Passions, Isidingo crowd Zambia’s television waves
Even though it is 30 minutes before closing time, Jessy Mutale, a secretary with a Zambian legal firm, swings open the exit door of her office. Her steps are short and brisk as she scurries her way past an equally busy crowd, trying to get to the bus stop to catch a ride home as quickly as possible.
Jessy's agitated manoeuvres may well replicate how hundreds of other Zambians end their daytime activities so that they can partake in an increasingly common pastime: to watch one of the most popular soap operas, Passions, which has swept the country like a tidal wave.
The advent of foreign soaps, especially those from South Africa, has seen Zambian women, students and men alike push the political dialogues that frequent television into the back seat. While foreign films are not alien to the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), it is the arrival of Multi-Choice, cable television providers from South Africa, which has dominated the pay-channel entertainment scene in Zambia and has popularised foreign programming.
Multi-Choice Zambia, representatives of M-Net, has about 1,300 subscribers throughout Zambia. The firm's head of public relations, Fridah Mudenda, says subscriptions are increasing at 12.5 percent every year. Soap operas are most popular among women, and many follow soccer.
African Broadcasting Network (ABN) has also captured the attention of Zambian viewers. Pat Sithole, sales director at ABN, said the pan-African broadcaster recently funded research on television viewership and demographics in Zambia. Their findings revealed that over 70 percent of the respondents watch ABN's partner, ZNBC, and a full 95 percent of those viewers rated the ABN hour and its programming as top quality.
Apart from the American soap, Passions, shown daily, viewers are treated to the comedy Soul Food every Friday and the hilarious Bill Cosby on Tuesdays. This is not to forget the widely popular South African soap, Isidingo, a daily show on ZNBC TV.
But Zambians without pay TV can still watch another South African hit show, Egoli, if they tune into the one-hour free M-net channel offered in the evening. Other South African shows that have invaded local screens include the Bold and Beautiful, Sub-Urban Bliss, and Generations. Prior to this, No One But You, a Mexican show, kept Zambian audiences busy every Wednesday night in 1998 and 1999.
Apart from Multi-Choice and ABN, Zambia also boasts of an indigenous pay TV called Cable and Satellite Technologies Limited (CASAT), which specialises in American movies. CASAT also offers a sports channel, Asian channel for selected clients, and CNN for news.
William Ngoma, CASAT technical manager, defended his firm's propensity to air foreign movies, saying: "The Zambian film industry has nothing to offer, we do not have any movies that we can show on a 24-hour basis." He said CASAT is committed to helping the local movie film industry flourish "as long quality movies are produced."
Viewers complain that most of the South African and American programmes they are being subjected to are not latest. They watch them six months or a year after the film has been released in their countries of origin. Ngoma acknowledged the complaints from viewers but explained that this is standard procedure. "In the movie industry, new movies are first meant for the big screens for quite sometime, then for home use later."
The domination of programming from outside of Zambia has resulted in viewers tending to choose foreign shows over locally produced ones. For example, foreign soaps have virtually eclipsed Zambia's first soap opera, Kabanana.
Football fans shun coverage of local football matches in preference for Super Sport, the Pay TV channel that brings sport to the homes at the same time as local matches are taking place. A prominent leader in Zambia once invited journalists to watch the English FA Cup final on a day the national team was playing and the game was being covered on local television. Even after being reminded that the Zambia game was live on TV, the man ignored his guests and told everybody to enjoy the English match.
The proliferation of foreign programming has had many effects in Zambia. For example, the tendency for viewers to choose to watch foreign football matches has meant that local teams have lost revenue because of reduced gate takings. To copy what they see on foreign soap operas, young girls and women have abandoned their style of dressing in favour of leggings and what they call hip-stars, or tight pants