/ 7 April 2004

Iwisa and Cellphones

The revolution will not be televised— locally. Andy Davis looks at youth television and finds that adpsend patterns are way behind emerging culture.

Nathi Dlamini is stretched out on the couch, absently fiddling with his eyebrow ring, in front of the family TV in their Morningside Jo’burg home. “Ag!” he moans and flips the channel to some American FBI thing and straight on to Ripleys Believe It Or Not and straight on to WWE Smackdown. He pauses here, watching the grapefruit smugglers knock each other around, knowing there is nowhere else to go. Maybe if he had M-Net he thinks— but he’s wrong. M-Net is showing Kate and Leopold, a floppy romantic comedy with Meg Ryan. Nathi clicks his tongue in disgust, flicks the box off and flings the remote onto the coffee table. “Sheesh, what a load of crap.” He mumbles to himself as he picks up his cellphone and shoots a quick sms to his pal Ryan. “Want 2 go to a movie?”

And that’s what South Africa’s public access television experience is like, most of the time, for the majority of South Africa’s 9.5 million people aged between 15 and 25 (Statistics SA 2003 mid year estimates).

Everywhere else in the world, where television is an entertainment and information medium, ratings and adspend work hand-in hand. A show’s ratings establish how many people are engaging with the box and premiums on ad sales are determined by audience size. But not so in South Africa. Here the legacy of apartheid can still be seen in an advertising industry dogma that equates ‘popular’ or ‘mass market’ with ‘black market’ and that in turn with ‘poor’ and ‘no buying power’. This South African ad industry bias is a well-documented fact.

A research survey was commissioned last year by the Department of Communications that included telling data on the link between programme popularity and advertising revenue. It showed how South Africa’s most popular shows such as Generations, Yizo Yizo and Gaz’lam, despite pulling millions of viewers, were being short-changed on advertising revenue. The big money is still going to SABC 3 News in English and shows like Big Brother and Idols, which all have one thing in common: large white audiences.

“The implication of the research is that sustained inequality in spend prevents local media from painting a more realistic and inclusive picture of South African society,” wrote Kevin Bloom in an article on the subject in the Mail & Guardian last year.

What that actually means to young people today is that you’re not going to see many locally relevant, quality South African shows on television. Because advertising revenue determines prime time slot allocation, you will instead continue to see a plague of American sitcoms and dramas filling the void where your culture should be. A form of cultural imperialism that takes the shape of Spin City, Frasier and worse yet local versions of Idols, Big Brother and perhaps even Survivor. And you know what, it doesn’t matter that only 8% of the entire population wants to watch that crap. Because shows like that get the major advertising spend.

“Eish— that sucks,” says Nathi.

“Advertisers choose the safe and known path,” explains Desiree Markgraaf, Yizo Yizo‘s executive producer. “But we also need to query how the SABC markets local programmes. Broadcasters need to ask if they are doing a good job in marketing these programmes to the advertisers. Long-running programmes always tend to do better, than short, one-season programmes.

“And the other thing is that the media planners all tend to be young white girls living in the northern suburbs who have no idea what a kid in Alexandra township wants to watch. They’ll guess, but they’ll probably get it wrong.”

Ah yes, the old argument that media planners are all female, all white, all upper middle class. To interrogate this subject further I phoned a friend in advertising and asked him to give me a breakdown of the media buyers. Tim (not his real name) is a disgruntled creative (aren’t they all?) at a major ad agency. “Yes, they’re all white chicks,” he confirmed. “There was an Indian dude I worked with once, but that was a while ago.”

Lance Stehr, executive producer of Zola Seven, continues the diatribe. “It is no secret that the media buyers are a sector made up of largely—upper middle class white women. They are more in line with the sitcoms, dramas and movies you find on SABC3 than shows like Zola Seven and Yizo. If you look at our figures and ratings you’d know that any brand that is interested in getting out to a broad South African market would have lapped up Zola Seven long ago—these audiences are the future of South Africa, and they have buying power now.”

But does the buck stop at white female media planners? Is it that simple, or does the snare back up a bit further to the corporate clients who approve their advertising, and authorize its placement? This was the main point raised by former ANC MP Nat Kekana at the second parliamentary hearings into racism in advertising, and is still a biggie.

Strangely, unlike SABC 1 and 2, SABC 3 is actually operating like a proper TV station in the sense that what gets the highest ratings pulls the greatest advertising. But that’s also where any sense of normalcy goes out the window, considering that SABC 3 is directly marketed towards a white audience. It’s also no secret what market M-Net caters for, and while e.tv has done well to forge an integrated image it is destined for the moment to dance to the same industry tune—stations must chase the money.

Kagiso Lediga, stand-up comic and executive producer of the Pure Monate Show on SABC 1, is confused. “You know, you don’t see a lot of cars getting advertised on SABC1. No Mercedes Benz or BMW because it’s like, ‘black people are poor, low LSMs whatever, whatever’. But our show is LSM 5 to 8 and we’ve got 43% audience share for our time slot, so I don’t know, it’s one of those political vibes, advertising being a white controlled industry, they don’t really have an insight into the buying power of the black market.

“SABC 1 and 2, yeah its just sports and shit that get the advertising on those channels. It’s like Iwisa ads go to 1 and 2 but cornflakes and cellphones go to SABC 3.”

This racialised market view manifests itself most destructively in local youth culture, which is demonstrably more integrated than adspend patterns would suggest. Today, middle and upper LSM young people across the colour bar are united in consumerism. It’s about the shoes you wear and the car your dad drives. The bogus apartheid market perception, apart from obstructing nation building and selling out our identity wholesale to globalisation, perpetuates the very divide that’s breaking down around us.