Monday, May 30, 2011

REVEALED. As The Oprah Show ends, an executive insider reveals how the show first came to South Africa - and how SABC3 fought to get it back.

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With The Oprah Winfrey Show (SABC3, weekdays, 17:30) that ended last week in America (and which will conclude in South Africa around mid-September) I asked one of the singularly greatest South African television executives I know, Hannelie Bekker, to reveal some of the fascinating insider secrets behind how The Oprah Winfrey Show first came to South Africa.

NNTV (National Network Television) which later became SABC3 added The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1994. The new free-to-air commercial upstart ''stole'' The Oprah Winfrey Show in September 1998 when it whipped the show out from under SABC3 for an undisclosed some of money, but then in September 2004 I broke the news in an exclusive story that the talk show would be going back to SABC3 from 2005. 

Last week I asked Hannelie Bekker, then programming manager at NNTV and later SABC3 and now the managing director of the Wananchi Programming Group in Nairobi, Kenia who was responsible for first bringing The Oprah Winfrey Show to South Africa, about her thoughts about the show.

Hannelie, can you shed some light on the thinking behind the scenes at the SABC and SABC3 regarding the original acquisition of Oprah. The talk show and Oprah wasn't really known in South Africa. What was some of the thoughts behind considering getting The Oprah Winfrey Show for South Africa and did you think it would work as a daily talk show and why?
Even in 1994 it felt almost self evident that Oprah Winfrey would resonate with South African audiences. Here was a black woman from humble beginnings who had become an enormously powerful and influential media presence - it's very consistent with modern South Africa's belief that people are not limited by where they come from, a kind of "rags to riches" blueprint in our national psyche.

How quickly after The Oprah Winfrey Show started did you knew that you had a hit?
Oprah's appearance on the channel was welcomed and praised, but it actually took quite a long time for it to build up substantial ratings. Viewers were initially dipping in and out, maybe watching once or twice a week. So we were happy with the positioning value of the show, but ratings and advertising struggled to catch up.

When started, the new free to air channel 'stole' Oprah away for a few seasons when the show switched channels. What was the reaction at SABC3 behind the scenes?
Of course we were dreadfully disappointed, and rather outraged: at that point it was just not the done thing - poaching a competitor's show. However, given quite low ratings we couldn't really justifying entering into a price war for the show.

Then decided not to continue with The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. I very distinctly remember asking you, and you telling me at one of the SABC3 quarterly press screenings that although the SABC and SABC3 haven't picked up Oprah again, ''don’t worry, there is no way that South Africa will not get to continue to see Oprah''. Then SABC3 announced shortly after that Oprah will be back. What happened behind the scenes to get Oprah back?
I suspect that when I told you that, that we must have been negotiating behind the scenes ... It was simply a question of convincing the rights holders that SABC3 was indeed the right home for The Oprah Winfrey Show, and that we would give it the prominence it deserved. You will remember that Oprah came out and addressed a breakfast meeting at the time in South Africa - and it was only then that I personally succumbed to "Oprah magic" - because in person she was absolutely irresistible. O, The Oprah Magazine also launched around then if I remember correctly, so that was when there was a kind of incremental leap in Oprah's profile and popularity locally, and when ratings really solidified.

The Oprah Winfrey Show has really become one of the signature shows of SABC3 over the years. What do you think the show has meant to the channel?
Oprah is an international phenomenon, and it was important for South African viewers to be able to share in that. Her personality is so large and warm, it rubs off on everything around it!

What’s the allure of Oprah? Why did her show – now in 145 countries – translate so easily to specifically South African TV audiences who really embraces this talk show?
I think that on one level Oprah's allure crosses borders with consummate ease because she has the gift of being deeply and publicly "human" - of sharing her life experience with a global audience in a way that makes everyone feel that she is connecting with them personally. As far as South Africa is concerned I think that her belief in aspiration, and in living the best life you can really resonates very deeply. And of course there is that huge generosity and warmth, and connectedness with people and the world - very "ubuntu" now that I think about it!"

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