Quality local television content mostly remains a dream with viewers largely fed a watch-then-repeat diet of local soaps and banal reality shows. Thinus Ferreira asks why our local television remains so…trashy.
Dali Tambo hasn’t been handing out embroidered cushions to the people of the south for years now. We’re thankful. And the last time we saw Felicia Mabuza-Suttle on television was at her daughter’s wedding – not luring burn victims and parading crab children to shock and traumatise us. Yet the amount of abysmal local content on South African television (with a few specks of gold dust in between) remains alarming high despite the 1994 promises of a new dawn for South African television.
South African primetime (other programmed parts of the day look even worse, with mornings almost 100% a repeat wasteland) largely constitutes a depressing mess of sad and bad local television. Remove the few American shows that broadcasters use to bolster their primetime line-ups and you’ll inevitably notice how bare the cupboard actually is. It was e.tv’s group CEO Marcel Golding who warned government at the end of last year of the lurking danger and the “ghetto-ising of free TV” in the country if we’re not careful about how we develop the television industry over the next few years. And what a ghetto it already is.
Currently South African viewers are being fed many local soaps, inane magazine shows and reality shows of dubious quality which, in essence, don’t really grow the local production industry. Then there’s the steady increase – due to a complete lack of regulation and oversight – of advertiser-funded productions that are actually sponsored programmes filled with blatant and embarrassing product placement. This is actually airtime turned over to advertisers where neither the broadcaster nor the advertiser tells the viewer what they’re really watching.
Dr. Nadia van der Merwe from the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg, says: “There’s an oversaturation of genres like soap operas, reality programming formats as well as programming in English, with insufficient current affairs and children’s programmes in native languages.”
She says a big problem for broadcasters, besides the high cost of producing quality local content, is that the South African audience is diverse with diverse tastes. “It makes crafting ‘fit for purpose’ local content for South African television extremely challenging.” These problems are set to escalate very soon with many more additional channels to create programmes for, with the advent of digital terrestrial television.
“Another problem is that not enough research is available on the South African television audience,” says Van der Merwe. “It makes it very difficult for broadcasters, who end up making assumptions regarding audience needs, wants and tastes. The use of online media and especially social networking sites is a step in the right direction to reconnect with the audience,” she says.
Local TV content that Van der Merwe scores highly both from a production and content perspective includes: the SABC3 soap Isidingo (“a multicultural cast and strong storylines”), the SABC2 drama 90 Plein Street (“bringing real South African issues to the surface”), the SABC3 reality show Charly’s Cake Angels (“real reality TV with heart”), SABC2’s 50/50 environmental show and SABC3’s Hello Doctor (“current, well-researched and informative”).
While the SABC – due to its financial turmoil – dealt a staggering blow to the local production sector by closing the tap on local commissions, some new entrants are trying to fill some of the gaps. While the SABC only recently – for the first time in years – issued a sliver of the once thick annual ‘RFP book (Request for Proposals)’ and which the co-dependent local TV production industry perhaps relied too heavily on in the past, channels such as M-Net’s Mzansi Magic are turning into a haven for local TV content.
From July 2010 until the end of December 2012, Mzansi Magic would have invested R80 million in locally commissioned content for television. Besides another R20 million in the same period to buy licensed content, that’s a massive amount for a new TV channel that is trying to make inroads by providing local content to viewers who are apparently just not getting it from the existing crop of broadcasters and channels.
“Producing various genres of local content is expensive and often risky,” says Lebone Maema, Mzansi Magic’s channel head. “The focus of Mzansi Magic has been to help contribute towards the development of a vibrant and diverse television and film industry and to also level the playing field by giving an opportunity to local filmmakers to make original stories in high quantity.
“Since 1994, South Africa has only produced a limited number of films for theatrical release. Filmmakers, the government and broadcasters want to make R5- to R10-million films. We end up making two to five films a year. The harsh reality is – and the same holds true for television – that it’s simply not sufficient to launch a TV channel. We went and said we’re going to go in and work with new entry-level filmmakers. We will give them the opportunity to reserve the DVD rights for two years, help with cash flow and to make low budget films in high mass in the same way that Nollywood (Nigeria) works. So far we have commissioned 30 of those ‘bubblegum’ films,” says Maema.
“For better local TV content we need to increase the base of people supplying the content. The more people who get an opportunity, the better you are able to improve the content and develop the base for bigger ideas. Previously there’s only been a limited number of production companies and content providers, but in a small space of time we have given an opportunity to people who have never done TV (productions).
