THE BLOG

Straight, White TV Characters And The New Hate Speech Bill

Both television watching trends and the new hate speech bill show we have a long way to go to build cross-racial empathy.

02/12/2016 05:58 SAST | Updated 02/12/2016 16:21 SAST
CBS/Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the STAR TREK episode, 'Plato's Stepchildren.' Original air date, November 22, 1968.

Our government's introduction of a Criminalisation of Hate Speech Bill should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the increases in racist incidents over the last few years. The aim of the Bill is to have the perpetrators of hateful incidents face real consequences like jail time or big fines. The proposed bill is currently under discussion so we'll have to see what form is takes when it eventually becomes law.

For some of us these racist incidents are confusing because its not like white South Africans are persecuted in any way, quite the opposite in fact. Recent research has revealed how most executives are still white, that the majority of residential and commercial land is owned are in white hands and that the victims of crime are mainly black. Yet we keep seeing the most cruel actions by whites against blacks and this has led me to wonder if there's any connection with what is happening on our TV's.

The big TV story is not how Hlaudi Motsoeneng is dazzled whenever he catches an image of Hlaudi Motsoeneng in the mirrors of Hlaudi Motsoeneng's house. An underreported issue is that stark change in viewership patterns when TV shows have predominantly black casts and/or storylines. What happens is what can be called white flight. These shows struggle to attract, let alone keep, white middle-class (and to an increased extent – black middle class) viewers.

Have white people become so disconnected from black experiences (as represented in popular culture as an example) that they cannot get themselves to even watch TV programmes if there are too many black faces and too few white faces?

I've known about this due to my work as a senior content manager at the SABC for many years but the issue became quite stark when I realized that though Uzalo was a huge success, it had no white viewers. The show was attracting over 7 million viewers a day, yet not many in the mainstream media considered this to be a big deal. And surely it is, especially considering that one of the highest viewership numbers received by a broadcaster in recent years was for Nelson Mandela's funeral and the Manchester United soccer game back in the mid 2000's (with a 10 million viewership). ETV posted its first financial losses in years, even after investing millions into new African language dramas. The Idols franchise was suffering and on the brink of discontinuation when it was moved to the Mzansi Magic, and the show is recording massive ratings. SABC 3 invested millions in increasing a 45% local content quota to close to 80% yet is unable to attract sufficient audiences for it to be profitable. Of course, the channel has all sorts of other problems, the least is its dodgy executive management.

But some of the new content is pretty good – Trevor Gumbi's Sober Companion is a world-class drama and Jason Goliath's late night comedy talk show is not too bad either. Are we dealing once again with a race and class issue, where this kind of content is not interesting to a black viewer used to content in their home languages, yet English speaking white and middle-class audiences are also not interested?

Researchers from the University of Milano-Bicocco and the University of Toronto Scarborough found that white viewers found it hard to have empathy for movie and TV universes populated by mainly black characters.

Have white people become so disconnected from black experiences (as represented in popular culture as an example) that they cannot get themselves to even watch TV programmes if there are too many black faces and too few white faces?

And has this led to a marked reduction in empathy of white against black which in turn has led to a situation where Parliament has to create laws to police abhorrent behaviour like racism which should ideally be managed via a social contract between individuals and communities? Of course racist actions is not because of TV content, we all know, that but the idea that TV viewing trends is an indicator of changes in the zeitgeist of a nation is not a far-fetched idea, in fact it can be seen as a early warning system that a society should pay attention to.

Researchers from the University of Milano-Bicocco and the University of Toronto Scarborough found that white viewers found it hard to have empathy for movie and TV universes populated by mainly black characters. They call this phenomenon the racial empathy gap and it seems like this is true with local audiences. The empathy gap between middle and working class black viewers is interesting because it challenges the stereotype that black audiences are homogenous, with the same tastes. But it can also be that black viewers more readily buy into decades long images of white, straight characters, especially before and during apartheid.

Research was done by Indiana University in 2011 to understand why black actors do not have the same success as their white counterpart found that regular white moviegoers or TV viewers do not enjoy black films as they find it difficult to suspend their disbelief when black actors feature as main characters, especially in romantic roles. The movie and TV universes are so different for these viewers that they simply cannot believe what they are seeing.

Twitter has already decided that 2016 is trash. Americans will look back to 2016 as a watershed year. Will we look back at this year when the white middle class gave up on their country? How about if we start complaining about what we see on TV. What do you think of starting there?