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How M-Net Got Its Groove Back & The Silly Blacklash To Follow

By Chris Ihidero

Tinsel cast
Tinsel cast

I was speaking with one of the most prolific Nollywood producers recently and she made mention of how it is becoming increasingly difficult to sell films to DStv now.

‘In those days, M-Net used to run after us for films but now we are the ones running after them and they are even rejecting films now,’ she said.

About 3 years ago, M-Net embarked on the Africa Magic Original Film (AMOF) project. That year, they produced about 80 one-hour made for television films. Since then, they have tried to produce about 60 films per year. That’s around 200 films in 3 years. If they keep up the pace, they will have close to 500 original films in the next 5 years or so. That will be way more films than any other content producer around here.

Yes, we can have a debate about the quality of many of the AMOF films. You will not survive a second viewing of many of them if you made it through the first viewing alive. Yes, they could have been better done, even with their rumoured $20, 000 per film budget. After all, that budget is more than what an average Asaba Nollywood film costs. But content production for TV is a game of numbers. Yes, it is also a game of quality but quality is relative and debatable. But you can’t dismiss 200 hours of almost anything. The films will surely get better and recent ones are already showing signs.

I saw one directed by Uzo Okpechi the other day and, while I still don’t get how a woman who is about to tell her husband she has tested positive to HIV is wearing glossy lipstick and all, I loved the twist at the end of the story and the pictures were really pretty, even as the sets brought about bouts of claustrophobia. But M-Net’s real winner move is in their change of strategy around production of TV drama.

Doctors’ Quarters (2005) was M-NET’s first real move into the TV drama. Inability to deal quickly and firmly with crisis involving lead actors Kate Henshaw, ‘Bimbo Akintola and director Jimi Odumosu led to a swift wrap up of the series at around 26 episodes.

DQ was a big budget project, rumoured to have cost somewhere around N1billion. M-NET was basically attempting to localise ER, the popular American medical series that threw up stars like George Clooney. It worked for a moment, and then the crisis swept it away.

Greg Odutayo was commissioned to produce Edge of Paradise in 2007.  The 52 episodes produced had a more Nigerian TV soap colouration and did get traction among viewers. Then came Tinsel.

Tinsel is probably the most divisive Nigerian TV series ever. On the one hand, its critics condemn it for attempting to impose a ‘South African’ template on what was sold as a Nigerian story. They also insist that it failed at its premise for, according to them, the world of Tinsel’s story isn’t one recognizable by Nigerians.

Our film industry does not operate via the studio system. Studios don’t sign star actors on a long-term basis. The Tinsel world where Nigerian socio-cultural cultural contexts were virtually absent was not one that spoke to the realities of the people whose story you were telling. The acting was wooden, the directing boring and the camerawork predictable.

On the other hand, lovers of Tinsel praise it for breeding a new crop of Nigerian actors and providing new stars for audiences. Tinsel, they say, brought back glamour to Nigerian drama, something that has been missing for a while. It also provided Nigerian actors and crew steady work and steady income. Love it or hate it, you can’t take away Tinsel’s impact and importance wherever Nigerian TV drama history is told.  To have put over 1500 episodes on air in 8 seasons is no mean feat. M-Net has spent over N4billion in 7 years to put those episodes on air and that consistency defines Tinsel.  Actors have departed, crises have been weathered and Tinsel stands.

But like everything else in life, time takes its toll. Watching Tinsel these days can often be a painful experience. The storytelling struggles badly with need for new twists and turns. This is a problem for anything that stays on air for as long as Tinsel has been on air, especially a daily. Is there perhaps a wide gap between what’s written and what’s shot? Attempts at rescuing the stories – from the introduction of local languages through characters like Salewa (worked for a while) and mama, to bringing back Nigerian TV legends Taiwo Ajai-Lycett and Richard Mofe-Damijo – have only worked in bits.

Lighting, one thing that they got right off the bat, has gone really bad. Sometimes when there are two characters in a scene you think there are four because the shadows on the wall are so thick you could cut through with a knife. Loved by many still, but it was becoming pretty obvious that M-Net was losing its drama mojo. And then came Hotel Majestic.

I fell in love with HM on first contact. The characters came to me like long-lost relatives. I could relate with them immediately. Apparently, this is the reality for many people as it’s evident that Hotel Majestic became a hit faster than any Nigerian drama made by M-Net. It lacks the fluff that sold Tinsel, but the story doesn’t need fluff of that nature. In the hands of tested and trusted M-Net drama directors like Victor ‘Sanchez’ Aghahowa, Tope Oshin, and experienced Nollywood director Patience Oghre Imobioh, HM has been made to speak to the realities of its audience with characters they live next to.

With vastly experienced ‘Tunde Aladese as Headwriter and Ijeoma Ogwuegbu-Uduma as Script Editor, the stories do not feel as if the scripts had been flown to South Africa to be doctored by someone with no idea of the contextual realities of Nigeria and Nigerian audiences. M-NET has got its groove back. And soon, silliness will follow. Expect that soon, someone will wake up and realise that M-Net, the biggest broadcaster of Nigerian drama content, is slowly becoming the biggest owner of Nigerian drama content.

Hotel Majestic will end at around 260 episodes. Tinsel already has about 1589 episodes and I have been made to understand that another 100 episodes have been given the green light.  Add to that some 200 (?) made for TV films, the new telenovela to take over from Hotel Majestic and other drama content now owned by M-Net, and the picture becomes scary. But whose fault is that? It wouldn’t matter whose fault it is; those who want to mudsling M-Net will get to it anyway.

They will soon remind us that M-Net is a South African company fleecing Nigerians. They will say that the biggest broadcaster shouldn’t also be the biggest owner of content. They will suddenly remember that foreigners threaten Nigeria’s sovereignty when their platform tells our stories. They will conveniently forget that M-Net has done more for Nigerian drama over the past decade than our publicly funded NTA, which, after a glorious past of great drama production, is now basically usual. Struck by selective amnesia, they will fail to see the many careers that M-Net has helped to blossom: actors, directors, writers, producers and many more.

Blinded by ‘patriotism’ they will fail to see the huge investment, billions of naira, that M-Net has put into our local content industry. The silliness will be nauseating, but it will find favour with many who had rather hold everyone else responsible for their failings rather than look at themselves in the mirror. For now, M-Net has got its groove back and perhaps that’s all that matters.

This piece was written by Chris Ihidero, seasoned film and television figure for NET newspaper. Read More at thenet.ng/2015/10/chris-ihidero-unedited-how-m-net-got-its-groove-back-the-silly-backlash-to-follow/

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