TV across the full spec­trum

Is taken with the TV show that por­trays fe­male char­ac­ters in tech­ni­colour

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While oth­ers hud­dle in groups dis­sect­ing the lat­est episode of Game of Thrones, I’m try­ing to break the in­ter­net to get to Orange Is the New Black. Both of the lat­est sea­sons of th­ese binge-watch shows are out. Game of Thrones is about … ac­tu­ally I have no idea – I quit watch­ing it in sea­son two (one maybe, I’m not too cer­tain). “Noth­ing hap­pens,” I con­fessed to a Game of Thrones fan. He gasped from the shock be­fore con­temp­tu­ously hiss­ing at me.

Orange Is the New Black, on the other hand, pro­pels the sto­ry­line for­ward in ev­ery sea­son and episode. It’s set in a women’s prison and is based on the mem­oir of a Waspy, mid­dle­class blonde who finds her­self be­hind bars when she is con­victed of a crime she com­mit­ted years be­fore.

It’s been cited as an ex­am­ple in rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­cause of its mul­tira­cial and ma­jor­ity fe­male cast. Some char­ac­ters are butch, oth­ers fem­i­nine, and all races are rep­re­sented. There are les­bians, a trans­gen­der woman and straight women. There are quite a few older women, too, such as a wrinkly nun and a wise yoga in­struc­tor. They are all given equal TV time and ded­i­cated sto­ry­lines.

The show’s cre­ator, Jenji Ko­han, says the ti­tle char­ac­ter, Piper Chap­man, was the Tro­jan horse to carry th­ese women to main­stream TV.

“You’re not go­ing to go into a net­work and sell a show on re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing tales of black women, Latina women, old women and crim­i­nals,” she said.

That’s a big po­lit­i­cal plus. But also mean­ing­ful is how the show comes to sit at the cen­tre of cur­rent dis­course about power. It’s an ob­vi­ous theme for a show about peo­ple liv­ing un­der lock and key, but the show does not just deal with bla­tant re­stric­tions. It is con­stantly un­pack­ing the ev­ery­day sub­tleties of con­trol, re­flect­ing how reg­u­lar women con­stantly ne­go­ti­ate power out­side of prison walls.

Sim­i­lar nu­ances are present in cur­rent events such as Louisa Wy­nand’s case against Western Cape ANC leader Mar­ius Frans­man and in the Brock Turner rape case in the US. Whether they’re sim­ply wear­ing lip­stick or, as the show’s meth-head char­ac­ter Pennsat­ucky puts it, “les­bian­ing to­gether”, many women are al­ways un­der surveillance.

An­other of the show’s great tri­umphs is that char­ac­ters are not ban­ished into one of the only two per­sonas that many fe­male char­ac­ters are forced to in­habit or have to move fixedly be­tween, as cold bitches or un­der­stand­ing an­gels. In the se­ries House of Cards, the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, Claire Un­der­wood as a mod­ern-day Lady Mac­beth, is ex­haust­ing. All dark­ness, she wears her heels ev­ery­where like Satan’s horns, from bat­tles in the White House to mak­ing sand­wiches in her kitchen.

I might be get­ting car­ried away about the so­cial sig­nif­i­cance of TV shows. Though I’m ready to ar­gue why Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow liv­ing in snow for an en­tire sea­son was a most lead­ing and lazy metaphor for iso­la­tion, it presents a chal­lenge to laud a TV show with so­ci­ety-chang­ing cre­den­tials.

A few years ago, when I sat down in a lec­ture hall af­ter an hour in a wait­ing line to lis­ten to The Wire’s cre­ator David Si­mon dis­cuss the time­less mas­ter­piece of the early 2000s, I ex­pected to hear about how it had changed Bal­ti­more, one of the rough­est cities in the US. In­stead, what stayed with me was his sense of frus­tra­tion that his work about sys­temic cor­rup­tion, poverty and racism had suc­ceeded more as cult en­ter­tain­ment than a ve­hi­cle for so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change.

Lo­cally, Yizo Yizo might not have had an ef­fect on the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem or rape cul­ture, but didn’t you feel a seis­mic shift in our psy­choso­cial aware­ness with each episode, even if it was just de­fi­ance against par­ents?

I don’t want to be­lieve that was mere fan­tasy.

