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Africa’s small screen rivals

By Rose Skelton in Bamako. Additional reporting by Olivier Monnier in Abidjan, Ntaryike Divine Jr in Douala, Thabho Bhebhe in Bulawayo and Jeff Mbanga in Kampala
Posted on Tuesday, 31 December 2013 15:39

When French forces launched an offensive against Islamist insurgents in Mali in early 2013, the Malian government ordered the popular Latin American and Indian soap operas – telenovelas and soapies – off the air. “But after three weeks,” says Youssouf Touré, then the director of television at theOffice de Radiodiffusion-Télévision du Mali (ORTM), ” so many people telephoned to complain that we had to put them back on. People watch TV to forget.”

Advertisers are ready to pay anything from 200,000 CFA francs ($400) per advert every week-day for one or two years

Soap operas have been a regular fixture across Africa since the 1970s, when the Brazilian telenovela Escrava Isaura (Isaura, the Slave Girl) became popular. This was followed by soaps such as the Mexican Rosa Salvaje (Wild Rose), which was dubbed into French, English and Portuguese for African audiences.

“By the late 1970s,” says Matt Graham, an international content specialist at Attentional, a California-based media consultancy, “these had coalesced into the same format: 100 episodes, a very simple rags-to-riches story and always a female protagonist.”

By the 1990s, fed up with these foreign shows, companies in Turkey and the Philippines started making their own soaps using the Latin American formula. Turkish shows like Muhtesem Yüzyil (Magnificent Century) and Ask-i Memnu (Forbidden Love) then became hits in Africa.

The market is set to be flooded with even more telenovelas following the African launch in August of Spanish-language station TV Telemundo, owned by American company NBC-Universal.

The channel is now available in 48 countries in Africa on the pay-TV satellite platform DStv, owned by South African firm MultiChoice.

“Our original telenovelas are successfully syndicated in over 100 countries around the world,” says Marcos Santana, president of Telemundo Internacional. “We know that there is a huge appetite for top-quality telenovelas the world over and are looking forward to building a fan base for this unique genre across Africa.”

Fanta Ouattara, a 40-year-old market seller in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, says her favourite soap is Sauvée par l’Amour, a Brazilian programme that airs on state-run channel RTI1.

When she gets home from a day at the market, she says watching the programmes helps her forget her everyday hardships. “The following day, with my seller friends, we spend all the day talking about what happened in the previous day’s episodes,” she explains.

The show has a classic storyline: a millionaire chases after the beautiful female protagonist, only to then run off with another woman. “I’ve experienced something like this in my personal life, so watching this is a kind of medicine. See- ing that I am not the only victim makes me feel hopeful,” she says.

In Mali, Latin American soaps target women and especially hired domestic help, most of whom are likely to be illiterate (read: non-French speaking), says ORTM’s Touré.

“The shows are dubbed in French, but even if you are illiterate you can understand the gestures,” he says.

“It’s the intrigue, the characters, who is leaving who, the girlfriends, the money, stories of orphans who become important in the world. That’s what touches Africans. It’s simple, you don’t have to be clever to understand them.”


Despite the popularity of Latin American soaps, African-produced soaps are now jostling for space on the networks. South Africa dominates the English-language market.

Generations, the top-rated prime-time show in the country, draws an average of eight million viewers daily. Other soaps such as Isidingo and Muvhango come in close behind.

South African shows have gained fan bases across the continent, such as in bilingual Cameroon, where Jacob’s Cross is very popular.

“Before that, the IvorianMa Famille was also very successful,” says Bruno Tepdie, the manager with responsibility for soaps at the Douala-based station Canal 2 International. “And there are some Cameroonian ones too, like Ennemis Intimes and Au-Dela De Tout Soupçon.

New shows are gaining audiences. In Kenya, NTV launched the soap opera Mali in 2011, running three times a week in English and Kiswahili. With the tagline ‘United by Blood, Divided by Greed,’ it follows the intrigues of an affluent family.

In Nigeria, the new Lagos-based sitcom Ojo’s in D’ House, broadcast on the DStv channel EbonyLife TV, follows the life of the nouveau riche Ojo family.

In Egypt, while Turkish soap operas remain very popular, local shows such as Hekayet Hayah (The Story of Hayah), screened during Ramadan this year, have gained both acclaim and criticism: some say it was unfit for the holy month.

Uganda’s longest-running series, That’s Life Mwatu, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, while newer shows The Hostel and Deception are gathering followers.

When the Zimbabwean government passed a law in 2002 that 75% of TV shows must be local, soap operas were produced that aimed to expose social ills.

Small House Saga, which came to an end in 2008, addressed the subject of extra-marital affairs. “Not only did they provide entertainment but they were very educational,” says Millicent Sibanda, a fan of the show.

But Admire Gava, a Bulawayo-based soap enthusi- ast, complains: “The problem with local productions is that they just go off air without notice. It is very disappointing.

That is why we are left with no alternative but to resort to foreign channels.” Attentional’s Graham says: “The Latino telenovelas have provided a blueprint for producers in African countries to make their own if they can. But [in Africa] the infrastructure and equipment isn’t there, and it’s difficult to organise production. All Latin American countries are trying to expand their economies in Africa, and telenovelas are just a microcosm of that.”


Local production struggles to compete with the low-cost of foreign soaps.

In Uganda, an episode bought from Telemundo can cost as little as $300, whereas an episode bought from the local distributor of The Hostel costs around $770.

In Mali, ORTM’s annual budget for soaps is $1m. It cost $600,000 to buy 20 episodes of Malian-made seriesLes Rois de Ségou, says ORTM’s Touré. Actors’ contracts are another problem.

In October, staff at Generations went on strike over pay. African television channels also use advertising to fund soaps.

“Advertisers are ready to pay anything from 200,000 CFA francs ($400) per advert every week-day for one or two years, and that’s a lot of money,” says an official at Spectrum Television in Cameroon who chose not to be named.

Some foreign series have more than 300 episodes, so one season can stretch out over a year.

“The soaps actually finance the purchase of others. It’s a sustainable business that also generates profit that can be used to pay workers and so on,” says the source.

There is a growing market for soaps in African languages, says Olivia Kipré Dadié, head of communications at Côte Ouest, one of the continent’s largest distributers of TV content.

Of the 20,000 hours of programmes in its catalogue, 3,500 are African-produced content.

“African series in ethnic languages are still a niche market, but it’s getting more and more developed. Kenya is leading the way, and in general it is the Anglo- phone countries that are looking beyond Latino telenovelas and want content that represents their culture,” she says.

“We’re sure the trend will develop in the future in the Francophone market. Producers move forward, and they’re trying to in- novate and find content that will be of interest to the population.” ●

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