Saturday, January 22, 2011


Swazi newspapers are getting their knickers in a twist because the television ‘reality show’ Big Brother Africa 6 (BBA6) won’t be auditioning for contestants in Swaziland.

But why are they surprised? Swaziland was excluded from the previous five series of BBA, so nothing’s different now.

In last year’s (2010) series (BBA5) 14 ‘housemates’ were put together in a house, locked away from the world, and had cameras following them for 24 hours a day for three months.

The point of the game is that viewers are asked from time to time to nominate one of the housemates for eviction from the house. This goes on until everybody except one person is voted off and that person is declared the winner. The winner gets to go away with US$ 200,000 (about E1.4 million).

Swazis are not invited to audition for a place in the house because not enough people in the kingdom subscribe to DSTV, the satellite television company that broadcasts Big Brother. And Swazi people are just too poor (seven in ten earn less than US$1 a day) to be attractive to advertisers.

BBA6 that starts in May 2011will be the sixth year that Big Brother Africa has been broadcast, but the programme format has been around since the 1990s when it started in the Netherlands. Local versions of the programme have been broadcast around the world since. In its day it was one of the most successful programme formats in the history of television, but in many countries it has past its ‘sell-by’ date and has been dropped.

Back in the 1990s, the programme makers made all kinds of claims for Big Brother. They said it was a social experiment to see how people would react to living so closely to one another without a break and for such a long period. Sociologists and psychologists rushed to praise the programme for its intellectual insights.

Nobody seriously says that kind of thing now. It didn’t take too long before the truth came out. The reality of this ‘reality television’ programme was money. That’s why it took more than a decade to reach Africa – there’s not much money in the continent.

Here’s how it works. The BBA6 programme makers want 14 contestants from across Africa. Instead of auditioning people across the continent and taking the best people they can find they will only look in Africa’s richer nations. That’s why they won’t bother to come to Swaziland.

BBA6 will choose no more than one person from any single country so they can spread the interest in the programme around the continent. Countries to be represented include Angola, Botswana, Kenya and South Africa.

Big Brother is targeted at a very particular audience of young people. To be attractive to sponsors and advertisers the audience need to be in well paying jobs and have money to spend on the goods and services advertisers want to sell.

Advertisers who use television have trouble reaching younger adults, so Big Brother is always aimed specifically at these kinds of people. The programme wants the audience to relate to the participants so they chose men and women to take part who come from a very narrow social demographic.

Usually the housemates are aged in their twenties. They don’t have run-of-the-mill jobs in the real world. In BBA5 contestants had jobs such as ‘radio DJ’, ‘business owner’, ‘radio producer’, ‘events coordinator’, ‘film maker and actor’, ‘musician and broadcaster’, ‘writer, director and actor’, ‘actress, musician and model’. This range of occupations is hardly typical of the average African.

Even though the Swazi people are too poor to be attractive to the programme makers they are being exploited for some of their cash.

MTN, the only cell phone company in Swaziland, sponsors the programme and rakes in the cash by encouraging viewers to send SMS messages to the programme. You also need a cell phone to be able to cast your vote to evict a housemate.

A spokeswoman for DSTV in Swaziland tried to divert attention away from the real cause of Swaziland’s exclusion by saying that some viewers in the kingdom illegally got their service from neighbouring South Africa and this made it look like fewer people in Swaziland were DSTV viewers. This, she claimed, was the reason why Swaziland was not to be represented in BBA6.

According to a report in the Swazi Observer, the newspaper in effect owned and edited by King Mswati III, the spokeswoman even went so far as to urged viewers to ‘demonstrate patriotism’ by taking the DSTV service from Swaziland, rather than from South Africa.

What she didn’t say was that people take the South African service because it broadcasts more live English Premier League football matches that its Swazi counterpart. It’s nothing to do with ‘patriotism’ or BBA.

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