Monday, December 1, 2014

Generations returns to SABC1 ... with a tarnished legacy. As Connie Ferguson reclaims Karabo, what the restart really says about SA's TV biz.

What was the biggest show on South African television, Generations, returns to TV screens tonight – with a tarnished legacy, some old faces to make it look familiar and lure viewers back, and a lot of unanswered questions about the maturity of the local TV biz, the public broadcaster, and how and why local TV talent are treated as little more than on-set props.

Generations The Legacy will debut on SABC1 tonight at 20:00 after a shocking absence of two months when the production grinded to a halt, the South African public broadcaster ran out of filmed episodes, and neither the production company nor the beleaguered SABC management could successfully keep the show on the air.

The Generations actors went on strike after months of pleading with the SABC, executive producer Mfundi Vundla, and production company MMSV Productions for the three year contracts they were personally promised by the SABC’s famously matricless acting CEO Hlaudi Motsoeneng in July 2013.

The cast who organised as the Generations Actors Guild is currently taking the SABC and the production company to the CCMA and to court.

They wanted the promised three year contracts instead of one year renewals, higher pay rates similar to other TV soaps at the SABC and, as well as back payments or residuals as promised in their existing contracts, and which they've never received, for rebroadcasts and repeats – as well as for the sales and international sales of the broadcasting rights of the soap to other TV channels as well as broadcasters in Africa.

They were prompty fired in August, followed by dueling press conferences by the SABC and the actors, the caustic Mfundi Vundla saying he felt "betrayed" and that he will "never take them back" – and then jetting off to a foreign locale for a holiday.

In the past two months SABC1 lost millions of viewers in the 20:00 timeslot as well as millions of rand in advertising after the public broadcaster was forced to lower advertising rates.

Now the rejigged show with new actors and some old faces which started filming on 27 October at the SABC's Henley Studios will be back. 

The first new Generations The Legacy is bound to – similar to American shows which tried a reboots like Dallas, Melrose Place and 90210 – lure a big audience tuning in out of the curiosity factor.

The test will be however whether the show will be able to not only lure back, but keep, its erstwhile big audience, or whether there will be a viewership drop-off following viewer disillusionment with how the show ended – it’s backstage implosion and scandalous destruction well-publicised, and the abrupt ending which saw no resolution to any of the previous storylines. 

Collin Oliphant who've written for SABC3's Isidingo  in the past is the new head writer.

Picking up two years later – with Karabo and Tau
Generations The Legacy will restart tonight, set two years later, with a funeral, and with Connie Ferguson returning as Karabo Moroka and Rapulana Seiphemo as Tau Mogale "returning from London to South Africa", suddenly living with their grown children, Jonathan (JT Medupe) and Angela (Lebohang Mthunzi).

Connie Ferguson, now herself a TV producer for M-Net, has already been in the firing line for why she returned to a show where her friends like Sophie Ndaba and others were fired, and which apparently treats South African actors with little or no respect.

Connie Ferguson told the SABC's new digital magazine, Evoke, that returning to Generations was not part of her plans but that the "recent developments" at the soap "bothered" her and "forced her into action for the sake of the show's legacy".

Connie Ferguson told Evoke that she isn't returning to Generations The Legacy to save the show, saying "I don't think I can 'save' anything. It’s a team effort. I couldn't let the show's legacy be remembered the way it ended."

Both Connie Ferguson and Rapulana Seiphemo were roped in to create a familiar "anchor" to viewers who haven't seen the show in two months and which won't have any other of the former well-known faces. It's not clear how long they will remain in the show – Connie Ferguson appears in, and produces her own drama Rockville for M-Net’s Mzansi Magic channel on DStv.

A younger cast
The restarted Generations The Legacy with a younger cast, will concentrate on the new generation of the Moroka family – Archie's children and grandchildren.

Other new faces in the reinvented Generations The Legacy include Letoya Mahkene, Denise Zimba, Ronnie Nyakale, Manaka Ranaka and Ivy Nkuta

Despite multiple media requests the past five weeks the SABC and the production failed to provide any episode synopses, character bio’s or publicity information usually issued for serialised local soaps.

The lack of information from the SABC for the revamped show prior to its debut tonight raised eyebrows in the TV biz, given that, according to conventional wisdom, broadcasters usually put a lot of marketing and publicity power behind new primetime shows in an attempt to reach potential viewers and to break through the noise.  

The soap will have a new title sequence which echoes that of SABC2's Muvhango and's Scandal!:  luxury vehicles, tall facades, women in heels and men in designer suits.

Unanswered questions
Generations The Legacy returns with many unaswered and ignored questions. As the biggest TV show on South African television, the biggest local TV production, the public broadcaster's biggest revenue earner, Generations is a bellwether for the local TV biz.

The damage in financial, reputation and image of the unmanaged implosion behind the scenes has been immeasurable for the SABC, the actors, the production company and also impacted the local TV industry.

That the SABC's biggest TV show can suddenly collapse and disappear off air with no experienced, hands-on and acute SABC top management intervention was yet another symbolic indicator of the unstable situation regarding programming the South African public broadcaster finds itself in.

Irrespective of who's right and who's wrong, the scandal has revealed the ugly behind-the-truth: how expendable South African on-screen talent are and how quickly and easily they can be dumped and replaced. 

The contracts for the new batch of actors on Generations are no different than those they've replaced.

The Generations fall-out will also make other actors, their agents and crew on shows, all think twice – if the biggest show on TV muscles legacy actors like Sophie Ndaba out who had portrayed a famous character for over two decades because the actress dares to speak out and complain, what chance does talent on lesser shows have?

The SABC's Hlaudi Motsoeneng promised in August that an independent panel would be set up to look at musicians and actors' contracts, employment working conditions, and some of the pressing issues which were highlighted during the Generations meltdown mess. 

Three months later, and there's been no word since about the establishment of this panel supposed to check international standards in dealing with these issues.

The real legacy of Generations The Legacy is that South Africa's on-screen talent in TV and film are not yet united enough in a strong, consolidated, unionised voice to act on behalf of and in the interest of actors.

If Generations can suddenly disappear from the SABC, what does it signal about the SABC's capability to handle and cope with talent and show disputes and to keep productions going?

And as viewers tune in for Generations as it becomes Generations The Legacy, will viewers return for a new generation so that the show can reclaim its ratings crown, or has the SABC's Generations brand been damaged irreparably?