Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ISIDINGO. As South Africa's saddest soap keeps taking knocks, SABC3's Endemol produced former flagship TV soap strives towards a new horizon.

With ongoing unhappiness and a reported depressing atmosphere behind the scenes for months now hanging over Endemol South Africa's Isidingo, the once flagship SABC3 TV soap is desperately seeking not just stabilisation of on-air talent and backstage crew, but yearning for renewed buzz and viewers' interest.

Trying to turn the once great, now troubled Isidingo around and ring in a "new horizon" is however easier said than done at the struggling soap.

Isidingo continues to make news month after month not for its stories (unless its a misfired ripped-from-the-headlines and badly executed shooting death story mirroring the real-life Oscar Pistorius saga) but the exodus of longtime talent who keep leaving the show.

Speaking to current and former Isidingo talent over the past two months, I'm told "many are unhappy", that "for a long time it's not how it once was" and that Isidingo is "running on fumes".

Sivan Pillay, the managing director of Endemol SA has a differing opinion and told TV with Thinus that "the mood at Isidingo with a new creative writing team headed up by Rowan Dickson and the production being managed by Pumla Hopa and Leo Phiri has been incredibly exciting".

In reality it's been an extremely difficult past two years for Isidingo.

Actors forced to spout lines in controversial Standard Bank and Gumtree product placements, major creative differences and clashes over the creative direction behind the scenes (which saw multiple changes in quick succession in writing staff in 2013), and a major ongoing exodus of on-screen talent in 2013 and 2014 are indicative of what many say reflect the pervasive negative mood hanging over Isidingo behind the scenes.

Former Isidingo actors and other talent who've left the show over just the course of the last year speak with extreme disappointment about the local weekday soap they once called home and that they say stopped feeling like a family a long time ago.

Longtime famous Isidingo faces like Michelle Botes who for instance portrayed iconic Cherel de Villiers Haines are blatantly open about the fact that they won't "ever" return to the soap, while actors like Jay Antsey and Letoya Mangezi tried to say as little as possible over the bad experience of unexpectedly being dumped from the show.

Isidingo actors like Vusi Kunene left for what they perceive as better paying, better profile roles on better run shows - an exodus of talent which has an even more demoralising effect on those left behind at the soap.

Then there's the embarrassment within the industry that Isidingo is constantly being beaten in the ratings by American soaps The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of Our Lives which both have higher viewership figures on SABC3 than Isidingo.

Meanwhile local soaps like Generations, Muvhango, Isibaya and Scandal! remain the number one shows and soaps in terms of viewership on their respective TV channels.

Ashish Gangapersad became the latest longtime Isidingo star who suddenly left recently - and he definitely didn't leave the Endemol SA soap on a good footing.

"Ashish chose to exit the show of his own will after making quite substantial salary demands which the production could not sustain given the size and level of the cast and the actor's own experience," says Sivan Pillay.

"Many people who leave the show not through their own will, can often be disgruntled, and in a creative industry that can be understood. Ashish on the other hand has spoken to many publications about circumstances under which he left which we are uncertain as to what he is referring to," Sivan Pillay tells TV with Thinus.

Then there's apparent viewer fatigue with stale storylines, negative viewer reaction to the uncreative and badly executed "ripped-from-the-headlines" Oscar Pistorius shooting death.

Viewers are also wondering where the big name actors and characters are, why they're appearing on-screen so little and why longtime characters and their storylines are marginalised.

"After the fire [the Isidingo set went up in smoke in June 2012] it's never been the same," I'm told about the production which relocated to Sasani Studios in Highlands North.

"The mood on set, the sentiment - everyone and everything - changed. There's been so many - too many -changes the past two years. The 15 year anniversary last year felt somehow hollow," says a longtime Isidingo insider.

"The passing of Lesego Motsepe [who played Letti Matabane on the soap; she died at the beginning of 2014] reminded some of how great it [Isidingo] once was and how everything's changed if you compare it to how it was. It feels as if Isidingo has lost its way," says another.

"The production has taken many a knock of late as certain actors have presented only their point of view and have painted a picture which is counter-productive to the intentions of the show and not in alignment with the view of the rest of the cast and crew on the show," says Sivan Pillay.

"New storylines and characters present a vision of [a] 'New Horizon on the Deep' that we feel will enthuse viewers to tune into the world of Isidingo".

"Monthly actors' meetings are the norm now on Isidingo and a performance coach in Russel Savadier is part of the team to ensure that we present the best stories with great characters in the most entertaining and relevant way".

Sivan Pillay is also addressing the in-show product placement which is a turn-off for Isidingo and SABC3 viewers who call the soap "a place that has become nothing more than 30 minutes of advertising space for places to market their products".

"Product placement is present on many TV shows in South Africa and that is completely up to the broadcaster's initiative. We as producers understand both the need and reason for that. So it's nothing new to Isidingo which has carried product placement since the series launched in 1998".

"We are striving forward with Isidingo and with one aim to make the best show that keeps fans entertained by telling stories that are relevant and are woven through the fabric of our colourful South African society," says Sivan Pillay.