Watching Africa from the inside
New cable channels offer view of diverse continent through Africans’ eyes.
Mention “Africa” and you’re apt to trigger a litany of associations: poverty, war, starvation, AIDS – maybe a tousled but still lovely Angelina Jolie. Western views of Africa are shaped by a tight range of media images, whether nature documentary, breaking news, or quick-cut coverage of celebrity good deeds.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, one cable television station wants to fundamentally reshape those perceptions. The Africa Channel, which debuted on the Time Warner Cable Network in Los Angeles in July and became available in New York last week, aggregates a broad range of English-language TV shows from across Africa and packages them for American audiences. The channel’s varied mix of soap operas, reality television, documentaries, feature films, news, music videos, and talk shows certainly doesn’t shy away from Africa’s many troubles. But it also presents a more nuanced understanding of everyday life in Africa’s 53 countries by allowing Africans to tell their own stories. Overall, the channel aims to shine a light on the “dark continent.”
“What we’re trying to do here is showcase Africa as not just a basket case, but a place of hope, [and] also an incredible opportunity,” says James Makawa, the channel’s cofounder, gesticulating passionately. “The deeper mission here is not just about entertaining people – which is very important – but informing people.”
Sitting in a conference room inside the channel’s frugal North Hollywood offices – the decorations are unframed posters of African pop stars such as the Mahotella Queens – Mr. Makawa underscores his point by pulling up a live TV broadcast on his laptop. The channel is playing a Robbie Malinga music video in which a white South African girl is flirting her way through a market in Soweto.
“We all know what South Africa was,” says Makawa, a dapper Zimbabwean who holds direct eye contact through his tortoiseshell glasses. “But here’s a young black guy in a township having an incredible relationship with ‘Susana,’ as the song is titled. It’s hopefully showcasing Africa in its trueform. Its color. Its vibrancy."
Even soap operas such as "Isidingo" and "Generations," which feature the sort of back-stabbing, bed-hopping, and bad acting one expects from a daytime series on US TV, deal with African issues such as polygamy and the urbanization of women.
For more in-depth coverage of the continent's evolving dynamics, you'd have to tune into programs such as Makawa's exclusive sit-down interview with Zimbabwe's embattled prime minister, Robert Mugabe, or "Africa Journal," a weekly news program produced by Reuters out of Nairobi, Kenya. A daily newscast is in the works for 2009. The channel's mandate: avoid sensationalism and provide an African perspective.
Similarly strict standards govern the channel's entertainment programming, which accounts for about 80 percent of its lineup.
Standing in an editing bay that looks as complex as an air-traffic control desk, the network's general manager, Bob Reid, says the channel rejects programs that reinforce stereotypes about Africa. Shows are also edited to be family-friendly (just as well when it comes to Africa's edition of "Big Brother") and the editors also insert pop-up boxes that explain slang terms and metric conversions. The final part of postproduction is creating a unified look and feel to the shows by adding the channel's logo and design. But the channel doesn't try to Americanize the shows, stresses Mr. Reid, an Emmy Award-winner who once headed up the Discovery Health channel.