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Cops and Texas Trash Tops on African TV

March 4, 1988

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ Sex is out in Swaziland. ″Dallas″ is tops in Zimbabwe. But ″Hill Street Blues″ is Africa’s overall television favorite.

That’s how foreign TV programs rate among the 5 percent of Africa’s 550 million people who regularly watch the tube, according to the people who buy the shows.

Program chiefs from across the continent gathered recently in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, for the first buyers’ convention for Africa’s mostly state- owned TV stations.

″We would not want to show anything that ridicules or criticizes socialism or allows our people to be influenced by the cultural dominance of others,″ said Nebiyu Eyassu, head of state-owned Ethiopian television.

African stations face wide political censorship and the constant dilemma whether imported shows are likely to offend traditional customs or propagate Western values that African bureaucracies publicly disavow.

Nebiyu sees television as a powerful propaganda medium when examining foreign offerings for viewers of the 70,000 television sets in his country of 42 million people.

Materialism depicted in many Western shows was confusing to Ethiopian viewers, he said as program chiefs settled into armchairs to watch excerpts from 1,000 hours of shows.

The first preview of its kind in Africa brought the West’s most popular programs to a continent where local producers lack money and expertise to make their own. Imported programming costs between $100 and $200 an hour - up to 20 times cheaper than local production costs.

Before the convention, individual buyers flew to such places as London and New York to decide what they wanted for their screens at home.

Market research in Zimbabwe shows ″Dallas″ has the highest viewership of any program screened in this southern African nation. More than 510,000 people watch it each Sunday after the evening news.

Wendy Layzell, program buyer for state-owned Zimbabwe Television, attributed the popularity of ″Dallas″ to escapism.

″It shows a lifestyle that no one will ever have. It is fast-moving and essentially non-political,″ she said.

Despite repeated government calls for more local and culturally relevant programming, foreign shows account for more than 70 percent of the station’s airtime.

ZTV is strapped for cash and depends on commercials, license fees and a hefty government subsidy.

Nigerian buyer Oluyole Fadola said only 5 percent of his West African nation’s 100 million people own television sets, although public viewing centers are being set up in isolated areas.

″When you take TV to the people you have to be particularly selective,″ Fadola said.

Better educated urban dwellers are less likely to come under the spell of television than the rural poor, he said.

As program coordinator at Nigeria’s Federal Television Authority, he is concerned by explicit sex and the level of violence in Western TV.

″We have had a wave of armed robberies at home and I believe TV stimulates armed robbery and propagates crime,″ Fadola said.

In Swaziland, sex on screen is taboo because of cultural taboos common in southern Africa.

″We don’t like nudity at all. We shy away from it,″ said Wellington Sukati, head of programming at the Swaziland television and Broadcasting Corp.

″You may breastfeed in public, but the exploitation of nudity on the screen is out.″

But official Swazi prudery does not extend to screens in nightclubs frequented by tourists, many from South Africa, which brazenly feature explicit soft pornography.

Sukati said he was buying about 500 hours of programs.

Alexandera Taylor, sales director of the British-based distribution company that staged the Harare convention, said programs popular among African buyers included a British series based on Jeffrey Archer’s novel ″First Among Equals,″ ″The Bob Newhart Show,″ ″St. Elsewhere″ and a dramatization of last year’s superpower summit in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Taylor said her company, African and Caribbean Program Services, could not estimate the value of business transacted in Harare, nor rule out surprises in forthcoming bookings.

In 1987, ″Hill Street Blues″ was a best seller in Africa. But Kenya, one of the West’s staunchest allies in Africa, rejected it.

″They didn’t like the negative way police were portrayed,″ Taylor said.

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