In 2011 Ben Smith left Politico, a political opinion company in the United States, and joined the US Buzzfeed team as the platform’s editor-in-chief. The move saw the content grow to include investigative and long-form journalism. By 2018, the site that was first known for its cat videos became an award-winning driving force and funder for high-impact journalism. Since then other media houses, like Nkululeko Legend Manqele’s The Bar Group, have begun taking similar unconventional routes to start up.
The Bar Group is a South African media company that has a hand in film, television, magazine publishing, marketing and communication services. It is home to production house The BarLeader TV, online magazine platform thebar.co.za and public relations company BarLab Agency. Manqele’s recent acquisitions from Ndalo Media, business and lifestyle magazines Destiny and Destiny Man have joined the bouquet. The Mail & Guardian sat with Manqele to find out how and why he’s decided to put all these eggs in his basket.
With no higher education qualification, Manqele moved from retail to television by using a visit to Johannesburg to test the city’s job market waters in 2008. “I would walk from Hillbrow to Rosebank or Auckland Park to see if people were looking to employ anyone for presenting, acting or soapie extra jobs.” One day he walked to the Urban Brew Studios in Randburg and took up the opportunity to become a YoTV audience member. After the filming was over Manqele asked one of the producers about job openings.
He got his foot in the door and moved from being a general coffee-making runner to becoming a junior producer. He then moved to Soweto TV where he trained producers on how to make community television commercially viable.
While at Urban Brew and Soweto TV, Manqele worked on various SABC programmes such as YoTV, Live Amp and Real Goboza as well as Soweto TV’s The LKG Show and Soweto Top 10. During this time he worked on a variety of content spanning the children, tabloid, music, and magazine genres.
With this experience in the bag he then migrated to production house Don’t Look Down, where he worked on magazine show V Entertainment before working as the content producer for Dineo Ranaka’s reality show, Dineo’s Diary, in 2013. Two seasons in, Manqele and Ranaka decided to leave the production house to do the show independently with investment support from M-Net. And so The BarLeader TV was born.
The decision to establish a production house that specialises in reality shows came after a 2013 trip to Los Angeles, where he had gone on a production house tour with M-Net. Conversations with producers and researchers enlightened him to their view that the popularity and demand of reality television would rise rapidly in the years to come. “I didn’t want to wait for seven years, so I went for it in 2013,” explains Manqele who, after Dineo’s Diary, went on to produce reality shows Rich Kids, Living the Dream With Somizi, Being Bonang, Cishe Ngafa and, most recently, Kwa Mam’Mkhize.
For The BarLeader TV to produce a reality show Manqele approaches the well-known person he would like to capture or makes a deal with them when they leave the production company. For filming, editing and broadcasting to happen, Manqele says, “Something about you must have mass appeal; people must want to talk about you the next day.”
On the surface, The BarLeader TV’s leading reality shows seem to focus on capturing the ways in which wealth is acquired and used in a black South African context. The viewer watches what it’s like to easily have access to the capital (whether financial or social) that will fund dreams ranging from actualising music careers, publishing books or establishing fashion lines. While they may have family and friendship dynamics that mirror those of their viewers, the subjects are celebrities with endorsement deals that allow them to take impromptu girls’ trips, drive top-of-the-range cars and drink champagne at breakfast.
In addition to showcasing the black come-up story, each show has a spectacle factor. Although Manqele doesn’t outright admit that the lead’s story must stir pots when screened on television, it’s a thread that runs through the bulk of the production house’s reality shows. With Dineo’s Diary it was Ranaka’s health and what Manqele refers to as “baby daddy drama”. For Somizi & Mohale: The Union, Manqele points out that it is South Africa’s first gay wedding to be screened. Kwa Mam’Mkhize not only lets the viewer into Shauwn Mkhize’s life of ridiculous excess but it follows her journey to court when a tax evasion case with the South African Revenue Service is concluded.
This formula seems to be working for him. When asked if the business of reality television has been a lucrative one, Manqele’s “yes” is twofold. “I’m doing reality TV for the profit and because it’s a great marketing tool.” In addition to the financial gains that come from having shows aired on the DStv platform’s Mzansi Magic, One Magic and Mzansi Wethu channels, Manqele says brands want to work with him because he works with South Africa’s A-listers. So far The BarLeader’s portfolio has also seen them work with advertising agencies DNA, Avatar and Joe Republic as well as Kaya FM and the National Film and Video Foundation.
“It’s not always perfect though,” adds Manqele, knowing that the question about Being Bonang is coming up. In October last year, the show’s star, Bonang Matheba, took to Twitter to talk about her experience of making the reality show just before the season finale aired. In her posts she said, “Making Being Bonang Season 3 was one of the worst working experiences of my life!! Glad it’s ending … remind me to tell y’all why one day!” While none of the parties were open to disclosing the details that made the experience unbearable, Manqele says it’s what comes with relinquishing one’s private life for it to be broadcast on national television.
With his television endeavours going so well, his expansion into print media was unexpected, especially with the current economic climate seeing newsrooms and magazines struggling to make ends meet.
But armed with the conviction that “print shouldn’t be dying” and a pocket full of the money from the production house’s income over the years, the acquisition of Destiny and Destiny Man was a no-brainer, because it fits into The Bar Group’s mission of capturing and distributing information.
To revive the Destiny brand, Manqele focused on refining the magazines’ editorial output, changing the look and feel of the physical product and reducing the number of units that are printed.
Under their new ownership, Destiny and Destiny Man focus on the continent’s private sector landscape by telling the stories of what Manqele refers to as “high networking individuals. It’s what Diamond Walk [at Sandton City] meets Bloomberg would be if it was a publication,” adds Manqele. To make this viable the entrepreneur says he had to raise the printing quality of the magazines to make the physical product match its content. Consequently, the magazines now costs R65, almost double what they used to cost.
Manqele has decided to limit the monthly print run to 20000 copies each of Destiny and Destiny Man while The Bar Group works to rebuild relationships with consumers and advertisers. “I’m also of the opinion that the quality, price, content and keeping the product niche is what has attracted brands like Bulgari, Hugo Boss and Coach to come back on board,” he adds. Of all the copies printed in the first issues, 81% of Destiny and 63% of Destiny Man were sold.
While things seem to be going well in the three months that he’s been operating in print, there’s a sense that Manqele’s perception of the medium is rose-tinted when he says he has never had to retrench staff and plans to continue on this path.
But with other, more lucrative and viable sources of income to consistently invest in and protect the print stream of The Bar Group, perhaps the magazines are here to stay.
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