The Architects Of A Shit Box (And Possibly The Apocalypse)

4 May

It is widely believed, and practiced (in nations where such things are given their due) that television is a writer’s medium. The argument states that film is a director’s medium, thus the auteurs who made their names with effective, personal, groundbreaking films are regarded in higher esteem than the writers. In notable television (not made or commissioned in South Africa,) writers are the cornerstone of the success and critical regard that a TV show holds. Television, for the most part, was viewed for years as an ineffectual alternative to film because it was treated by those who ruled the airwaves as nothing more than a showcase for chat show hosts and comedians and a dumping ground for cheap drama/action/romance shows that treated its audience as if they were as dumb as the broadcasters themselves. Well, that and advertising sales.

The 1990s saw the rise of serious television that began to rival films for the dominance of the audiences’ interests. The growth of intellectually stimulating, yet still entertaining television began a little earlier with genre shows pushing the boundaries of what their genres could be. This led to other shows whose starting points were the very limits set by their predecessors. There could be no “Homicide: Life on the Street” without “NYPD Blue” which would not exist without “Hill Street Blues” for example.  Cable channels in the United States, like HBO, ShowTime and AMC to name a few, moved the medium from censored, commercial, family friendly viewing, to something more akin to a cinematic experience. This was the result of writers being respected enough by broadcasters to bring original, daring visions to the small screen. They were, of course, assisted by brilliant directors (some were big names already, e.g. Walter Hill directing the pilot episode of “Deadwood”), but the mandate was different from the film world. It was the directors who served the writer’s vision instead of the other way around.  That is why we know the names of show creators and runners and look forward to their future projects, much like we look forward to a director’s next film.

This model of success and progress has expanded throughout the world, and it seems as if more and more nations with the capabilities to make “good” television are indeed making a concerted effort to do so. Why aren’t we? South Africa has proven time and time again that we have the technical expertise to make television worth watching for an audience reared on award-winning shows from other countries. Numerous local TV shows look just as good as British imports and even a few cheap American productions. There is no shortage of local writing talent, as one can see from our fiction writers, journalists and playwrights. Why then are we producing either badly written, (false) guilt-provoking, government mandated PC tripe or socially inoffensive but offensively bad, non-shows?

The problem does not lie with those hired, but those who hire them. South African broadcasters annually put out briefs of the shows they believe should be on the air. The ones who decide what should be on the air are bureaucrats and lackeys who shuffle noisily into jobs that they are neither qualified nor suited for. They, this lucky few, then come together to form a “Content Hub” and pitch ideas to each other. Out of this meeting (Jesus Christ, imagine being a fly on that wall) emerges the yearly brief. To give you an example of the level of understanding that these people have of the medium of Television, I once read a brief which stated that the broadcaster needed a gritty small-town police drama in the vein of “Picket Fences” or “7th Heaven”. Anyone with the most remote experience of watching either gritty police dramas or the two aforementioned shows should now be laughing their asses off before shitting their shorts.

These “ideas” are then given to the lowest bidder (in a sense; they call it commissioning, but it’s all about the cash, baby) who is usually a production company with such budgetary restraints that the job becomes all about completion: Do it fast, don’t do it good, because no-one cares. How can a writer grow an idea from this? Not only is the brief flawed, but to argue with a South African commissioning editor is comparable to offering money to a shark in exchange for your life. The personalities of the ancient gods become manifested in the souls of these insignificant little politicos: vengeful, jealous, childish, desperate for awe, but compromising for existence-influencing fear. And like all oppressive societies, these servants of the state/broadcaster/power-mad master will not tolerate ideas that might cause a change in thought, no matter how small.

In an environment such as this, television that is truly worth watching cannot exist. Neither can any other form of art (which is what television can be. “The Sopranos”, “The Wire”, “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” are evidence of this.) This is perhaps why our film industry suffers from a lack of true cinema. I’ll save that argument for another time, though.

To conclude, I will recount an incident which made me depressed to work in the South African entertainment industry. I was attending an industry party (you should see these little shindigs, dear reader) and I found myself in a conversation with a commissioning editor who worked for M-Net, a pay channel that is “on the forefront of the television industry.” The woman was eagerly telling me about an idea she had for a new drama. As a frequently unemployed writer, I asked who she would want as head writer of the series.

“Oh, I’ll just ask a production assistant to do it,” she responded with a smile.

Now, how can “Lost”, “The Shield”, “Prime Suspect” or “Arrested Development” to name a few, ever come out of an industry with morons like that deciding what you should watch?

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2 Responses to “The Architects Of A Shit Box (And Possibly The Apocalypse)”

  1. frank May 9, 2011 at 12:33 #

    I concur, the state of the South African television and film industry is a joke, we have been fed for so long on soap opera & kak film bullshit that the public have become like sheep. I mean ”poena is koning” is a hit in this country which to me…sums it up!
    The last good show i briefly saw was Hopeville, which was thought out, with good acting and to my surprise no 7de laan stares into the abyss after a line! Why the hell can’t we make a show like The walking dead dammit!

    • Uncle Loo May 9, 2011 at 13:17 #

      I agree, Frank. I just got into the “The Walking Dead”. Terrific show. The pilot episode is one of the most nerve shredding two hours of television I have ever seen.

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