Show and telly: how I wasted your money at the SABC
How two blokes from Cape Town sold the suits at the broadcaster a cliché of a nouveau riche fantasy
Last week, when I read that SABC bosses had spent 680,000 of our rands on plush hotels and flights during their trip to parliament to explain where all the money’s gone, I wanted to be righteously outraged. I wanted to sneer and point fingers. But I couldn’t. Because I, too, have wasted taxpayers’ money in the service of the SABC.
Let me explain, and atone.
A few years ago, my friend Alan and I found ourselves in a boardroom at Auckland Park, pitching an idea for a sitcom to a panel of imposing suits playing Candy Crush and scrolling through WhatsApp.
In their defence, the suits had heard many ideas that day, both good and bad. And it’s not as if creative juices flow particularly urgently at the SABC at the best of times: on my first visit to the drama department in that building – theoretically the area most likely to be staffed by passionate lovers of the arts – I was met by an A4 sheet stuck up on a wall, on which, printed in large letters, was the motto: “THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN HAVING A JOB IS NOT HAVING A JOB.”The suits, however, perked up when we got to the part of the pitch that involved the target audience. At last, they sighed, it was time to rub some acronyms on their nipples. LSM. Yes. ROI. Mmmm …
We’d been briefed before the pitch to paint everything in a very positive light, to create a contrast with the utter despair that seeps out of the walls at Auckland Park like the sweat of a delirious insomniac. SABC3, we had been told, was very taken with something called a “world citizen” and we should try to use that phrase as often as possible. And so, when we were asked to describe the show’s ideal viewer, we went to town in a bedazzled Humvee limo with a chocolate fountain spraying out of its sunroof.
The show, we explained, was for world citizens who were citizens of this world, and indeed all other possible worlds, in a worldly sort of way. They were very wealthy, we noted – LSM10 or LSM14 or perhaps even LSM38 depending on oil futures that morning – and, although they loved self-aware, literate comedy, sponsoring yacht races and breeding racing condors, what they loved doing most of all was watching SABC3 on a Friday night.
Rather alarmingly, the suits liked what they heard and the show was commissioned. Which meant we had to start writing it. Which meant we had to find out who was actually going to watch it.
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, we e-mailed the channel, asking if they could mail us an exact breakdown of the sort of person who would be watching our show in the time slot allocated, and we received a speedy reply. Yes, they said, they’d love to tell us. In person.
A few days later we were on a flight to Johannesburg, and, after having our appointment pushed back by only three hours – whipcrack efficiency by SABC standards – we were shown into a small room and greeting by two enthusiastic suits who thanked us for coming and looked forward to clarifying everything. Yes, they agreed: it was so important to have a clear idea of your target audience.Alan and I sat down, pens at the ready, attentive and eager.
So, said the suits. Let’s talk target audience.
Yes, we replied. Tell us everything you know about the people who will be watching our show.
Good, said the suits. Yes.
Our pens strained at the paper on our laps.
The suits become serious and professional. Did we remember our pitch?
Well, said the suits, our target audience was the one we described in the pitch.
We tilted our heads slightly, like two dogs looking at their owner lying face down on the floor and starting to wonder why he hasn’t moved in two hours.
Yes, said the suits. The show is for the people you described to us before.
We groped for meaning. Were they talking about the idealised, entirely impossible fantasy demographic we sucked out of our thumbs to impress them a month earlier?
Yes, said the suits. Those people. Those are the ones who will be watching.
Our smiles began to crack. We swallowed hard.
Just so we were clear, we asked, were we spending a full day in Johannesburg, funded by the taxpayer, in order to be told that the SABC’s actual, real, literal target audience was a cliché of a nouveau riche fantasy brainstormed by two blokes from Cape Town?
The suits meshed their fingers and looked wise. Well, it was complicated, and information was sketchy, but, well, if we just wrote the show for a globetrotting billionaire who loved BBC Channel Four comedy but, instead of watching Channel Four preferred to stay home and watch SABC3 every Friday night, we’d be golden.
With that, they rose, thanked us for coming, and hurried away to their next meeting, presumably at a local bank where they were going to ask for a trillion dollars in Spanish doubloons because a trillion dollars in Spanish doubloons would be lovely to have.
All of which is why, when I heard that the suits’ bosses had blown R680,000 on travel goodies, I couldn’t object.
And honestly, given how the SABC can evaporate money in return for nothing whatsoever, it could have been way worse. They might have spent R680,000 to tell parliament who’s watching SABC3 on a Friday night.