The country’s film and TV sector, already one of the worst impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, was dealt a potentially devastating blow with ICASA’s announcement that South African broadcasters (including SABC, e-tv and M-Net) will not be required to screen any local content until well after the end of the State of National Disaster.
Last week, ICASA (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, which regulates the broadcasting sector amongst others) granted a relaxation of the local content regulations for television broadcasters, bringing the permissible percentage of local content on our TV screens to a staggering 0%.
This gives broadcasters carte blanche gradually to drop all local content from their screens as currently commissioned productions come to an end. This, ironically, despite government having permitted much of the sector to return to work in Level 4 with many TV productions already back in full swing.
The film and TV production sector is enraged that this decision was taken following an appeal to ICASA by broadcasters, without any consultation with the sector or transparency – either by the broadcasters while considering lodging an appeal or by ICASA in coming to its decision, as they are obliged to do when considering amendments to regulations. Despite the public broadcaster’s and ICASA’s mandates to act in the public interest, this decision shows a flagrant denial of the rights of the public, Civil Society, to be heard, to say nothing of the rights of the independent production sector and associated cultural industries themselves to be heard.
The IPO (Independent Producers Organisation, which represent most of the country’s Film & TV producers) had set up a task team with the broadcasters with the express purpose to communicate and plan with broadcasters during the Covid-19 crisis. Yet none of the broadcasters ever mentioned their planned appeal to ICASA in that or any other forum.
In their media statement justifying their appeal to ICASA, the SABC claims that reducing the local content quota to 0% aims to give the sector time to catch up after the hiatus during Level 5 lockdown. But many productions are already underway and catching up as of last week. Another reason set out by the SABC, that ‘productions will resume when they are ready, in compliance with the regulations’ is equally questionable – the sector has put in place stringent Health & Safety protocols and are already in full compliance with all relevant OHS, travel and other relevant directions.
The rub is that government directs broadcasters themselves to ‘identify solutions to ensure the protection of performers and production crews’ and that ‘each broadcaster must work closely with the respective production companies and the relevant industry bodies to determine the most appropriate return to production strategy.’ (Directive 43263_3-5)
At issue here is the cost of implementing the Health & Safety protocols and the carrying of various risks on productions. Government has advised the sector that the broadcasters should carry or at least contribute to these costs, in line with the above gazetted directive. The SABC, however, has advised producers that they must carry these extraordinary and unbudgeted for costs themselves should they wish to resume work. This puts producers in a bind: subsidise the SABC, once again, or put people out of work.
Clearly, ICASA bought into and echoed the broadcaster’s reasons without seeking the industry’s perspective. These reasons can in no way be construed as justifying a relaxation of local content quotas to zero. The third reason advanced by ICASA is that Licensees (broadcasters) are enjoined by the Minister’s Directions and the Authority’s ICT COVID-19 Regulations to prioritise specific COVID-19 related and educational programming. This equally bears little or no relevance on a reduction in local content quotas, when most of this content would – or certainly should – be produced locally.
Further, with the sector already allowed to return to work and having amongst the best Covid-19 sector-specific Health & Safety Protocols in place – none of the reasons advanced by the SABC or ICASA can explain why all broadcasters (e-tv and M-Net) were granted the same relaxations, nor why the period of these relaxations extends to 3 months after the State of National Disaster ends. This move and timescale is so completely disproportionate to what is needed that alarm bells are ringing: why ask for so much leeway if you don’t plan to use it? While the threat remains theoretical for the moment it raises very serious questions about the broadcasters’ future intentions.
That advertising revenues plummeted during Level 5 is understood to have been part of the broadcaster’s motivation to ICASA, though this has not been stated publicly. This is short-sighted in that advertising is already increasing as more commercial activity is allowed in Level 4 and, importantly, that broadcasters themselves acknowledge that local content is their primary driver of advertising revenue. Word is that broadcasters have been scouring through various archives to find old local content, which is unlikely to satisfy their audiences or their advertisers.
Critically, a reduction in the production of local content is yet another blow from ICASA to an already fragile industry. The ‘performance period’ for local content on the public broadcaster had already been reduced by 4 hours a day, resulting in less work for the industry. As lockdown commenced all film and TV productions were immediately halted, causing wide scale loss of income and disruption.
Aside from the devastation of Covid-19 and the endless SABC crises, the industry is already fragile because prices paid to producers are at historic lows. The lack of competition has allowed broadcasters to steadily decrease what they pay over the last decade or so – by as much as 47% in real terms. And throughout, ICASA has done nothing despite its mandate to ensure fair pricing and oversee terms of trade in the sector.
Shutting down local content to the extent permitted by the new regulations will deprive tens of thousands of actors and crew of desperately-needed work, freelancers who do not qualify for any of the relief offered by government of the public/private partnership Covid-19 funds. It will also severely impact all the people and small businesses that are suppliers to sector, such as caterers, artists, crew and casting agencies, equipment-hire and logistics companies.
“It is unthinkable that broadcasters could so heartlessly put the incomes – the lives and careers – of so many thousands of people under such threat,” said IPO Covid-19 Crisis Manager, Trish Downing. “And to do that without even talking to us to see if we could find some common ground on a way forward, to find workable ways in which the sector could survive and the broadcasters continue to honour their regulatory and public obligations, simply beggars belief.”
This development came soon after DSAC Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s comments in his Level 4 media briefing last Monday, reassuring the sector that “we don’t want our creatives starving while South Africans watch international content”.
However, despite being permitted to return to work, if broadcasters choose to use their ‘nuclear option’ there will be almost no work to return to – in Level 4 or any other level. And, in stark contrast to the Minister’s statement, South Africans will either be watching international content or reruns of old South Africa content.
Putting a halt on the production of new local content for broadcasting, which represents the bulk of the sector’s work, could be the death knell for the already embattled sector. Critically, in line with its counterparts around the world, it had been counting on local content as the cornerstone of its survival.
Internationally, countries are significantly stepping up their local content quotas and reducing any imported content on their screens, as part of their clearly thought-through strategies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic not only on the production sector but also on their people, who long for local stories they can relate to during this stressful time. Spend on content is being retained within the countries rather than being sent offshore to acquire other countries’ content; local jobs and small businesses are being protected by these measures.
The only sub-sector of the industry, therefore, that is not affected by the ICASA decision is the international servicing industry, where international films, TV series and commercials are shot in South Africa, mainly in Cape Town, for international consumption. This sector attracts billions in foreign investment annually, creates and sustains thousands of jobs and contributes significantly to the local hospitality and tourism sectors. But international servicing is unlikely to happen soon, not until long after lockdowns have ended around the world, a vaccine has been developed and international travel is once again allowed.
Despite the film and TV production sector speaking to the hopes, the rich diversity, the very heart and soul of the country, ICASA’s ill-considered decision might well sound the final death knell for this embattled sector and the many thousands of people who work in and for it.
The IPO calls on broadcasters and ICASA urgently to discuss this unilateral action with industry and how regulations can be adjusted in a more rational, equitable and transparent way.