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