarre loonies in the power-seats.

Marcel’s perspective is fairly cut-and-dried. (1) There’s a down on the uppity ex-unionist; (2) The newspapers owned M-Net, and got into a brotherly habit; (3) We run a hard business, we can’t tolerate non-performance; (4) Pathetic journalism “they pick up their info third-hand at cocktails, and never check”; and (5) of course, the hardy perennial, race. “If whites leave it’s always ‘look, look, their best people are quitting’.”

Marcel insists that the run-out rate is nothing exceptional, nor as aggro-filled as it seems. He keeps an SMS from the much-publicised ex-news-ed Jimi Matthews as evidence. “I leave on good terms. Best wishes 2 U all”, writes Jimi. “See”, says Marcel, brandishing his phone, “how does this square with all the stuff about bad vibes? It was simple, Jimi wasn’t the guy to take our news to the next level up. We’re already beating the SABC news-wise, despite them spending R300 million a year to our R24 million. For the next level we needed new realms of expertise, of experience, someone like Joe Thloloe, tough, sixty, been a few times round the block. We aren’t giving life appointments here. It’s no bad thing for people to leave. People leave every company, without the papers saying ‘Look! Strife! Trouble!’ That’s reserved for us.”

A bit too cut-and-dried, perhaps. While all media companies are automatically filled with born bolshies, eTV is a world-beater at disciplinary hearings and walk-outs. A snap survey of present and past staff delivers the predictable outcome: “it’s worse than you think” vs “it’s not as bad”. Occasional telling points crop up both ways: “we just had a bosberaad, 21 managers of whom 17 have been here from the start, how ‘unstable’ is that” vs “to put two hours of a classical ballet on camera and call it ‘local content’ is a sheer con.” But the most telling point is the one that didn’t come up at all. Nobody said: “hey, this place is a misjudged pearl”.

Is it too much to hope for pearls? Surely it shouldn’t be. When I ask Marcel what epitaph he’d like to leave with eTV he mulls a moment, then says: “one tries to build a company that will have a lasting impact on South Africa.” For my money, that has to mean not only programming that does more than wallpaper the passage between supper and bed-time, it must also mean something in the way of a model workplace. If mankind actually moves forward, rather than just listen to cabinet ministers declaring that it has moved forward, the 40 hours of the working week is a pretty good place for movement to happen. On several counts, a place like eTV ought to be up there in the conspicuous forefront.

The critical caterwaul is a little muted nowadays: Jeez, they are still in business after all, and damn nearly the biggest mainly-English station too! Did the public not notice us pronouncing that collapse was imminent? It’d be nice if the next step was visible success in the employment terrain. I’m sure Marcel knows the key: management is the problem. Management is always the problem. He’ll recall that, from the old days.

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