African TV series in a global context

African TV series are coming into their own thanks to productions that reflect an increasing focus on professional quality, export potential, and unique regional features. We analysed the evolving production model through the lens of two series: the French-language That’s Life, and the English‑language Meet the Adebanjos.

That’s Life: educational transmedia

First broadcast in 2015, the Senegalese series marks a shift from the clichéd African TV productions typified by homespun serial dramas lacking professional polish. Filmed in Dakar, That’s Life is set in a health centre. The stories revolve around the professional and personal problems of the centre’s nurses and patients. Although woven into a soap opera fabric, the episodes are well crafted with a decidedly professional stamp thanks to the expertise of prominent African personalities – series creator, Marguerite Abouet, is the renowned author of the Aya of Yop City graphic novels.

A distinctive feature of That’s Life is the transmedia fiction format. The show is designed as a tool to raise public awareness about a variety of social issues. For example, in Season 1, a teenager’s death following an illegal abortion shines a spotlight on healthcare issues. Expanded online episodes feature character profiles and behind‑the-scenes videos. The show’s architect, NGO Réseau Africain d’Éducation pour la Santé (African Network for Health Education or RAES) ensures that in addition to entertainment value, the plots promote good health practices.

To this end, RAES compiled the experiences of midwives from across Africa and integrated them into the storylines to ensure they are as realistic as possible. This approach takes its lead from Miguel Sabido, a Mexican writer and producer who packaged 1970s soap operas to both entertain and inform.

Another interesting aspect of That’s Life is that the health centre and neighbourhood are never mentioned by name – an intentional omission to enhance the project’s pan‑African component. Broadcast on TV5 Monde and the pan-African A+ channel (founded by Canal+ Overseas, a subsidiary of Canal+), the series was dubbed in English and later picked up by other national African TV channels. That’s Life reaches a potential audience of 100 million across 44 sub-Saharan countries.

During the April 2016 Series Mania Festival, guest panellist at the round‑table on African TV series Hélène Bararuzunza, who wrote part of the show, reported that Season 1 of That’s Lifealmost didn’t happen due to the heavy production schedule: 26 episodes in eight months. The writing, filming, and editing took place almost simultaneously.

Emerging from that experience, the production team streamlined Season 2, partly by cutting the number of scenes per episode, but especially by using a studio setting. The upstream writing process draws from a customary approach: narrative arcs defined by the production, and written during scriptwriter workshops.

That’s Life relies primarily on foreign funding to cover production costs (30,000 euros per episode). Muskoka, a French fund established to reduce child mortality rates, financed three‑quarters of the production costs. The balance was financed via the collective efforts of A+, TV5 Monde and CFI (French International Media Assistance Agency in Developing Countries). Although it appears very institutional on paper, the series delivers a nice balance of realism and humour in its portrayal of women juggling traditional and contemporary expectations.

Meet the Adebanjos: written for Africans at home and abroad

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the smaller‑scale, English‑language Meet the Adebanjos, the first African series produced in the UK. Producer/co-creator Andrew Osayemi and co‑creator/scriptwriter/director Debra Otudoyo wanted to create a sitcom that would resonate with Africans at home and in the UK.

The series spotlights an African-UK culture clash played out in the Adebanjos, a family living in England. The father, Bayo, is frustrated in his efforts to instil Nigerian social mores in his reluctant London-born teenagers. The series is more blue collar than sitcoms like The Cosby Show, with cultural references that run the gamut from superstar chef Gordon Ramsay to Nigerian pepper soup.

The first season of the series, imagined in 2009, was produced without any outside funding. Determined to make her vision a reality, Otudoyo sold her car and gave up her apartment, which generated enough money to cover the pilot. When former stockbroker Andrew Osayemi came aboard, the pair tapped private backers to raise 175,000 pounds sterling. After a successful pitch, London‑based Fresh Media Production provided the necessary studio space and production staff to film seven episodes of Season 1 in just four weeks.

After they knocked on the doors of UK channels in vain, the duo posted the first three episodes online for free viewing. According to Osayemi, African channels eventually bought the broadcasting rights. But initially, constrained by tight operating budgets, they were reluctant to commit to pre-production sales. So having a turnkey project was a strong selling point.

Since 2011, Meet the Adebanjos has aired in 20 European and African countries, including South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, and Nigeria. In the UK, it aired on OHTV, a channel that broadcasts African and Caribbean content. In 2016, Season 3 was live-streamed exclusively on Lebara, an English-language channel with a target audience of immigrants in Europe.

According to Oseyami, the African audience presents a bigger challenge than diaspora viewers. Since its fall 2012 launch, Meet the Adebanjos has ranked as South Africa’s third most popular sitcom. The risk of producing a series without financial backing from a large media company or public agency is a familiar situation for independent producers. Securing a good price for the series from cash-strapped African channels while maintaining production quality and costs is a tough balancing act for Oseyami.

African series in the global context

Meet the Adebanjos and That’s Life exemplify the solid position of foreign-based African initiatives, which have benefitted from globalization. In 2015, this context spurred the A+ channel to go beyond merely broadcasting African productions and take the bold step of investing in the creation of original series.

With respect to independent productions, Meet the Adebanjos is breaking new ground. Similar to That’s Life, the key factor is the emerging creativity of independent African television abroad. Currently, two prominent features of the African media landscape – the widespread popularity of India‑produced soap operas, and interest from economic heavyweight China to export its series to Africa – lend themselves to exploring coproduction as one means to leverage the inevitable cultural relationships.

Léo Soesanto
Léo Soesanto is a journalist and festival programmer. He is the editorial director of Soap, a new magazine on TV series. He is also the programming director of the International Independent Film Festival of Bordeaux and programmer of the TV series section of the Rotterdam International Film Festival. He heads the feature film selection committee of the Semaine de la Critique du Festival de Cannes.
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