Letter from America #3 September 25, 2011

I wrote this letter the day before I heard that our beloved friend Professor Wangari Maathai had passed on. See Letter #4.

LETTER from America September 25, 2011 Sunday

Kenyans don’t need to be told, as I was recently by an academic friend of mine, that we consumers of global media live in a “golden age of television’.

Not all Kenyans watch TV of course, but I must confess that I was stunned to find so many Kenyans who live in (and around) Nairobi—irrespective of whether it’s in Eastlands, Westlands, Ngong or Kitengela—being so conversant about American popular culture.

And it isn’t just because NTV, KTN, KBC and yes, even Citizen TV all indulge to varying degrees in showing programs originally produced in North (and also Central and South) America.

It’s also because of the booming business of pirated DVD’s that one can buy on practically every street in downtown Nairobi as well as in all the urban estates, from Kariobangi South to Huruma and Umoja to Parklands, Lavington Green and all over Westlands.

The DVDs are so cheap that one can get a complete season (including all the episodes) of a sit-com like ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘Vampire Diaries’ or “Criminal Minds’ for KSh50, which in today’s troubled Kenyan economy is equivalent to a little less than half a dollar.

The same is true for Hollywood films, even films fresh out in American cinemas. Indeed, films like ‘Ninja Assassins’ and ‘Priest’ were so popular among the DVD-buying public a few months back that the films were out on the magendo market simultaneous with their release in the US ans UK.

But this must be a busy time for Kenyan (and Asian) pirates who pride themselves in marketing the hottest new TV sit-coms, soap operas and reality shows since the new TV season just started a week ago.

September has historically been the month when new shows come online, some to have staying power, like Mad Men, Modern Family and Glee, three running shows that all won Emmy Awards last week after their stars walked the red carpet (which Kenyans who watch E! already know very well) and the women’s gowns were either gaudy and garish or gorgeous and glamorous, depending on which TV commentator was gawking and talking.

But now, if the pirates want to keep up with the global media market, they will have to watch the new shows, such as Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor’ (which is a not so extreme make-over of Cowell’s earlier hit American Idol), ‘The Playboy Club’ which flashes back on the early 1960s as does the new ‘Pan Am’ and the new-old ‘Mad Men’ the show which proved that nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ when America was in its heyday sells.

There are a whole lot more new shows this season, most of which I didn’t get to see since they all seemed to come on at the same time. There are plenty of cop shows, as usual, each having twists and turns that make them slightly different from each other. For instance, Unforgettable has a cop who forgets nothing (except that the lead actor used to star in Without a Trace) while Person of Interest is all about surveillance and people watching people and Body of Proof mixes murder and medical forensics stuff.

Then there are a bunch of shows that Kenyans have probably already seen but they are into their next season, since the networks chose to bring them back. Those include shows like Criminal Minds, Desperate Housewives, Nikita, Vampire Diaries and the scary zombie thriller The Walking Dead, which is not to be confused with Waking the Dead, a BBC version of Cold Case Files.

I won’t even get into the Reality Shows like Jersey Shore, Real Housewives and the American version of Big Brother, since I sincerely can’t be bothered to watch unscripted, untrained non-actors using up airtime and teaching me nothing. But I suspect some Kenyans will watch them, just as they watched Monday Night Wrestling years ago, another show that made me squirm with embarrassment at the idiocy of it all. But it was a show that made Kenyans howl with laughter as they watch stupid white men smash each other’s bodies to bit.

The one really exciting bit of American entertainment news that I just learned comes from Forbes magazine, the source that annually lists the richest 400 men and women in the world. According to Forbes, the richest man in Hollywood this year is none other than Tyler Perry, the African American producer, actor and scriptwriter.

From May 2010 to May 2011, the man best known for dressing up as a sassy fat lady called Medea made $130 million. He beat out Jerry Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg since he produced five films (including Why Did I get Married Too) and TV sit-coms like House of Payne and Meet the Browns.

If anything may be learned from Perry’s success is that the Kenya Government ought to take seriously its own performing artists and invest in their success. Who’s to say Kenya doesn’t have her own set of genius talents who have the potential to be just as witty, original and successful as Perry has been. Frankly, they’re already there; they only need a bit more backing for their brilliance to come out fully into the light. They might also need more support from local audiences who might need to give up the pirated DVDs for time and come out and see their own ‘Tyler Perry’s’.

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