Let’s say you came up with an idea for a television series in South Africa today, and pitched it to one of the broadcasters and got the go-ahead (meaning the money) to do it. The project would then be assigned a commissioning editor or channel executive to ensure that it adheres to the client’s specifications. Typically they would stay with the project from initial development to final delivery and have a big say in most of the creative decisions. As it stands now, at least in South Africa, the assigning of channel executives to projects happens with little or no input whatsoever from the originator of the show.
Why is this a problem?
Developing a television show or movie is a lot like bringing up a child. The child needs time, guidance and nurturing to grow and discover who they really are. I don’t know much about parenting, but one thing I do know is that no parent takes the process of choosing a nanny lightly. They are very careful about who they let into their child’s life, especially at such an early stage. And it’s similar with TV and film production. The executive assigned to a show is in many ways like a nanny who is assisting with bringing up the baby.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve produced both commissioned drama shows and TV-movies, and one “indie movie.” That was “Hear Me Move”, South Africa’s first dance film.
The experience I had with “Hear Me Move” was miles apart from the experience which I had on any commissioned shows. On “Hear Me Move”, we were empowered to choose who we wanted to work with on the film, every step of the way. Everything happened through a sort of interview process. When the primary funder (the National Film and Video Foundation) insisted on giving us a script editor from their fold, they gave us the option of choosing who we felt was right for the project from their long list of script editors. We ended up going with the late, great Thandi Brewer, may her soul rest in peace, because we jived well with her and she jived well with us and the project.
And it was the same thing with every HoD on the film. We interviewed them, and if they saw the vision, if they saw what we were going for, we hired them. Working on a production like that is the most incredible experience ever. When someone sees what you’re seeing, and you don’t even have to use so many words, and they come with ideas, suggestions and inputs that add to it – it’s exhilarating. There was very little interference from the funders. No creativity be committee.
The television projects were quite the opposite. On all the TV series I conceptualized and produced, I had zero input on who the commissioning editor for the project was. Let me contextualize this for you, so you understand why this is a big problem. Imagine you bring a baby into the world. Then one day, the government says that if this child is to be a citizen of the country and enjoy the privileges that come with citizenship (free housing, education and healthcare) the child will have to raised by a state-appointed nanny. The nanny comes into your house and starts bringing up YOUR child. If that nanny doesn’t share your vision and values around parenting and life in general, can you imagine what will happen to your child? There will be a constant push-pull between your values and the nanny’s values. The child’s character will end up being misshapen. They will have no clear identity, no clear values, and no clear personality.
This is a big problem with the commissioning model as it stands right now in South Africa. How long it will continue to exist, I do not know. Everything is shaky. Everything is murky. The sands are shifting. After everything’s calmed down and the dust settles and we see the new shape the TV and film industry will take in South Africa, perhaps that will create the space for a new approach to the way producers and broadcasters work together.