Six months after satirical site Hayibo hung up its sabre-toothed nib due to lack of advertising, ZANews has had to cancel the launch of its fourth season. Has South Africa lost its sense of humour?
Nobody laughed at last week’s news that popular online political satire show ZANews had stopped production. Despite 18 months online, 550 shows, zero defamation cases and a reputation as one of the most popular YouTube sites in South Africa, sufficient sponsorship to cover their R3-million costs has not been found. It’s not dead yet: ZANews is scrambling to plug the gaps caused by a 60% reduction in the amount primary sponsor and ‘white knight’ Kulula can offer (it was always understood that Kulula would have to dilute its contribution and that additional sponsors would need to come on board).
But considering that satirical site Hayibo had to close its doors despite registering 100 000 unique users a month, there are inevitably questions as to why popular satirical offerings find it so hard to survive. Fear Factor Some believe that support for critical shows will harm business.
‘Corporate and business South Africa are dead scared of being associated with anything vaguely critical of the ANC and government,’ says veteran journalist Max du Preez. ‘This is partly because they want to make sure they’re not damaging their chances when they apply for government contracts, and partly because they fear senior employees who are loyal ANC members might rebel and call their bosses racist. Business people have been successfully intimidated by an increasingly intolerant ANC with the decree that criticism of government and the ruling party is the same as being a bad and disloyal South African.’
TV: the opium of the people?
ZANews producer Thierry Cassuto is optimistic that ZANews will survive, but is frustrated that channels for the show are so limited. ZANews hasn’t ‘had any signals from [the main broadcasters] that they want to chat’ since going online. While he feels eTV would be a good outlet for the show, on March 9 the channel released a statement in which eNews Channel head Patrick Conroy said the show just wasn’t funny enough for the R3-milion price tag.
‘Maybe we don’t have the same funny bone,’ Cassuto says wryly. He does think sponsors and broadcasters often choose a non-confrontational path. ‘Lack of sponsorship is driven by fear of fear: why get in trouble if there might be trouble one day? In a way, I think SA is a country where the minority are very comfortable in the status quo, and so is corporate business and TV. They perceive the kind of content we do as trouble when it is not… But is TV supposed to be some kind of tranquiliser? I’m not sure that there’s enough quality and diverse content [being aired]. But it’s our job as satirical entertainers to stir the pot.’
‘It’s become popular to attack the suits for being cringing toadies to power but it’s more complex than that,’ says Hayibo founder Tom Eaton. ‘Our broadcasters and advertisers are profoundly conservative, and certainly political expediency plays a part sometimes, but ultimately they give the public what it wants; and what South Africa wants is wrestling, non-stop sport, reality TV and gospel music. It wants to be completely passive. In general, it does not want satire because it either doesn’t understand it or is deeply disturbed by it.’
Political science professor and deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg Adam Habib is also not convinced that satire’s troubles are purely due to twitchiness over being labelled anti-government. He says much of the media is robust and critical of government, included mainstream papers such as the Sunday Times, and this has not led to a dearth of advertising.
‘I think it’s more the nature of the medium; that it appeals to a smaller market,’ says Habib. He says broadcasters are not ‘entrepreneurs’ or risk takers, and tend to go for shows with proven ratings, such as the mass market Survivor. Satire is then driven online, yet in South Africa at least, the online market is still fairly limited.
Online media expert Juanita Williams agrees that satire is perceived to be more of a niche market. ‘It is near impossible to regulate content online and this does lend itself to satirical material, but is probably not sustainable for the same reason other online-only publications and programmes find the business difficult – generating income,’ she says.
From the comedians’ mouths
Comedian Loyiso Gola, who presents satirical show Late NiteNews on eTV – the second season is now being shot – believes those who flight satire are brave, because ‘no sponsor wants to be associated with free speech entirely, because … free speech could isolate a large majority of the people you’re trying to convince to buy your product.’ Interestingly, the show has not attracted the younger demographic it expected to appeal to, but is popular with more middle aged, middle class viewers.
While Gola says he has free rein to write the content he likes, he does believe satirists have to be sensitive. Ridiculing an individual, as opposed to policy or ideas is out. ‘With this kind of humour you have to get your facts right and you have to be sensitive, as much as what you think of what Manuel or Jimmy Manyi said. You have to make a point, and it’s a fine line.’
Eaton believes race is a major problem for satirists in South Africa, not least because at this point in our democracy ‘it’s becoming harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and race labels fly thick and fast.’ Also, when Hayibo writers – ‘writing with brains fed and educated by the last vestiges of white privilege’ criticised a black, democratically elected government, ‘racist Neanderthals [came] crawling out of the woodwork to praise our articles for pointing out how degenerate blacks were. It gets messy very fast.
‘This, by the way, is an increasingly worrying trend in local comedy: the inability to separate an incompetent or corrupt government from the race of its members. Hayibo’s racist fans – and many fans of local stand-up comedy – believe that an attack on the government is a validation of their belief that blacks are lying, cheating, stealing etc etc etc varmints.’
[Read Tom Eaton’s full comment here: http://themediaonline.co.za/2011/03/writing-with-brains-fed-and-educated-by-the-last-vestiges-of-white-privilege/]
Back on air
Cassuto is taking innovative routes to get ZANews back online as soon as possible. The programme appears to qualify for an ‘agnostic’ Department of Trade and Industry local production rebate of 35% of expenses, paid after production is complete – which could ease the shortfall.
ZANews is also beefing up its merchandising arm, and is planning to target international funders following talks with a similar satirical puppet show in Kenya. Called the XYZ Show and broadcast on a local TV channel, it successfully applied to organisations such as the Open Society and Ford Foundations for funding. ‘They argued that the show was a force for democracy, transparency and accountability… and satire was a way to let off some of the steam that builds up in societies such as ours,’ Cassuto says. He believes the same can be said for ZANews.
@ZANews, @MaxDuPreez, @Juanitaw, @thierrycassuto, @zapiro