Kenya's political satire show XYZ gets funding in the bag for two more seasons

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The number of groundbreaking African television programmes is relatively small, given the huge size of the continent. One of the stand-out programmes is Kenya’s XYZ Show, a 15 minute shot of political satire, based on Spitting Image, a similar programme produced in the UK in the 1980s. In a continent where sharp comment on the antics of politicians is often limited by political control and self-censorship, the XYZ Show pushes the envelope. Russell Southwood spoke to its creator Gado in Nairobi recently.

Gado is the pen name of Godfrey Mwampembwa who started out as a teenage cartoonist working freelance on magazines and newspapers in Kenya and Tanzania. In 1992 he became the cartoonist and illustrator for the Daily Nation, a role that has helped make his name in Kenya and East Africa.

The idea for the XYZ Show first germinated in 2002 and Gado was lucky enough to get funding from the French Embassy in 2003 to make a trip to see the makers of its French equivalent, Les Guignols. They were extremely helpful and gave some assistance to the young, aspiring programme maker. On his return, he took the idea to the Nation (who run NTV):”Cost was a problem. It was technically different and needed specific expertise.”

Again the French Embassy stepped in and helped send the person who is now Head Puppet Maker to the programme for training with les Guignols. This time he went back to NTV with a puppet head of Kibaki to show what he was talking about:”There was still a problem. The concept was very new and not known to them.” Again he went to the French Embassy and persuaded them to co-fund a pilot, whilst raising some of the funds himself. He persuaded Homeboyz Studios (also makers of Tinga Tinga) to help make the pilot for free and promised payment if it got green-lighted.

The pilot was still not a clincher for the TV stations he approached but a journalist who interviewed him suggested that instead of trying to sell it to a TV station, he seek funding from various sources to make a year’s worth of the programme. So in 2008 he approached various donors and charitable funds to do just that:”I had to get to know the language of the NGO world.” To cut a long story short, he raised the funds from a variety of people including the French Embassy, the Dutch Embassy, the Prince Claus Fund and the Ford Foundation and the first show aired in May 2009.

The latest season which started in September goes out on Citizen TV at 9.45 on a weekly basis:”Our key condition was no editorial interference. This was non-negotiable. We were willing to listen and take advice but we wanted to retain our independent editorial judgement.”

At the start, Citizen TV was not paying for the programme but sharing revenues with the production company:”It was a slow start in audience terms but over time it grew. We’re targeting the general public. Kids love the show but it’s late for them so we get complaints that they want it earlier.”

“People didn’t understand the nature of the show and initially it was heavily criticised. When we started, the scripting, synching and animation were not good. But by the fourth episode we had hit our stride and people had got used to it. By the time we were doing the last episode, audiences were pretty good.” But then it was back to fundraising between August 2009 and April 2010. However, the fruits of this effort are that they now have sufficient funding for two new seasons.

Each episode costs between US$10,000-12,000 and a season is 13 episodes, and including the puppets, a whole season costs US$350,000. The funders are the same people as before plus among others Omidyar, the Finnish Embassy, the Open Society Institute and London-based Freedom to Create. Citizen TV is now putting in KS200,000 an episode and Gado is hoping that sponsors, who thus far have been nervous about the content, will start coming on board now the content and audiences are proven:”We’re also talking to civil society (organisations), saying you can advertise alongside it. We have to make the project sustainable. We can’t rely on donors.”

Meanwhile the production company behind XYZ Show does jobbing programme making to keep things going, including a community project from the Ford Foundation:”This is good but we don’t want to stretch our resources too thin.” Recently four staff went to Senegal to see Yossou Ndour who has recently launched his own TV station called TFM because he wants to have a programme like the XYZ Show on it. There was talk of collaboration and that they may make the puppets for it. They have also been in talks with a TV station in Ghana.

One programme isn’t a whole trend but you get the sense that younger viewers in Kenya enjoy the irreverent portrayals of their political masters and that there is enough political space that it can continue. Currently it has 30,000 Facebook friends and a lively and active blog. Is Kenya simply different or is the start of something that will sweep across the continent?

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