The Performers Protection Amendment Bill is getting the attention of our lawmakers at last. I should be excited. After all I am one of those that made it a soap box topic for longer than many care to remember. Why, You may want to ask. It matters. It matters to the many artists whose works get repeated by South African broadcasters across the continent without compensation. It matters to those who continue to hope that the tiny bit that the public broadcaster owes them for repeats according to the standard freelance performers agreement will finally .
It should matter also to any actor whose work MultiChoice gets to repeat on their many channels without any legal obligation to pay repeat fees. It should matter to anyone who has always wondered why local artists don’t get to benefit from the R90 billion contribution that the creative industries contribute to the country’s GDP. It took us quite a while but we are here now. Parliament, it seems, has finally heard the pleas of the performers. I should be excited. I’m very worried instead.
I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of those that have benefitted from the absence of any protection of performers’ rights all this time. Would I want some law coming through to spoil my royalties free bonanza, if I were them? Most likely not. I expect that the broadcasters are going to come at this bill with guns blazing. Why would they want to welcome the introduction of laws that bring an end to their decades of performers exploitation? That is in essence what will happen should parliament pass this bill. The Performers will not only be protected, they will be finally empowered. That must have both producers and broadcasters shaking. It should have them looking for every smart tool they can deploy to convince us and those parliamentarians that granting moral and economic rights to performers will be a terrible move. I don’t blame them. I guess they are in business to make profit and not to care about the artists they exploit.
There is an elder in the arts that refers to the relationship between us actors, producers and broadcasters as the “unholy trinity”. I agree with him. Only I see it in a worse light. The film and television production space is lucrative for everyone but the actor. So, in my view, the one that brings screen magic to life happens to have also sat at the bottom of the industry food chain all these years. The South African actor makes magic and becomes a household name but their earnings refuse to match that picture. Who must be blamed for that? Is it the producer or the actor? Or is it the broadcasters?
See, the production tripartite alliance has never been about empowering or protecting the actor. It has always been about keeping the actor in check. It is an anti-stardom control mechanism that has worked well for the those that run the system. It keeps the actor begging for their next job while the broadcasters who own all intellectual property continue to make further profit on that actor’s work. It is an unholy trinity indeed. In fact it remains a collusion of sorts between broadcasters and producers while the actor is just the magic pony that attracts the crowd. I want to paint a nicer picture but we don’t have it here.
What we have is a system that leaves our legends poor at the end of their careers while their works continue to get screened with no compensation. I cannot imagine the pain of watching your beloved on screen years after they have passed on knowing very well they are not being paid any royalties for those repeats. That is the reality for many families of our television icons. That will likely be the reality for many of us who are enjoying regular work on big deal productions today. While many of us may not see the need to fight for fair legislation that will make us benefit better from our talents, none of us are immune from the vulnerabilities that hit the industry ever so often. Think of Generations a few years ago, Muvhango now and then, Uselwa currently and Uzalo which is also experiencing the brunt of the public broadcaster’s latest financial crisis.
We need better laws and regulations that put the performers first instead of those that only consider broadcasters and their bottom line above all else. I believe too, that it is time the ministers of Arts and Culture, Communications and Trade and Industry looked into how their departments can work together to create a better environment for talent in the audiovisual sector.
Florence Masebe is an award winning actor, a creator and producer of television and film content.