“People also think that for best quality you need to work on big budget shows. The truth is that even on mid to low budgets you’re able to get great quality. The digital means of production we have now, people can pick up a Canon D70 or D8 and shoot a Full HD programme and downconvert it to SD for playout. People on laptops can make full broadcast quality shows for TV.”
It’s about changing the mindset of the industry,” says Maema. “We need to move away from the mindset that we can only work on R10 000-a-minute programme. If you can work on a R5 000-a-minute show and give it more episodes, it creates a more sustainable TV industry.”
Tashi Tagg, TV critic and the editor of TVSA, says another reason for bad local content “is the desperate lack of writers”. She explains: “Good writing is the fundamental basis to all good content, so without writers every other aspect suffers. If the script is bad the production has no chance. The situation is perpetuated by the desperate shortage of proper training programmes and university degrees for TV writers, as well as the lack of professionals teaching it.
“Another factor that plays a huge role is that the ratings make no impact whatsoever on whether or not a show secures another season on television. If a show plunges in the ratings in America it gets cancelled, whereas in South Africa shows get season after season regardless of how they do. Take The Ride for instance. It plummeted SABC3’s ratings on Monday nights when it was on. The ratings in the timeslot sank to the lowest they’d been in months, if not years, when it was on, but it didn’t matter. It still landed a second season.”
There’s also “a strong sense of mistrust when it comes to pitching ideas and scripts to broadcasters and production houses”, she says. “There’s no recourse for a writer or anyone else to take action to protect themselves if they pitch an idea or script and it gets used without them. We’ve seen and heard all the reports of it happening, so it’s a big deterrent when it comes to writers and producers pitching fresh ideas.”
Channels and broadcasters need to get transparent about their commissioning procedures and they need to let people know when they’re looking for new content, says Tagg. “They tuck away their commissioning briefs when they should be putting them out there for everyone to hear about. They need to clarify how they select which shows they’re going to make and they need to focus on building a sense of trust and procedure to encourage writers and producers.”
A local producer who has weathered the storm over almost 30 years and is one of the few who have survived to consistently produce quality and popular television is Patience Stevens. At Tswelopele Productions with Basetsana Kumalo, she is responsible for the long-running Pasella on SABC2 and Top Billing on SABC3 , both quality shows and strong rating performers, as well as a crop of shows ranging from Expresso to Michael Mol’s new Dr Mol Show.
“You need to listen to what the broadcaster requires and meet their mandate,” she says. “Take into account what the advertisers and sponsors need and respond to what the
all-important viewer wants to see. It means being alert, positive and willing and able to enter into effective communication,” she says.
She believes that it is essential for the production industry to constantly be bringing in new talent as this is important for it to survive and grow. “We have nurtured a lot of new, young talent – and this is very satisfying – to share knowledge and experience and to grow this by sharing.”
Thinus Ferreira’s top five shows
There are gems on South African TV that prove that great local television really is possible.
Top Billing, SABC3
The magazine lifestyle show from Tswelopele Productions remains a top 10 show and is both inspirational and aspirational – it remains perennially popular with high quality content and consistently great production values.
Carte Blanche, M-Net
As a benchmark for consistently high quality, top notch television, this long-running weekly investigative magazine show never fails to deliver. This Combined Artists production remains M-Net’s number one show ratings wise – and has exceptional production values in an especially difficult genre – current affairs – to produce.
News Day, eNews Channel and e.tv
Andrew Barnes is the anchor of this live weekday afternoon news show. It shows that it’s not just possible to do real-time television reporting of news within South Africa as it happens, but to actually advance the news agenda – and to do so with high quality production and news values.
Come Dine with Me SA, BBC Entertainment
Negotiations are under way for Rapid Blue to produce a second season of this amazingly well-done local reality show. Viewers loved it; critics loved it. Sadly we needed the BBC, who also oversaw the making of it, to commission it. The overseas format was adapted with painstaking attention to detail. It’s sad that overseas people have to come and do what we should be doing ourselves. However, it does show that we really do sit on a treasure trove of quality television that South Africa just needs to learn to unlock.
Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola, eNews Channel
Can this really funny satirical weekly news show returning this month for another season please become a regular all-year programme? Highly enjoyable, highly apt, leaving no sacred cows and telling the unvarnished truth on the week’s political and news events. It might be almost too painful to hear but the absolutely brilliant Loyiso Gola is calling out politicians and fat cats with excruciating honest commentary. Our own Jon Stewart. Finally.
Thinus Ferreira is an independent TV critic, writer and journalist.
This story was first published in the May 2012 edition of The Media magazine.