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Interview: ZANews on the future, social media and life after SABC

ZANews is one of the most innovative and ground-breaking media properties to have come out of South Africa for many years. The satirical, political puppet show is the brainchild of producer Thierry Cassuto and cartoonist Zapiro. After the show was denied a national TV platform by the SABC, the producers were forced to innovate and adapt to life on the web.

ZANews latest satirical offerings features President Jacob Zuma as “Old Spin Guy”, spoofing the “Old Spice Guy” viral sensation, and answering questions sent in by viewers and fans.

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Memeburn caught up with Thierry Cassuto, the show’s “geek-in-chief” and advertising executive to discuss the history of the show, how ZANews has adapted to the web and where it is likely to go from here.

Memeburn: How did it all begin?

Thierry Cassuto: The idea was born 12 years ago when producer Thierry Cassuto and Zapiro met and decided to produce a local political satirical show. They were inspired by the latex puppets of UK’s old TV show Spitting Image and current French TV hit Les Guignols. But it’s Zapiro’s razor-sharp pen and deep understanding of the dynamics of SA politics that was to be the engine for the show.

Z NEWS (as it was then called) was pitched many times to the SABC, eTV and M-Net over the course of the years and although we got to contract stage on several occasions, there was always a last minute hesitation (or was it intervention?) that made the deal fall through. The closest we got to making it to mainstream TV was when the SABC commissioned a pilot. We delivered it to them right after the Polokwane conference and the majority of SABC staffers and managers absolutely loved it. One top Programming Executive even called it a “litmus test for the South African democracy”.

‘We wanted to prove to the television executives out there that South Africans are ready for this’

The feeling was not shared on Auckland Park “Fawlty” Tower’s top floor where the CEO of the time solemnly declared “Our people are not ready for this”. Shortly after this, the Special Assignment Special on satire featuring large clips from our pilot was canceled (twice!), the SABC was declared insolvent and the TV industry, including our puppets of Zuma and Zille, toy-toyed in front of the SABC.

The newly elected president and the leader of the opposition’s flights to Johannesburg had been sponsored by no-frills airline Kulula – and this is how our love story with our anchor sponsor began.

MB: What sparked your decision to turn to the web?

TC: ZANews was originally intended for television. The format seemed better fitted for the small screen and television allowed for greater reach.

When the SABC turned the program down for the fourth time and no other broadcaster showed interest, we needed to find an alternate medium.

We felt that this type of content had a part to play in a young democracy like South Africa. We also wanted to prove to the television executives out there that South Africans are “ready for this”.

Overall, the response from people was extremely positive. We have had over 2,5 million views since we launched and countless messages of support from people who love what we do.

MB: Why is the web such a good medium for ZANews?

TC: It’s a good medium because it’s a free medium. Currently, we answer to no one except our viewers and fans. We also get to dialogue with them and gather some useful feedback that we can then choose to incorporate, or not if it doesn’t fit in the overall vision or template of the show.

Using a free medium is quite critical as our vision for ZANews is that it enables debate and helps people discuss issues freely in a constructive manner.

Our motto at the studios is “if we can laugh about it, we can talk about it”.
The show is completely non-partisan and we try to make equal fun of all parties and opinions. We have to admit though that some of our current politicians are easier to parody on a daily basis than others.

MB: What are the strengths of Facebook for the kind of work that you do?

TC: Firstly, Facebook allows the videos to be exposed to new audiences quite easily as they appear in our viewers’ newsfeeds if they choose to like them.

More importantly though, Facebook is our first point of contact with our viewers and fans.
People use our fanpage to communicate with us, ask us questions or leave us encouragements. Some of our fans have suggested ideas that we have implemented over time.

We also use it to announce important news, such as the release of new formats like our new podcast or desktop player. Some of our viewers struggle with low bandwidth or corporate proxy’s so we always try to find new ways for them to view our content.

We are actually currently working with WebAfrica on a way to stream ZANews from a local server and should make an announcement fairly soon.

MB: Twitter?

TC: Twitter has a very different reach here in South Africa. You mostly only find early adopters, people in the media industry, the people agencies like the dub “influencers”.

It’s a good medium to reach a certain audience but not the average South African, which hopefully Facebook is moving towards (even though we may still be 10 years away from widespread internet access).

Having said that, we use Twitter tactically to communicate and engage what we know is a limited group of people, but who can actually have an impact on the distribution or adoption of ZANews.

In practice, the difference between a tweet and Facebook status update is minimal but the audience here is fundamentally different.

MB: Do you think broadcast TV as we know it will ever completely disappear?

TC: I’m not sure broadcast television will ever disappear but long-term, channels that simply package content may disappear and be integrated directly with studios and producers.

People enjoy the ritual of watching things together, whether it’s a live soccer game of the latest episode of Mad Men.

As technology evolves, people gain more choice as to when they want to actually consume content but content still takes time to produce and needs to be released at set dates.

I just think the artificial barriers that limit content access will fall away and broadcasters will need to adapt or disappear. It’s the old story of the middle man being taken to the cleaners.

MB: What is your marketing strategy for ZA News?

TC: We don’t have a true “marketing strategy” for ZANews as we don’t really see ourselves as a business.

Up to now, it really has been about spreading distribution as far and wide as possible and covering our production and promotion costs.

We have a close relationship with most local on-line publishers as we see them as partners that help us spread ZANEWS. We have recently implemented a solution with some of them that allows us to feed our daily content through to them on a dedicated page on their sites, allowing for automatic updated but also revenue sharing.

We have discussed many different financing plans but the show’s overheads and production costs mean that it needs to be financed top down. Sponsors such as Kulula and preferred suppliers such as Webafrica and Apple resellers Digicape and Project 3, fund our production costs and in return get associated with our brand and content on each platform we’re on.

We also believe that sponsors can get far better value by being closely linked to the show and leveraging ZANews for promotions and advertising.

We recently launched our own creative shop called “No Bull” to help our sponsors develop promotion and advertising material leveraging our intellectual property. Our first first ads ran in The Times, Business Day, Financial Mail and on The Daily Maverick. No Bull is currently working on our first TV commercial.

MB: Is it possible to monetise the kind of content you produce via the web?

TC: We currently do monetise the show via sponsorship. However, sponsorship currently covers solely our production costs so we are exploring alternate ways to monetize the IP.

Our DVD volume One has reached gold status by selling 10 000 copies, a huge number by local standards, and we have high hopes for Volume Two which is about to be released nationwide. We have hosted a few large corporate events with our puppets and, as mentioned previously, are helping our sponsors with leveraging their relationship with our brand.

Our market is not ready for paid-for content and the numbers are too small to cover the costs of a high-production show like ZANews.

MB: What is your vision for the show going forwards?

TC: We want all South Africans to have a chance to watch ZANEWS if they wish to.

We want to keep on increasing distribution across all platforms. We are developing a radio show, print versions (already in The Big Issue and khuluma) as well as smartphone apps.

We would also like to explore opportunities with new sponsors and be present with them on more fronts. In the show itself, we will continue introducing new characters and new skits and we’ll keep on pushing the envelope.

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