I spoke to Jane Kennedy, the series director of Gogglebox South Africa, a veteran TV producer and expert in unscripted television, who shared some fascinating insights about the show and Sony Pictures Television's very first local South African TV production.
"Gogglebox South Africa touches our humanity in a way that I find quite inspiring and quite magical," she told me, as she reveals what the families see when they watch their TV screens, how South Africans differ, and what TV show the families watched in a pilot episode that didn't work.
How is this show different from other reality shows you've worked on before?
Jane Kennedy: In many ways this is the most real reality show I've worked on, in a way. It's not a game show, so there's no prizes, no elimination.
It's reality on a more authentic level. It's just real people being real.
How much do you have to coax the couch potatoes to react and verbalise and be expressive non-verbally, or did you choose people who are naturally more outgoing and reactive?
Jane Kennedy: We definitely were looking for people who were opinionated - people who watch television and who have opinions. So there's very little coaxing that happens.
Occasionally we might give people some background information about a film or a series, just so that they don't sit on their couch trying to figure out what's going on.
How much do you film for an episode? Obviously you keep the cameras rolling for longer than what viewers see?
Jane Kennedy: We start filming on a Thursday night, cameras start rolling on four families. We have 14 [families] and we film 4 different families for 5 nights of the week. So in essence we can film 20 families over 5 nights. And we have 14 families in the mix.
So we visit some families more than once over the 5 day period and that can be because kids have homework and have to go to bed, or because we have a story we only started showing halfway through the weekend. It's like this unbelievable jigsaw puzzle.
We put 8 to 9 "stories" into one episode. And each one has a beginning, middle and an end. So it's a whole series of beginnings and ends and yet you have to keep the audience interested. So that dance is really a fantastic thing and how you knit them together and stitch them together.
If you look at some of the other series already done you've get such a wide range of emotions from people - from outright surprise to real sadness. Do you have a favourite emotional response that you want to elicit or enjoy getting from people as a producer?
Jane Kennedy: We aim to try and get a whole range of responses and emotions - from the laugh-out-loud funny,to the shock outrage to the really emotive, tearful stuff.
It's also a work in progress, because the production itself is so intense, it's so fast and so furious. We have 6 days to put a show together. So we experiment. And we think this piece of material is going to work really well.
NCIS for instance, that we tested when we filmed the pilot. It's one of the biggest rated shows on DStv - everyone loves it.
But actually, you know, it's so, the arch of the show is so simple, that unless there's something outrageous in it, it doesn't really get a lot of responses from the families. It's very interesting. Because you think something will work and you show it and it doesn't work and we find something else.
Does it impact the social dynamic and what you get as a producer in terms of where you make what family member sit?
Jane Kennedy: It depends from family to family.
When we went in to set up the infrastructure, the first thing we did was to ask a household how they like to watch television. In some cases we moved them around, but it's more a practical thing, for instance this guy is much taller than his partner and its better if a tall person sits on the far side of the couch.
We see people watching television. We don't see what they see, what do they see when they look at their screens? Are there actual crew there or robo-cameras, and one or two cameras?
Jane Kennedy: They're in their lounge, watching their TV set.
There's no people in the room; we have 2 remote cameras - one is on a wide shot of the family which we never change, and the other one is a close-up camera that is operated remotely and tries to catch the best close-up reactions of family members. That in itself is an art.
You've got maybe four or five people in a family and you don't know who is going to give you a response when. Often it's not the one you expected it to be - so that is quite a dance as well.
Has it already been a struggle - you've worked on so much unscripted television where you don't know what you're going to get - where you end up with a lot of good pieces of TV and you have to make difficult choices on what to show and what to leave out?
Jane Kennedy: Absolutely, absolutely.
The other thing is also you don't want to show the same families all the time, you want to get variation. But there's some families that's so incredibly funny, or there responses are so priceless that you just have to include them.
Have you picked up on, or is there a difference between how young people watch TV now, and how older people watch?
Jane Kennedy: We have young people and we have older people watching.
Our youngest family member is 11 - in fact two 11-year olds in two different families, a boy and a girl. And our oldest family is ... "old". How diplomatic is that?
And for me one of the things that's so magical about Gogglebox SA and this format and why I'm personally so invested in it, is because at the end of the day we all respond in pretty much the same way.
We're all horrified by the same things, we all generally are amused by the same things - from the 7-year olds to the 70-somethings. It's kind of like, it touches our humanity in a way that I find quite inspiring and quite magical.
It makes me feel that we are going to be okay as South Africans in this country that's full of so many different kinds of people, and even more than okay - we are going to fall in love with each other again.
Even though people come from all different walks of life and different areas - you wouldn't be sitting on their couch watching television with them - but they're going to watch something and you're going to feel "oh my gosh, that's exactly how I feel about that".
You said it's very universal when people watch TV and their reactions. But I was wondering in terms of their non-verbal, physical behaviour, are there things you've picked up where we as South Africans are different?
Jane Kennedy: What surprised me in a way - although I suspected it and I was correct in my suspicion - we're very loud as South Africans! Ha ha. We don't hold back, actually.
We're not that kind of British, sort of understated kind of people. We fall off our chairs, we shout out loud, we are passionate people and that is what comes across through Gogglebox South Africa for sure.