The way to the United States of Africa is through a screen
Living in close quarters for 90 days with complete strangers with 53 cameras monitoring every movement you make and 120 microphones listening to every word, hiss and sigh you make, the Big Brother Africa StarGame is the ultimate embodiment Reality Television in Africa.
And since this genre of television is based on issues that are central to the modern society like music, survival in a harsh and competitive environment and the ability to tolerate others, it is all the rage among African viewers; after the English Premier League.
As proved by the just concluded Tusker Project Fame (TPF) the genre has handed broadcasters a new card in the art of keeping viewers glued to their television screens. The competitive appetite of candidates in TPF, Sakata, Big Brother and other real life shows is whetted by the promise of, at times, jaw-dropping prize money, instant stardom and multimillion shilling recording contracts.
“These shows have become popular among the youth because urbaniasation in Africa is rapidly overtaking industrialisation and morality, which means displaying what was previously viewed as taboo, like sex, is considered cool,” says Rev. Timothy Njoya, a retired clergy.
Sex sells like hot cake
“Since sex sells, the media and other players have been encouraging the growth of these consumerist shows to drive sales and increase viewership.” And with Kenyan participants doing well this season, Ruth Matete won KSh5 million (about Shs140m) in cash and secured a Sh10 million (about Shs280) recording with America’s Universal Group in the TPF and Kenyan artiste Prezzo is among the six people vying for the KSh25 million prize in the Big Brother StarGame, popularity of reality shows in the country is bound to shoot through the roof.
Few viewers realise the fact that these programmes were hatched by marketing gurus in Europe and America as a way of connecting companies to their clientele through entertainment.
Besides this, the alliance between the sponsors and telecommunications companies brings in huge sums of money from the text messaging system that viewers use to select the winners.
This mode of entertainment has achieved in a few years what politicians have failed to do in a very long time – a sense of pan-Africanism.
This explains why very few take note when African leaders congregate at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa to proclaim declarations meant to foster the “United States of Africa” dream. But when the likes of former Ghanaian Big Brother housemate Ras Wayoe shouted “Africa must unite”, millions of youth across the continent paid attention.
Through a stage-managed combination of glamour and drama, reality shows reinforce cross-national unity and integration, not only through the multinational coterie of contestants and real time viewing, but also by engaging the audience in a continental voting system.
“There is an integrating aspect to television,” David Mafabi, a commentator on East African affairs, once noted. “Shows like these may be superficial, but they show Africa coming together in a way that’s often ahead of governments.”
The contestants, through their mass appeal and celebrity status, evoke patriotism and reinforce national unity in a manner that surpasses politics. While voting for Ruth Matete in the just concluded TPF5, Kenyans put aside their political, ethnic and other differences to ensure one of their “own” was crowned champion.
During his homecoming after an eventful sojourn in the premier of Big Brother Africa in 2003, Ugandan Gaetano Kaggwa, crowned the ‘People’s Prince’ by adoring fans, was received at Entebbe Airport by a crowd so huge that the country’s political leadership fretted with President Yoweri Museveni wondering “where was Gaetano and Big Brother before South Africa was cleaned of the bad regime”.
A subtle sense of humour, constantly raised eyebrows and quizzical side-glances laced with naughtiness earned “Gae” millions of admirers not only in his native Uganda but also across the continent.
The downside of Big Brother, arguably the most watched reality show in Africa, is the fact that it is beamed through the exclusive pay TV, a luxury affordable to a select few.
A few Africans with TV sets
Although millions of Africans watch television in communal settings, estimates claim that fewer than eight per cent own sets. But thanks to M-Net, which has over 1.6 million subscribers distributed unequally in more than 40 countries according to their financial report or the first quarter of 2012, the number of people with access to satellite television in the continent grows by around 10 per cent a year.
The few that are broadcast through free-to-air channels like TPF always prove to be a hit with the national or regional audiences, a fact proved by the huge amounts of money television stations cough up for broadcasting rights.
However, the money is recouped handsomely through brand equity and advertising.
Reality TV captivates its audience through constant conflict and romance (real or faked) in the common houses.
“I wish the housemates would talk about real issues. Given that Big Brother Africa is being watched by people all over Africa, they shouldn’t be arguing over eggs,” said a Malawian viewer of Big Brother Africa Two.
Although sometimes such wrangling leaves the crowd of multinational housemates deeply divided, the fact that it happens in millions of homes has created a strong cultural force.
Big Brother, both in Africa and beyond, has earned a reputation for tolerating sex, alcoholism and raunchy talk. More often than not, winners are contestants who thrive in these excesses.
Critics say the contestants in reality shows are not a true reflection of the ordinary African youth since most are middle-class “spoilt brats” with alien accents.
“They are getting people (as contestants) who watch the show already, not someone from a shack in Kampala,” complained Doug Mitchell, a lecturer in television at South Africa’s Rhodes University.
This observation was validated by an incident in the maiden show of Big Brother Africa when Zein Dudha, the Malawian housemate, was loudly condemned by his fellow countrymen as being unrepresentative of the country’s ordinary youth, after he failed to sing the national anthem in Chichewa, Malawi’s street lingo.
However, despite these kinds of misgivings reality shows, Pan-Africanists claim, that they could be the missing link in the quest for African unity and integration that the post-independence generation of political leaders spent millions of taxpayer’s shillings in conferences, committees and secretariats trying to achieve.
What tv does
Reality television has also greatly reinforced the rapid growth of celebrity culture since it is a perfect launching pad for young people interested in showbiz. Due to the huge limelight accorded to these Reality TV by the sponsors, media and the public, winning is no longer the objective for some of the contestants.
Just being a participant is enough to land one a lucrative contract in radio, television, adverting and marketing. Or politics.
Watching the lifestyle of contestants in the just concluded TPF5, one gets a glimpse of the reason why most youth die to be in the house in Ruaraka. Ferried around by chauffeur-driven Hummers and flanked by mean-looking musclemen in black suits, these wannabe superstars move around signing autographs, greeting fans and giving interviews on FM stations.
Throw in the Shs140m prize money and the Shs280m recording contract and you have the recipe to attract the best talent but also throngs of comical fame and fortune hunters at the auditions.
But to its credit Tusker Project Fame has, in just five years of existence, culturally connected and united the regional population in a way the East African Community hasn’t in the past three decades.
By Mwaura Samora, Daily Monitor
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