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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

The politics of televisual postmodernism: Colour TV as case study

Rohan Magerman - 2011-09-01

The SABC’s website has the following press release for their new variety show Colour TV. I quote onlycertain parts of it:

Never before have the conditions been so ripe to introduce a show to South Africans that challenges a thought process and teases diplomacy so outrageously and SABC 2 is the perfect platform to launch this first-of-its-kind series to the world … The definition of who coloured people are has shifted from being a one dimensional take based on skin colour and race to being a more complex definition based on lifestyle and behavior … It’s TV for us by us … It’s a place where we invite you to laugh along with us ... not at us … This is us on SABC 2 ... the world as WE see it …

A month after Colour TV debuted on SABC 2 tensions are still running high on social media and the opinion pages of tabloids regarding this programme. Some consider it TV trash, racist, and that it portrays the coloured population in a negative way. Others applaud its appearance on national TV, feeling that it is the perfect way to represent this previously marginalised group.

Looking at the passage quoted above, it is not hard to fathom why the sensitive viewer would regard it as racist. As a marketing strategy the show’s producer, Bernhard Baatjies, used the words “coloured”, “us” and “we”, insinuating an oppositional and segregated “them”. Baatjies’s statement would seem inappropriate to a TV programme that is supposed to be addressing all South Africans. This leads one to wonder: in our post-apartheid era, is there such a thing as television that is aimed exclusively at a specific ethnic group? Have we ever heard that programmes like Generations and Muvhango are meant for the black population?

It is an issue that remains debatable, but I do not think that Colour TV is racist in any way. The so-called “conditions” that are mentioned in the media release could refer to the recent and widely publicised controversy that surrounded Khuli Roberts’s and Jimmy Manyi’s opinions about the coloured community. If that is the case then Colour TV is nothing but a stark example of televisual postmodernism: a TV programme that aims for a political statement by commenting on current and past socio-political concerns. This could well be a reaction to Roberts’s and Manyi’s remarks. It is as though Colour TV wants to point out that coloured women do not drink Black Label and smoke like chimneys; they do have all their front teeth, and do not walk around in their pyjamas. And in an alternative universe there is an oversupply of coloureds on South African TV.

Postmodern culture has always been linked with television. Or to put it another way: television is seen as the space where postmodernism is largely cultivated. Colour TV’s postmodern significance lies in the way it implements almost all the stylistic elements of postmodernism: satire (it humorously criticises current social and political issues); intertextuality and parody (it presents a comical take on the news, weather, sports and financial bulletins); pastiche (it juxtaposes different shows to imitate a complete TV channel); hybridity (it incorporates fact and fiction, the serious and the comical); and hyperconsciousness (two characters appear to be watching the different segments and commenting on them).

All these diverse programmes fundamentally offer a unique “coloured” take. I suggest, however, a different approach to the word “coloured”. Let us not understand it within a racial discourse, but rather as a marketing and stylistic strategy, namely genre. Genre, the most obvious system of classification by the entertainment industry, is used by audiences to make sense of a text. Colour TV’s producers and the SABC may have applied the word “coloured” taxonomically – a way of promoting the show to its audiences, appealing primarily to those who consider themselves active participants of this ethnic culture and lifestyle. “Coloured”, in this sense, stretches beyond identification based on skin colour to the classification of a postmodern television programme.

As with any genre text, this then sets up a number of expectations in the audience. Knowing that Colour TV is a show produced by a coloured and that it features an all-coloured cast we have certain anticipations towards this programme, just as one would have anticipations towards a horror or a Western movie. The semiotics of this genre, “coloured”, would then be what people would deem as stereotypes: coloured people poking fun at everyone and everything; a setting limited to the Cape Flats and the Cape Boland; a unique vocabulary – often slang – that has connotations with coloured gangsterism; most of the characters speaking in a Cape Flats accent; and these characters speaking in a mixture of Afrikaans and English. This may all seem stereotypical, but in a genre text the stereotypes become the generic conventions. Genre operates within our expectations of the familiar and what we already know of society.

One viewer complained on a personal blog that Colour TV portrays coloureds as people who cannot be taken seriously, and who do not take anything seriously either. This may be the case indeed, but I feel that it is purely generic: as a satirical comedy this is more or less what we can expect from Colour TV. Similarly, if Colour TV were a serial drama, then would melodrama have been so atypical?

My point is: should we accept that Colour TV portrays coloureds as people who cannot be taken seriously and who do not take anything seriously either, then we also need to consider the show’s functionality as a genre text within a postmodern culture. After all, with postmodernism nothing can be taken seriously, and anything can be turned into a joke.