The brutal TV wars

2012-04-07 17:22

The prime time news war is being won by the underdog – and the reasons have as much to do with what’s gone wrong at the SABC as with what e.tv is doing right.

Although e.tv’s 7pm news was barely seen as a threat when the free-to-air channel was launched in 1998, things changed when Jimi Matthews was brought in to tighten up the operation.

The first serious salvos were fired by the SABC in 2002 when Matthews jumped ship and shifted the public broadcaster’s English news from its traditional 8pm slot to 7pm – to go head-to-head with eNews.

Hostilities were well under way when Patrick Conroy began to manage eNews. His strategy was first to work on improving content and recruitment, then to identify the target market, and then to rebrand the service.

“When we did our research in 2004, people said our news wasn’t credible. What they were actually saying was our reporters were sloppily dressed and the anchors didn’t have authority,” he says.

“So we brought in heavyweights to anchor. We insisted that reporters looked professional.”

Mapi Mhlangu is the eNews head of assignments and the woman who runs the daily news meetings. “We are winning the war because we are focused on our target market,” she tells me.

The woman in charge of e.tv’s 7pm bulletin, Phathiswa Magopeni, says eNews has benefited from recruiting a young, dynamic team that reflects the country’s demographics.

Where SABC often finds itself slowed down by bureaucratic or union procedures, Magopeni says, “our reporters go that extra mile to give us great pictures and tell a story from different angles”.

While SABC spends time interviewing government officials, e.tv will bounce off an official statement to hear what normal people say about how it affects their lives.

“People don’t like to be spoken down to,” says Magopeni.

“But e.tv’s competition isn’t even SABC news,” says Conroy. “It’s the emerging satellite audience.

Terrestrial TV is losing viewers to DStv. When we launched the 24-hour eNews channel there were 300 000 subscribers to DStv’s Compact bouquet. There are now almost a million.”

So while the 7pm bulletin is the engine driving the eNews operation, the channel’s sister company e.Sat was founded in 2008 to take on the satellite market. Conroy is currently group head of news, eSat.

e.Sat chose the route of content provider. It began with a 24-hour news channel on DStv. Before long it had created eNews Africa and a terrestrial feed, e.tv Africa. Next came eNuus on KykNet.

e.Sat’s African service currently supplies Sky News with a daily bulletin and is upping its output daily.

While the economic collapse at SABC meant closing down its foreign news bureaus, eNews Africa is opening bureaus as far afield as Beijing.

Now in development is eNews Online, an internet news service that will be launched next year.

“The point,” says Conroy, “is that stories gathered for e.Sat now go everywhere through our network. The 7pm news can tap into an almost continuous stream of updated content.”

SABC had an opportunity to dominate the satellite market before e.tv was even thought of.

In 1996, a year after DStv launched, SABC’s Astrasat division announced a pay-TV satellite model. The mistake it made was to choose analogue technology over digital.

Both systems operate off a satellite feed but digital compression means up to eight channels for the price of one feed.

Analogue, though, would cost subscribers half the money. Astrasat bosses famously declared that there was no guarantee that digital technology was the future. Today SABC is being forced to transfer to a digital operation.

Astrasat failed to attract investors and folded. The SABC then also launched channels on DStv – all of which have shut down.

Last month SABC was reported to have signed a new deal with DStv to launch yet another 24-hour news channel.

Markinor says the eNews channel currently attracts 72% of DStv’s news viewers. I ask Conroy if e.Sat is nervous about the proposed SABC channel.

“We’re not going to spend our days nervously contemplating an SABC channel,” he says. “It’s bound to happen at some point and maybe it’s good.”

I take a tour of the eNews operation. At SABC, news gathering is spread across several floors. At e.tv, a vast bank of reporters and archivists comes to a head at editorial desks in the input area, designed for effective communication. Next to it is the output area.

A story coming back in is packaged along a row of desktop computers and fed through to the gallery, just next to the output area. This is where the news is broadcast. A remarkably small team controls the technical operation.

Through glass one can see the eNews studio. All it contains is cameras and a news reader. There is no crew – the cameras and lights are robotically controlled by a single technician. SABC still relies on a manually-operated studio crew.

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