Article by Fred Mbogo
Published October 8, 2008
Any one who hopes to interrogate, analyse or discuss Kenyan television productions of any genre must begin with the question of whether, indeed, there is a vibrant television production industry in the country, FRED MBOGO contends.
Local productions have a variety of genres ranging from documentaries, to television
plays, game shows, advertisements, soaps and ‘news’ if one may consider them as a
form of deliberate enumeration.
The most successful of the mainstream genres within Kenyan television include some television plays and soaps as well as the ever-enterprising advertisements.
Television soaps such as Tushauriane and Tausi as well as Usiniharakishe have proved popular with viewers as is Vioja Mahakamani, the most popular of all television plays.
‘News’ as a genre is in itself popular as it offers a collection of the events of the day, yet since the advent of a multiple number of television channels there has been a refreshing introduction of elements within news productions that provide entertainment. KTN’s ‘News Shot’, ‘Kukuru Kakara Za Kisiasa’, ‘Kikwetu’ as well as NTV’s ‘Bull’s Eye’ and ‘Kukanganyana’ are prime examples of entertainment within news. Other channels including KBC, have followed suit with a recapturing of historical events in ‘memorable moments.’
The competition between the various channels can be said to have introduced a variety of presentation modes that are geared towards both informing and entertaining. Foremost in this area is the spontaneity evident in Kiswahili news anchor Swaleh Mdoe whose breaks from the main issues of the day in the news bulletins always comes with unscripted anecdotes replete with knowing looks and gestures.
But does the popularity of ‘News’ productions not perhaps blind us from the real questions bedeviling other genres of television production? Doesn’t that popularity actually invite us to the realisation that there is indeed an overwhelming hunger or
thirst for our own stories as Kenyans? That is to suggest that ‘News’ has become the production from where the local ‘story-teller’ (newscaster) prominently sells his ‘artistry’ (events of the day). Yet ‘News’ in its quest to be objective, truthful, and fresh cannot be relied upon to effectively satisfy the viewer’s quest for artistry. Storylines within ‘news’ cannot be loaded deliberately with logical causes and effects, the beauty of character development, costume and set design, and a colourful interplay of lights. The fact that ‘news’ is the most watched of all local productions in Kenyan Television should be instrumental to artists involved in other genres. Perhaps the greatest reason for the success of ‘news’ is its vitality.
Audiences find the news production a vital part of their life. How then can artists in other genres cultivate a vitality of their own which would turn their programmes into success stories?
A poignant reason advanced by many players in the television industry for the failure of productions is the lack of funding. Television production is an expensive affair when one considers the personnel required besides all the instruments and time factor. However, if one pursues the argument that ‘news’ survives as a result of the assurance that advertisers have on its consistency within the realm of vitality, then other programmes can follow suit and learn from news’ tricks.
Some production houses that concentrate in the production of advertisements have through the crafting of entertaining products created a ‘need’ within viewers for their products –the advertised and the advertisement.
At the same time, one might say that some of the longstanding Kenyan Television plays and dramatic productions have satisfied a certain ‘need’ to know within their audience. Take Vioja Mahakamani for instance, and its range of questions hinged on the law and aspects of its interpretation that it constantly supplies. These concerns within the programme are geared to strike a cord with the everyday activities of a Kenyan hence an aspect of vitality in its freshness is always maintained. Sponsors and advertisers on the other hand respond to the vitality created by the artists.
Vioja Mahakamani on that strength is therefore able to be sustainable as a result of the funding from satisfied advertisers and sponsors.
The Kenyan television industry lacks enough programmes that can sustain the interest of its viewers. Although the industry should not be dismissed wholesomely as incompetent or unworthy, there is need for the growth of a wider pool of professionals within the industry. Currently, many of the professionals who are trained in a small portion of how the industry should run, are involved in the production within all fields, some of which they simply apply a trial and error approach. There is also a lack of formidable training school in Kenya, which comprehensively covers the various elements of television production to perfection.
For while there are schools that cover particular aspects of production such as camera work, screen-writing, editing and design, their competence may be compromised in one area or another. In any case, such good schools are too few compared to the great demand for training that results from the rate of mushrooming television stations. Should thence these stations, which are hungry for professionally trained personnel, take it upon
themselves to train the potential personnel? That would only depend on their capacity to employ competent trainers. And with competent trainers leaving schools for television stations, would there be hope for quality learning that is not simply geared to satisfy the profit motive of these stations?
The bottom line, however, is whether television viewers in Kenya are currently well catered for. Programme line-ups are littered with foreign programmes where local productions are pushed to the periphery. In some stations, especially the religious ones, the ratio could be as high as 98:2 in favor of the foreign programmes. While viewers often times tolerate and even enjoy foreign programmes, there is no telling whether viewers from all classes are in agreement with the current setting.
Considering the language factor, there is a gulf that displays itself between the programmes and the viewers whose normal everyday language is Kiswahili, Sheng or
any one of the more than 42 other tongues spoken in Kenya. Because of the language question, a certain class of viewers whose everyday language is English since for them the language is vital in their circle of influence, are the only ones that can watch some of the foreign programmes.
The greatest irony was however in the revelations by KBC’s research team a few years ago that America’s The Bold and The Beautiful is the most watched programme by the viewers of the national broadcaster. Does this explain the reasons for the current wave of popularity of Mexican soaps on KTN, Citizen TV, NTV, KBC? Could the interest they have aroused be employed be studied by local producers and be emulated?