I am sitting cross-legged in my sitting room, staring at my blank television screen. It is blank because I have refused to switch it on. Television is very important to me (has been for a long time) and I cannot understand why some people will refer to it as the ‘idiot’s box’. Unlike those who insist that too much television (how do you define ‘too much’?) lowers ones IQ and turns you into a couch potato, I consume the contents of the box with reckless abandon, so much so that it is a personal tragedy for me if I am unable to watch my favourite programmes. This is one of those tragic moments: I have refused to switch on my television set because my DSTV subscription has expired and I will not subject myself to the harrowing experience of viewing the content of Nigerian television.
Harrowing experience? Actually, that’s putting it rather mildly. It is more like intentionally sniffing at the content of a septic tank and being nauseated to the depth of your soul. AIT’s core content consist largely of covering political rallies, weddings, funerals and whatever else the high and mighty in the society are up to. If you pay, AIT will cover and broadcast your dog delivering puppies or you changing your tyres live. This is after going to the stock market and raising over N12bn. MITV may as well be re-christened as the Nigerian arm of a South African television station as they now broadcast more South African programmes than Nigerian programmes. There must be a spot at Ojuelegba bus-stop where Galaxy Television picks its presenters. TVC is allegedly owned by former Governor of Lagos, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, and it bears the marks of the propaganda arm of ACN rather than a station interested in proper programming. LTV is locked in a civil service quagmire; on one hand you can see its constant attempts to create an environment where proper programming can flourish; on the other hand, it is a government-owned station and therefore must programme carefully. Now, STV is an interesting conundrum. Ben Bruce and his brothers come across as intelligent, open-minded and well-travelled folks. They own cinemas and radio stations across the land and have been significant players in the entertainment sector for decades. Yet, their television station is one of the most poorly programmed you’ll ever see! STV’s programmes are largely ancient episodes of popular series merged with mishmash of poorly made local copies. If you didn’t know that the Bruces owned STV, you will never have been able to guess, which is telling in many ways. Let’s not forget that, as DG of the NTA, Ben Bruce allegedly got about N11bn from government and did not spend a dime on programming. Rather, he opened new NTA stations everywhere he could find available parcels of land and subsequently left the stations with little or nothing to broadcast. NTA? I will say nothing about NTA’s programming…I can’t find the words.
How did we get to this deplorable state, seeing that we actually have a long history of great local content programming? It is a long story; a long and quite interesting one. I grew up depending largely on the NTA for entertainment and they did not disappoint. Amongst many other things, you were sure of four nights of drama every week. To put this is context: Cock Crow at Dawn, Village Headmaster, The New Masquerade, Samanja, Ichoku, and many more were classics produced and funded by the NTA. The NTA flourished under Peter Igho as Director of Programmes. Lola Fani-Kayode’s Mirror in the Sun, which was an independent idea, was equally funded by the NTA. Then, in the early 90s, the tides began to change and cookies started crumbling. Someone in the management of the NTA wondered why they should keep spending huge amounts of money making programmes when they could actually start selling ‘airtime’. Not satisfied with this, they moved on to buying cheap South-American telenovellas (The Rich Also Cry, Secrets of the Sand etc). Indigenous classics like Amaka Igwe’s Checkmate were forced to round off their stories and shut down as NTA doubled their airtime prices and forced out indigenous producers. Please note that selling airtime is illegal, according to the Nigerian broadcast code, as set by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). Where the NTA had been at the forefront of funding and producing great local content, it now sat back and collected money from the sale of ‘airtime’ and profits that were rolling in from adverts placed on the South American telenovellas by the likes of Lever Brothers, PZ, UACN and others. The producer became the consumer, and things fell apart.
By the time private television stations came on board, they simply carried on from where their elders stopped, and we are basking in our shameless glory as a nation who produced more quality television programmes when stations resumed broadcast at 4pm than now when they run 24hr broadcasts. They all sit back and wait for independent producers to go do all the work and come to them to buy airtime to broadcast their programmes. I am currently working with a friend who is about to start a talk show on television. We have gone around looking at studios, talking to production companies and looking for ways to engage agencies for advert placement. Ordinarily, she should not have to do any of this. She simply would have approached any of the networks who would have looked at her concept and bought into it, or not, depending on its viability. If they liked it, they would have provided all that is needed to get the show produced and even done the marketing. They would have also paid her. This is how the many series we have come to love; 24, Prison Break, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, Project Runway, American Idol and many more came to be through FOX, ABC, NBC, PBO, Universal and others. This is what is obtained almost anywhere else on the planet. This was also the case in Nigeria a little over twenty years ago, before some people at NTA became greedy and set our nation on a creativity endangering course, and we have not been able to redress the situation in over two decades.
If at this point you think that what you have read so far is a sad reminder of how wasteful and utterly irresponsible we can be as a country, continuously throwing away every good thing we ever managed to create (think cocoa, groundnut pyramids, rubber plantations…), well you are truly mistaken: this is merely a tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are many more reasons why we will have crap on Nigerian Television for a long time to come. A few questions need to be answered: What role has the advertising industry played in the killing of quality programmes on Nigerian Television? Why is the NBC seemingly incapable of stamping its feet and ensuring that television stations adhere to the Nigerian broadcast code? Why is it practically impossible to put real quality on Nigerian television today? Why is MNET the only network buying local content today? Why is it irresponsible of anyone to expect a Nigerian production company to fund a television drama of the quality of Jacob’s Cross? Why have our airwaves been flooded with reality shows, yet we only get the poor cousins of international brands? Why should we expect any change anytime soon, unless something drastic happens?
Till next time…
This article was originally written for Nigeria Entertainment Today.