The Rest of Africa, Televised
Plays, movies, soaps, news shows created by Africans can counter the stream of bad news about the continent, Africa Channel executives tell UCLA audience.
Published: Monday, December 12, 2005
All of us who've spent a lot of time [in Africa] leave off profoundly affected by the experiential side of our time in Africa. It's the light, it's the color, it's the music, it's the smells. Everything is just heightened.
The Africa Channel, a cable television network offering news, entertainment, and educational programming, launched on Cox Communications in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., on Sept. 1, two days after Lake Pontchartrain began flowing into New Orleans through protective levees that ruptured in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Whatever else may be said about the timing—and company co-founder and President Jacob Arback likes to think that the channel brought a little joy into the U.S. Gulf region—Katrina's aftermath was yet another moment to reflect on how sorely Americans need to see and hear something different about Africa. When Africa was mentioned at all on major U.S. television networks in the days after the breach of the levees, it was cited, sometimes with racial overtones, as the proper setting for typhoid, cholera, "internally displaced persons," and governmental negligence amid disaster.
At the invitation of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center, Arback and Africa Channel Executive Vice President and General Manager Bob Reid spoke to a UCLA audience Dec. 9 about their desire to introduce Africa's many positive sides to television viewers throughout the United States and perhaps beyond. The all-English channel offers regional music, theater, movies, soap operas, news, an investigative news magazine called "Carte Blanche Africa," business analysis, and travel and educational shows. According to Reid, the network will look at civil war, corruption, disease, and famine, "but on our network it's in context"—especially the context of "the search for solutions."
According to Arback and Reid, the North Hollywood–based network has reached terms with a second major cable provider to broadcast in "a number of major [media] markets." With general entertainment fare, the network seeks to attract adult viewers aged 25 to 54 years and African Americans. Arback and Reid also said that they want to give African expatriates a place to send their co-workers and American friends for basic cultural instruction.
Those who think of Africa as a tragedy riding a continental plate do not merely have a distorted view of the place; Arback suggested that they miss it entirely. He spent part of his career in satellite and pay television in the Middle East and North Africa.
"All of us who've spent a lot of time [in Africa] leave off profoundly affected by the experiential side of our time in Africa. It's the light, it's the color, it's the music, it's the smells. Everything is just heightened. There's just a little more life involved."
Arback drew an analogy with cable's ESPN, which has been described as a network that sells not sports, but "the experience of being a fan." The network's gamble is that experiences related by and for Africans from Egypt to the south and west will have a similar appeal. In order to acquaint American viewers with cultural concepts and basic historical facts, the network throws in "pop-up" texts and other guides.
In an effort to communicate authentic experiences, Reid said, the Africa Channel does not "take African voices out of programming." Accents stay, and French and other foreign-language movies get subtitles, not dubbing.
Most of the current programming comes from South Africa. Company officials have begun to cultivate new programming from other parts of Africa, an effort they expect to push after establishing a strong U.S. revenue base.
"It's going to take years for us to do this right," said Reid in response to a question on the network's long-range plans.