Digitise or go dark?: But we have been in the dark!

I walked into the living room and was horrified to find that I could not watch a telenovela directed by a friend of mine because my father was fixated on the 8 o’clock ZBC news. Now, this is not so say I hate the news. It’s just that ZBC comes with a different kind of picture and sound quality unlike other channels on our usually great quality television. My thought? Get a radio and stop putting yourself through this agony.

Zimbabwean television has baffled me for many years. Mostly because I know so many people who work in the industry. Some on channels I have never heard of. I have been to the studios for various reasons and been saddened by the state of affairs at our national and only (really!) broadcaster. The other thought that gives me sleepless nights is why in a country so full of modern day producers, television makers and talent of the one hit wonder variety, we still have such terrible viewing?4

By June 2015, Zimbabwe was set to have fully digitised its broadcasting, which is a wonderful sentiment – or is it December 2015? I can’t keep up. Already Tanzania has started, Kenya went through the dark and has been brought back to the light again and South Africa is still very much on the fence as to whether they will do it or not.

There are two main questions on my mind at this juncture. First, if as a country we have failed to upgrade our systems even while we are still in analogue broadcasting mode, how will we maintain an upgraded system? Especially given that well… Education, health – you get the point. Second, coming from a country with such poor television content, aren’t we better off just being in the dark until such a time that we have great content to show? My second question is likely from my more sarcastic nature in that my scepticism precedes all reason, but it is still my question and I stand by it. I’ll focus more on my second question, as I think the first has been exhausted.

Context: Africa

The process of digitisation has begun all over Africa. The most dramatic incident so far – in my opinion – was the nation wide shut down of Kenyan local stations as all broadcasters missed the deadline. Zimbabwe may be headed in that direction as last year it was forecast that the country needed $174 million (hopefully none of which landed up in Muchechetere’s personal account) to ensure that the process was completed by June this year (Or December?). Reports say this money was sourced – then why have we still not digitised? Sorry. Digression.

Most African countries have been broadcasting in analogue format for decades. This is a slow and painstaking process. Digitising broadcasting should in theory mean more can be broadcast in a faster, less labour consuming way – meaning more channels, as well as safe storage of programming. This is all wonderful, but where is the content going to come from?

Context: Zimbabwe

zbc-SCREENI have often found myself amused at reminiscent conversations my peers and I have around Mukadota, Paraffin, Coca cola on the beat – the three main shows I remember from my childhood in Zimbabwe. There may have been a drama in there somewhere with a stepmom poisoning her stepson thrown in for good measure. Truthfully our own local finished programs were always scattered among hours and hours of finished programs from abroad – Shaka Zulu, Santa Barbara, Dallas, all the cartoons – you know? The full ZBC bouquet. What we have now is an opportunity to get more content on air, but do we have said content?

Creating content comes with a price – investment – which so far, by the looks of the scattered sector in Zimbabwe, seems lacking. At most what I see is people with passion investing in themselves and making short clips or pilots to show the world what they can do. There are many internet tv stations with a program here or there – but again, scattered.

Producers, directors, broadcasters, sales executives, visual creatives, research departments, actors, wardrobe and make-up, line producers, drivers, camera crews – they walk among us. From the beginning of a show to the end of it, months of preparation go into making sure that every detail is exactly as it should be. Every line is said as it should be. Every eyebrow is combed in the direction of the show. And yet looking at Zimbabwean viewing one would not think this in the least.

In this breakdown there is no reel show of where good quality, locally made finished programming or brand new formats will come from – in the quantity that is required to populate entire television channels. In this light, I would like to know: Will digitisation just mean that we are now looking to get more finished programming from abroad (as we have done anyway)? We barely have enough locally made shows worth watching right now. My concern is this. We have never really invested in the television industry in Zimbabwe. We struggle to populate one channel, how will we populate 8, 10, 20?3

Television or no television Zimbabwe…

Suggestions? Personally I feel that Zimbabwe should put a little more time, effort and money into developing well finished products. Things that can be sold to other channels that will show where there are people who will understand the content. We cannot ask people to purchase set top boxes for the total quality of half-finished end products.

Quality builds following.

With so many artists in Zimbabwe who are television inclined, how is there no push or movement to gain from it all? We need to start seeing television as a business, one that will lead to revenue. And until this can be shown in our programming, we should not even bother with the digitisation.

This is not to say of course that there is not good quality viewing being produced by Zimbabweans. With the likes of Nafuna, Zambezi News, TV Yangu, P.O. Box and other local production companies something is happening. My only concern is that without full buy in, it will be pointless. Asking people to pay for television when there is nothing to offer is unfair. I also feel like it is taking advantage of there being no real choice.

It is time we woke up from the shadows of our patriotism or our fond memories to face the reality that more needs to be done. It is time there was a concerted, joint effort to make sure that this happens. Furthermore, there should me more effort in creating programming that is interesting for anyone to watch and not just the limited confines of Zimbabweans – much as this is great, television is creative, art, it should transcend boarders. We need to move away from the confines of our memories of what was and create what is and can be.

1As a small confession, I stopped watching ZBC over a decade ago, and will still not be brought to watch it now because I am almost always certain I will find it lacking somewhere. I also work in the television industry and therefore may use a different lenses when I watch programs.

These are entirely my own views and as always are open to debate- if there are corrections to be made, please do not hesitate to educate me wider and share your links to Zimbabwean television.

Shau Mudekunye

Shau Mudekunye
Shau Mudekunye

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