Since SABC chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Hlaudi Mot­soe­neng has ev­ery­one up in arms over the dra­matic changes at the SABC, why stop now? Why only bring in 90% local music and 80% local con­tent quo­tas? If he re­ally wants to be revo­lu­tion­ary, he should give pro­duc­ers the copyright to their con­tent.

South Africa’s copyright law is ar­chaic. Cre­ated in 1978, it states that with all com­mis­sioned projects (when an artist is given a brief by a client, as well as the money to pro­duce the art­work), all rights be­long to the client and not the artist.

In ef­fect, SABC pro­duc­ers (and e.tv and DStv’s) are akin to salaried em­ploy­ees, who wait for month-end to re­ceive their pro­duc­tion fees. Many pro­duc­ers are en­trepreneurs in name only.

The time is right for Mot­soe­neng to make his bold­est, most in­no­va­tive change, and in­spire other broad­cast­ers to do the same.

Pro­duc­ers could fi­nally make money from their creativ­ity. Real money, not just the 10% fee they now re­ceive for the ideas, fight­ing to win the deal and pro­duc­ing th­ese shows. In­ter­na­tion­ally, the busi­ness of for­mat trad­ing and con­tent sales is worth more than €6 bil­lion (R98 bil­lion), with many suc­cess­ful in­ter­na­tional shows such as Big Brother be­ing re­made on the con­ti­nent for African view­ers.

The SABC is not very good at mon­etis­ing its con­tent be­yond se­cur­ing on-air spon­sor­ship deals. The broad­caster has sold shows to African broad­cast­ers, but its big­gest sale to date has been the deal it struck with DStv in 2014 when it li­censed its en­tire archive to its com­peti­tor for a re­puted R300 mil­lion. It cost the SABC 10 times more to pro­duce the con­tent. So while the deal was a brand suc­cess be­cause it re­minded cyn­i­cal mid­dle-class view­ers of the SABC’s suc­cesses, it was not a fi­nan­cial suc­cess for the broad­caster.

Pro­duc­ers are much bet­ter at mak­ing money from con­tent sales. Some local pro­duc­ers have li­censed con­tent over­seas and to local air­lines. Africa is a mar­ket that the SABC is not even play­ing in, but there is a lot of de­sire for South African con­tent. Re­mem­ber when Sen­tech closed the ter­res­trial sig­nal spillover into Zim­babwe, Botswana and Namibia? It caused an up­roar be­cause th­ese view­ers were no longer able to pick up the free SABC sig­nal to watch Gen­er­a­tions, Khum­bul’ekhaya and Top Billing. One Zim­bab­wean viewer tweeted at the time that although South Africans loved to com­plain about the SABC, they loved the shows be­cause the lan­guages and lo­ca­tions were fa­mil­iar to them, and the qual­ity was so much bet­ter than their own local shows.

If the SABC gave the rights back to pro­duc­ers, they could pro­duce local ver­sions in th­ese African coun­tries and the rest of the world. For­mat sales changed the Euro­pean pro­duc­tion in­dus­try, and there are pro­duc­ers op­er­at­ing out of Is­rael and Poland mak­ing big money out of small shows that have trav­elled the world.

Pro­duc­ers could also pro­duce dif­fer­ent ver­sions of their shows in, for ex­am­ple, on­line or gam­ing en­vi­ron­ments, where there is au­di­ence and ad­ver­tis­ing growth. On­line re­tail is an­other space that could be ex­ploited. The suc­cess of Spree.com has shown that there is a real ap­petite for local prod­ucts pro­moted by trusted local per­son­al­i­ties on­line. Suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies could merge and in­vest in in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment in ne­glected ar­eas.

But the big­gest change would be to the level of creativ­ity and in­no­va­tion in the TV in­dus­try. Pro­duc­ers would be out there hus­tling, find­ing new ways of telling sto­ries and cheaper ways of pro­duc­ing con­tent, act­ing like real en­trepreneurs. C’mon, Hlaudi, re­turn all copyright to pro­duc­ers. You know you can.

Se­tai is a tele­vi­sion pro­fes­sional who works for Me­dia24

MORE THAN BLACK AND WHITE Orange Is the New Black takes a hard, hon­est look at race and gen­der re­la­tions

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