ViacomCBS Studios: Investing in female-led African storytelling content

There is an excitement and inspiration that comes with watching our favourite personalities on reality shows. It is as if we have a first-class ticket into their living rooms, and the opportunity to enjoy their achievements with them and empathise with their challenges as if we were personal friends. The television industry has seen an increase in these types of shows, especially those with strong female leads.

However, global trends indicate that women are less likely than men to be seen in the media, and on a continent where the status of women is varied across nations and regions, it is extremely important to recognise the influential role media, specifically television, plays in driving the equal, balanced and consistent representation of women.

As a visual platform, television has a unique ability to tackle issues such as gender stereotyping and appeal to the normalisation of female perspectives through the much-needed portrayal of women, particularly African women, owning their own spaces culturally, socially and financially. Through storytelling, crucial issues such as Gender-Based Violence, teenage pregnancy, motherhood, unequal power relations and other matters of importance, enter the living rooms of households across the continent creating an opportunity to engage on culture, perceptions, values and attitudes. It also presents the opportunity to continuously challenge the current gender-imbalanced society we live in, that often reinforces and perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a business imperative for us, it is important that our audiences see themselves authentically on and off screen.

ViacomCBS Networks Africa (VCNA), through our creative content arm, VIS (ViacomCBS International Studios), have been a long-standing proponent of authentic African storytelling and creating initiatives that represent and empower women across our network. This year, BET declared 2021 The Year of the Black Woman at the recent BET Awards. We followed up with launching our fourth female-led reality series thus far, our latest offering is BET Africa’s DJ Zinhle: Unexpected, a locally produced reality show that follows the life of multiple-award winning DJ, producer, media personality and businesswoman Ntombezinhle Jiyane. In the opening episode, we meet Zinhle’s siblings who are an important part of her support structure and showcasing a strong African family network. The series explores important social issues such as cultural expectations of her pregnancy, running multiple businesses and working in the entertainment industry as a woman during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The network’s female-led content has already yielded successful locally produced shows such as MTV Africa’s Have Faith, which documents the life of influencer, model and entrepreneur Faith Nketsi aka ‘Queen Twerk’ as well as Moonchild Sanelly, WOZA – a show that goes behind the scenes of the charismatic musician and entertainer who is an advocate for female sexual liberation expressed on the show and through her music. Youth channels feature established and upcoming female talent in the network’s Culture Squad of trendsetters and culture shapers from Nomalanga Shozi, Shamiso and Lerai who feature across BET Africa, MTV Base and Nickelodeon respectively and Folu Storms and Nenny B from MTV Base West in Nigeria.

BET Africa has produced Boity Own Your Throne,taking a closer look at the life of television personality, rapper, actress, businesswoman and model Boitumelo Thulo, with the queen of dance Busiswa Gqulu also starring in her very own reality show, “Her Majesty: Busiswa”.

MTV Base West in Nigeria recently featured ‘Inside Life With Erica’ which captured Erica the actress, the entrepreneur and star. Another phenomenal Nigerian female star, Anita Natacha “Tacha” Akide, who was cast in the globally renowned MTV The Challenge: Spies, Lies & Allies. The show features incredible reality TV stars from all around the world, and places Tacha in international superstardom.

As a Pan-African content aggregator, it is important for VCNA to reflect real perspectives. Not only does this enhance the execution of our objectives from a strategic business outlook, but it also contributes to the societal responsibility of empowering young women and children from both an artist and an audience perspective. We are all about content for the culture by the culture.

VCNA’s commitment to continue to partner and showcase female-led content seeks to inspire and contribute towards job creation and opportunity for women on the continent. This commitment extends to other genres and program formats. This can be seen through the 2020 launch of the first ever African daily telenovela, ISONO, on BET Africa. The daily drama predominantly features an award-winning female led cast that follows and narrates their lives in the South African township of Vosloorus. The show recently secured 8 nominations in the Royal Soapie Awards 2021 with lead and legendary cast members Nthati Moshesh, with her ‘Mother Mary’ character twice nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress and Viewer’s Choice: Best Actress categories. Keeping the black female talent flag high is another legendary actress, Moshidi Motshegwa who is nominated for the Outstanding Female Villain and also features in the Viewer’s Choice: Best Actress. This is a true testament to the power of creating platforms and investment in support of our female talent elevation in industry and market.

The network has also committed to fostering an environment that engages and respects each of its employees, supporting them as they flourish both professionally and personally. Through the internal platform #AnInspiredHer, the organisation continues to identify ways in which women in the entertainment business can grow their influence.

With inclusion being a core tenet for VCNA and all its constituencies, all local productions deliberately reflect stories that resonate with our audiences and society. Whether it is an empowering reality show with an accomplished female artist sharing her story of success, or African female talent leading on storytelling through a daily drama, the purpose remains steadfast.

Despite the continent’s challenging macroeconomic environment, unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and political uncertainty in recent years, linear television and the entertainment industry is projecting continued growth, making it an important contributor in this ever-shifting media landscape.

As an industry we have great responsibility to create a new path, spark new conversations that inspire and empower growth. This will require diversity of creative voices and a new inclusive way of working. We are open for business – come create with us.

Monde Twala is the senior vice president, general manager, ViacomCBS Networks Africa and peer lead, BET International.

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