Regional television is a now an impending reality, its seeds having been planted firmly in a parliamentary Act. The task of suggesting a functional model for the new format is the domain of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa), and the fruits of their copious research can be found in a lengthy document open for public discussion.
No doubt the document will inspire impassioned debate and stimulate inquiry from advertisers and content manufacturers alike, but while the advertising industry has taken the gap to question the plausibility of regional markets, producers have not made a persuasive case for how quality programming might be ensured.
Quality content is the key to successful regional broadcast, and by extension secures advertising. And without dispute, revenue from advertising makes regional television networks economically viable in the long run.
So the question that seems to be begging in the economic analysis is the one that requires the most urgent attention. Can sufficient quality local content be generated for regional networks when there seems to be a crisis for local content on national broadcast channels? The operative emphasis here is quality! Producing more local content because it serves a legislative mandate is neither enticing for advertisers nor, in turn, for audiences.
Yet contrary to what we may assume, the quality of local content has seen a vast improvement and even though many of us complain that there is ‘nothing good to watch on TV” many South Africans (often privileged households with satellite TV) rarely watch home-grown productions. Local shows appear to generate media attention only if bound in controversy and political dispute. And this often reveals nothing of the quality of the content itself, but is rather about what is being represented.
The solution to creating quality local content is not to make the national broadcaster fully responsible, once more, for commissioning or generating it, but to find avenues to stimulate competitive productions between the regions. In order to do this the idea of regional television has to be defined in much broader terms.
The cultural specifics of a region, public access facilities and community television projects have to be encouraged to develop skills and content which will meet the direct interests of the communities they serve.
More importantly, innovation to meet language needs and cultural interests are not always to be found in the conventional television genres of sitcoms, soap operas and drama series. This is why opening up the definitions of regional broadcast could yield exciting and original possibilities for content creation.
Popular shows like Backstage, Egoli , Generations, Yizo Yizo (currently in production for a third season), Gazlam (in its second season) privilege urban and ‘modern’ spaces. Rarely, if ever, do they involve traditional values and customs, or offer stories which foreground the challenges of moving between rural and urban spaces.
We need to remind ourselves while we sit in the urban spaces of Gauteng, Cape Town and Durban that regional television is aimed primarily at meeting the interests of those not represented in city stories or township stories.
This spring, let’s be reminded of the hills in Transkei, the valleys of the Limpopo Province and mountains of the Cape – where stories of customs and ritual in different languages offer us complex insights into peoples lives rather than newspaper headlines.
Dr. Jyoti Mistry is Head of Television in the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand.