They are the new craze in towns across the continent, keeping audiences glued to their television screens to see what will be the fate of their favourite candidates.
From music, business, cooking, survival instincts or just testing an individual’s ability to tolerate others in enclosed quarters, reality shows are coming in all manners and under all banners.
And they promise stardom, with multimillion dollar recording contracts besides the sometimes mind-boggling prize money. This is more than enough to bring out the raw competitive trait of the human nature with the candidates, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, fighting it out in thrilling contests.
What few viewers realise is the fact that these programmes were hatched by marketing gurus in Europe and America as a way of connecting companies to their clientele through entertainment. They were designed to kill two birds with one stone, by enhancing brand equity through corporate social responsibility.
Besides this, the alliance between the sponsors and telecommunications companies brings in huge sums of money from the text messaging system that viewers use to select the winners.
But whatever the motives behind the mushrooming of these programmes in Africa, they have managed to achieve in a few years what political philosophies have failed to do in a very long time - by creating a movement of Pan-African viewers.
This explains why very few take note when Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi spends hours talking about his united states of Africa dream, but when evicted Ghanaian housemate Wayoe shouts “Africa must unite!”, millions of youths across the continent pay attention.
Through a stage-managed combination of glamour and drama, reality shows are reinforcing cross-national unity and integration, not only through the multinational coterie of contestants and real time viewing, but also by engaging the audience in a continental voting system.
“There is an integrating aspect to television,” says David Mafabi, director of political affairs at the moribund Uganda-based secretariat of the Pan-African Movement. “Shows like these may be superficial, but they show Africa coming together in a way that’s often ahead of governments.”
The contestants, through their mass appeal and celebrity status, evoke patriotism and reinforce national unity in a way that surpasses politics. During his homecoming after an eventful sojourn in the Big Brother House, Ugandan Gaetano Kaggwa, crowned the ‘People’s Prince’ by adoring fans, was received at Entebbe Airport by a crowd so huge that the country’s leadership felt uneasy.
“Where was Gaetano and Big Brother before South Africa was cleaned of the bad regime?” President Yoweri Museveni wondered.
Most of these shows are beamed through the exclusive pay TV, a luxury affordable to a class of few on this continent where hunger is a constant guest.
Although millions of Africans watch television in communal settings, estimates claim that fewer than 8 per cent own sets. But thanks to M-Net, which has over 1.5 million subscribers distributed unequally in more than 40 countries, the number of people with access to satellite television in the continent is growing by around 10 per cent a year.
The few that are broadcast through free-to-air channels always prove to be a hit with the national or regional audiences, a fact proved by the huge amounts of money television stations cough up for broadcasting rights.
However, the money is recouped handsomely through brand equity and advertising.
What makes reality shows so captivating is the constant conflict among the competitors, manifested in daily squabbles over mundane items in the houses where they are made to live together.
“I wish the housemates would talk about real issues. Given that Big Brother Africa is being watched by people all over Africa, they shouldn’t be arguing over eggs,” Comments Hleziwe Hara, a Malawian, on an incident where housemates were quarrelling over how many eggs an individual should be allowed to eat.
Although sometimes these wrangling leave the crowd of multinational housemates deeply divided, the fact that it’s played in millions of homes has managed to create a strong cultural force. Football is the only television content that has managed to do this before.
Critics say the contestants in reality shows are not a true reflection of the ordinary African youth since most are middle-class, hip-hop lovers with alien accents, projecting Western ideas.
“They are getting people (as contestants) who watch the show already, not someone from a shack in Kampala,” complains Doug Mitchell, a lecturer in television at South Africa’s Rhodes University.
This fact was given credibility by an incident in the maiden show of Big Brother Africa when Zein Dudha, the Malawian housemate, was loudly condemned by his fellow countrymen as being unrepresentative of the country’s ordinary youth, after he failed to sing the national anthem in Chichewa, Malawi’s street lingua franca.
However, despite these kinds of misgivings, reality shows could just be the key to the missing link in the quest for African unity and integration that the post-independence generation of political leaders spent millions of taxpayer’s money in conferences, committees and secretariats trying to achieve.
“The programme is serving to break down misconceptions and stereotyping. There’s a perception in the rest of Africa that Nigerians are less than honest, that South Africans are arrogant. I think our show challenges those views.” reiterates Carl Fischer, M-Net director of local productions.
Besides creating an ideal platform for cultural integration, reality television shows have opened a new channel through which society can articulate issues and bring to the limelight the human side of the so-called celebrities.
Tender Mavundla, a contestant in one edition of M-NET Idols, rocked the showbiz world two years ago when she confessed her HIV status before millions of astonished viewers.
“I do have HIV, but that does not make me any different from someone with cancer or a diabetic. I feel normal and don’t want people’s pity. I’ve got a good voice and would like to use it to bring pleasure to others.”
Though the 26-year-old shop attendant from Durban didn’t win ultimate the ultimate prize, her confession was a great boost towards the fight against stigma and discrimination, which is associated with the disease in Africa
Reality television has greatly reinforced the rapid growth of celebrity culture since its a perfect launching pad for those with interest in showbiz. Due to the huge amount of limelight accorded these programmes by the sponsors, media and the public, winning is no longer the objective for some of the contestants.
Just being a participant can sometimes land one a lucrative contract in a mainstream radio or television station as a presenter, besides the occasional invitations to preside over functions.
Watching the life of contestants in the ongoing Tusker Project Fame III, one gets a glimpse of the reason why every youth in town craves playing guest in the mystery house in Ruaraka. Ferried around by chaufer-driven executive Hummers and flanked by mean-looking musclemen in black suits, these wannabe divas and divos move around signing autographs, greeting fans and giving interviews on FM stations.
Add to this the Sh5 million prize and a lucrative recording contract with Gallo Records that’s up for grabs and you have just what you need to attract the best talent, not to mention long queues of fame and fortune hunters at the auditions.
But to give credit where its due, shows like Tusker Project Fame have managed, in just three years of existence, to culturally connect and unite the regional population in a way the East African Community could never have achieved.
Gaetano and Cherise Makubale have managed to build careers in the media from their exploits in the pioneer Big Brother Africa show.
Other notable public personalities that have reality shows to thank for their rise include Sanaipei Tande, Karen Lucas and Didge from Kenya, Blu3 music group from Uganda and Prave, Wutah and Dakolo from West Africa.
Although some winners of these music talent shows go on to build successful careers, none has ever scaled the heights of the continent’s greats like Lucky Dube, Papa Wemba, Brenda Fassie or Fela Kuti. This and the fact that most of the ‘stars’ turn out to be one hit wonders struggling to remain in the limelight a few years on, shows how fragile synthetic fame can be.
Reality television generates as much controversy as interest. Given the huge amount of money at stake, the competition is often cutthroat, which could inspire conspiracy among contestants, who agree to vote against those colleagues they perceive as a threat to winning the prize.
However, the incident that took place during the filming of Big Brother II in 2007 remains the biggest blotch in the history of African reality television.
In what many critics described as scenes straight from a hardcore porn script, the purportedly married 24-year-old Tanzanian Richard and two female housemates got drunk one Saturday afternoon and engaged in bedroom antics under the glare of rolling cameras.
The man was accused of sexual exploitation, but the charges were withdrawn after a legal body viewed the video footage and declared the sex scenes “consensual”.
And in what many observers termed an endorsement of debauchery and lose morals, the African public voted Richard for the $100,000 prize.
In Nigeria, the authorities and feminine lobby groups threatened all manner of action in defence of Offunneka, one of the female housemates involved in the incident.
The Nigerian House of Representatives ordered the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to discontinue the programme because of what it termed as “the abuse of a Nigerian in public”. Ironically, besides being the country with the highest number of reality shows in Africa, Nigeria has one of the biggest Big Brother fan base on the continent.
But perhaps the most challenging reality show is Apprentice Africa. Modelled around the original Apprentice created by Donald Trump three years ago, the show is considered an intensive 16-week job interview where the 18 apprentices from Africa and the Diaspora are given tasks on which they are assessed.
The winner gets the coveted corporate job, a brand new car and a $200,000 annual salary plus other perks. Indeed, the popularity of these reality programmes is a clear indicator that entertainment, rather than politics and utopian philosophies, is the key to finding a common agenda for the continent.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.