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South Africa: SABC Pulls Plug On in-House Production of Award-Winning Programme 50/50

The SABC has pulled the plug on in-house production of its award-winning environmental programme 50/50, the longest running local programme in SA's television history. Without warning, all six permanent 50/50 staff members were told last week they were being redeployed, and their union - the Broadcasting, Electronic Media and Allied Workers' Union (Bemawu) - has declared a formal dispute.

Management has indicated the programme will continue after being outsourced to a commercial production company, but gave staff members no indication of when, how or to whom this was being done. The programme's budget - which is only for six months - runs out in September.

The move was not unexpected as management had previously tried to can the programme, which has been running for 23 years - one of the few survivors from pre-1994 SABC. But the outcry from the country's environmental community and conservation- loving viewers forced the SABC board to reverse the decision.

The SABC management last year again indicated that it wanted to outsource 50/50, which about a month ago was moved from its traditional Sunday evening slot to Monday evenings. Ironically, its AR (audience rating) rocketed.

Bemawu then got involved in a consultation process on behalf of the 50/50 staff members, but in November sent the SABC's labour relations division a 16-page document expressing concern about the process and asking for more information.

"We place on record, with concern, that it appears as if a decision has already been taken to outsource 50/50 prior to this so-called consultation process and that the SABC is merely trying to mechanically adhere to that procedure," the letter stated. It did not accept that it was in the best interests of 50/50 staff or the SABC to outsource such a "valuable asset". The union says it never had a written response to this letter, as required.

Instead, the six 50/50 staff members were called in to individual meetings with senior management last week and told they were being redeployed to other SABC units. When they queried this in terms of labour legislation and pointed out that they were entitled to union representation, they were allegedly told that because they would be doing similar work within the organisation and their conditions of service would remain the same, it was management's prerogative to redeploy them and it was not obliged to wait for union involvement.

Independent producers, some of whom earn their bread and butter by making films with an environmental theme for 50/50, are extremely concerned at the move, as it will fundamentally affect them.

(Cape Argus (Cape Town), 2 July 2007)

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