What is really wrong with South African local television programming?
It is pretty dire, and the rot set in 30 years ago.
In the beginning, long after the rest of the world started TV broadcasts, South Africa had a dual-language (Afrikaans and English), single-channel service. The novelty of TV meant that everyone wanted to watch it, and many of those excluded from the target audience did.
Apartheid had brought embargoes on programming, and the only available foreign programming came from America, and some from France and Germany. Occasionally there was a British programme, acquired in mysterious ways.
But the programmes had enormous production values. Vast amounts of money were spent on lavish sets and costumes. Next to the local programmes made by the greenhorn “instant producers”, they looked spectacular. We (I was one of them) had no choice but to aspire to have our programmes at least look like the foreign ones. There was only one channel, so local programmes lay uncomfortably close to the glitz of the foreign ones. They were easy for the audience to compare.
At first, all we could do was to try to gloss up the logos, which we did. But as we became more experienced, we carried the logo techniques into the programmes themselves. Somehow, content and meaning came second – at least in the English programming. Afrikaans shows were different: They were emotionally intense, and had higher budgets than the English programmes.
Then came the Big Change. From the ’90s, management changed and democracy brought in new prerogatives. Gone were the culturally specific programmes, and in came the joy and adventure of democracy. Euphoria came to South Africa.
We were at last accepted. We had made it. We knew we were a mixed economy (part Western and part developing), but as far as we were concerned, “We are First World”.
We would show them through TV programming. Our programmes had to win awards and prizes all over the world, even if our home audiences didn’t like them.
They had to have glitz and glamour – digital effects schools popped up all over the place. As long as the camera jerk-stepped as it zoomed, picture swirled and the editor cut it at the pace of a commercial, it was great. The Germans and Japanese gave us awards (they had to; if they hadn’t we would have burst into tears in public).
We became precocious, big-headed and quite frankly, arrogant. Other Africans laughed at us.
Producers demanded more money so that they could afford this “new look”. The SABC gave it to them. We won more awards. No-one asked the public what they thought. The SABC blew its trumpet when the audience overwhelmingly voted it “the most trusted broadcaster”. They weren’t asked about “the most enjoyed”. Nowadays, our programmes race at a break-neck pace, look flashy, and have precious little meaning. They are as sterile as pop art was in the ’70s. They are masters of trivia, no context, and with the emotional depth of the commercials from which they are indistinguishable.
I cannot get out of the back of my mind that famous description of the socially orientated British theatre director, Joan Littlewood: “She did not seek to rebuke her audience. She sought only to educate and inform, and in the process, she broke their hearts.”
The greatest tribute the audience can pay to a TV programme is to cry. Has a South African TV programme ever reduced you to tears (for the right reasons, that is)?
Howard Thomas has been working in entertainment and media for 40 years. His experience with television dates back to the beginning in South Africa. He is a media business consultant, trainer and specialist in audience psychology.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (December 2008).