Children’s programming in South Africa is cool, hip-and black. The days of TV for white kids only are out. In are programs about African children in 11 different local languages.
Today, South African programmers talk about TV ‘for kids, by kids.’ Local programming has become very PC, always showing black, Asian, mixed race and white children together. This may be the norm in other multiracial societies, but after decades of segregation in South Africa, children’s programming is only now reflecting the traditions, languages and reality of everyone.
South Africa’s first regulatory body in broadcasting-the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA)-was formed to ensure that the first democratic elections in 1994 would be free and fair. One of its main concerns today in children’s programming is to ensure that local content and languages are a priority.
Two public broadcasters, SABC1 and SABC2, are required to broadcast a minimum of 40% local content while the third, SABC3, has no children’s programming. e.tv, the first private, free-to-air channel, which started up seven months ago, is required to broadcast 12% local fare. Finally, MNET, the subscription-based service, offers its users a dedicated three hours of unregulated children’s programming each day, known as KTV.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is the oldest player, with the most apartheid-era baggage. Brenda Kali has been head of children’s programming at SABC1 for three years. ‘Children’s programming has changed tremendously since the last elections,’ says Kali. ‘Our target audience, which is black children, had nothing on air to call their own. So we formulated YoTV, which gave the children their dignity back. We reflected their life experiences on-screen, their language and culture.’ YoTV is fast, with dizzying camera angles, sophisticated animation and saucy, yet slightly geeky presenters who introduce the programs holding a microphone shaped like an ice cream cone.
Freddie Louw is a producer at Johannesburg-based Urban Brew Productions, the indie production house that makes YoTV, which has a per-minute budget of US$400. Louw calls it the ‘YTV of South African television.’ He says: ‘The SABC is not scared to spend money on image, but when it comes to content, they often get shy. We still show The Incredible Hulk-made before I was born-dubbed in Zulu.’
But with the acquisition of Disney’s Cartoon Café, the channel’s most popular program, SABC1 may find it can’t return to second-rate programming. ‘The kids are blown away by the quality of Cartoon Cafe,’ says Louw. ‘They’re becoming more sophisticated.’ On weekdays, Cartoon Café is a one-hour program made up of two shows, and on weekends, it is a two-hour program made up of four shows. Altogether they have a lineup of 14 Disney cartoons including Goof Troop; Hercules; Doug and PB & J Otter. Other foreign acquisitions include: Costa (TF1 – France); Mr. Men and Little Miss; Pee Wee’s Playhouse; Smurfs and Swiss Family Robinson.
Most of SABC1′s budget goes to local programming. Nothing is produced in-house. Star Search, an African version of Tiny Talent Time and SABC1′s most popular local show, is produced by Johannesburg-based Kidico. X Attitude is an interactive program for kids produced with sophisticated Internet dropdown menus by Nefertiti Productions, also located in Johannesburg.
SABC1 has presided over co-productions with Germany and Namibia and is in development stages on a co-production with TV Ontario. According to Kali, there are few formal rules regarding co-productions for South African companies.
e.tv is the newest player in South African television. It has spent US$62,000 on children’s programming since launching, and expects this figure to increase with time. e.tv contracts out the management of children’s programming to a group called Craz-e Communications. Levern Engel, executive producer at Craz-e Communications, bemoans the American influence in children’s programming, but says it’s hard to escape. ‘Even the children’s presenters are very American in the way they dress and speak. `You go girl’ and `Yo what’s happening.’ That’s not the way South Africans speak.’
e.tv’s most successful local show is Maxitime, a magazine program for young teens that covers anything from sports and theater to black township kids and is produced by Westwind Studios. The other local program, Three-Up, is an early childhood magazine show with a homemade feel and rudimentary puppets. The preschool series is produced by Kidico Productions with a per-minute budget of US$400.
e.tv also buys programs from independent producers in other parts of Africa and from international suppliers like Warner Bros., Sony, Fox and CBS. ‘A lot of our foreign programs are old, but that doesn’t matter since most of our viewers won’t be subscribers to MNET,’ says Engels. e.tv’s top-ranking foreign shows are Bill Nye the Science Guy and Donna’s Day, a PBS arts and crafts show.
e.tv is not involved in any co-production, but Engels thinks it’s the wave of the future. ‘We’re all asking where kids TV is going in the new South Africa. There are so many other things that demand attention above television, so money will be limited. Producers are going to be forced into making co-productions happen. And that makes for more exciting television.’
A case in point is a multilingual South African Sesame Street with a working title of Tshu Choo Boya Sesame, to be produced by Johannesburg-based Times Media Productions and Kurira Films. Still in preproduction, the show is slated to begin shooting live-action segments in June and go to studio in November.
K-TV has provided the inspiration for much of South Africa’s children’s programming. Launched in 1990, it has a longer history than the SABC in making quality TV. About 60% of the channel’s budget is spent on international acquisitions, and the remainder goes to local programming. Seventy percent of K-TV’s programming is foreign and 30% is local.
K-TV provides a wide selection of locally produced programs, all of which are farmed out to independent production houses. They include: K-TV RoundAbout, a weekly news show with a strong environmental focus (Afratude Productions, Johannesburg); What’s Hot, a Saturday morning show that introduces the latest in kids fashion, music, technology and computer games (Burning Bright Productions, Johannesburg); Kids’ Art, which features works of art submitted by K-TV viewers (Procom TV, Johannesburg); weekly game shows Dunk and ScoutAbout, which include a general knowledge section, an obstacle course and the opportunity to dunk your schoolteacher in green slime (ProcomTV); K-TV Simba Surprize in which Simba the Lion surprises an unsuspecting kid at school or home (Otherwise Logic, Johannesburg); and K-TV Movie Magic Musts, a weekly Friday afternoon show that highlights what’s new in kid flicks with behind-the-scenes action and interviews (Green Door Pictures, Johannesburg).
At present, K-TV does not sell any of its programs, nor is it involved in any co-productions. K-TV buys foreign programming from all the major studios, including the BBC, Columbia, Daro, Saban, Southern Star and Warner. Some of the shows it currently licenses include Barney and Friends, Teletubbies, Men In Black, Goosebumps and Cow and Chicken. Presently, K-TV’s highest-rated programs are K-TV Movie Magic Musts, followed by Power Rangers; Channel Umptee Three; Oscar and Friends and Freakazoid to round out the top five. Music videos, used as fillers, are also quite popular.
Children’s programming as it fits into the ‘new South Africa’ is still in its infancy. While technological know-how is the highest on the continent, multiethnic, multilingual program-making is still in experimental stages. After being cut off from the rest of the world during decades of apartheid, South African management and producers still tend look inward, unsure of what the world has to offer them, or indeed, what they have to offer the world. ‘The problem is coming up with proposals that would interest others,’ says one producer from Kurira Films. ‘We are still mainly interested with ourselves at present.’