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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why The Absence Of Documentaries On Nigerian Televisions!

Wow...I will never forget how we used to sit around my father's television, way back then awaiting any and every documentary that will be shown on our local TV stations.

It is so amazing and quite disheartening too that documentary films, shot either on celluloid or video, have literarily disappeared from the screens of Nigeria-based television stations.

This is another example of the chronic Nigerian situation in which the rapid expansion of 'facilities' unexplainably and invariably translates into the scarcity of essential 'commodities.'

As I write this, in a situation where crude oil production has increased and, there are at least three refineries and many thousands of 'filling stations' across the country, we are at the mercy of a crippling kerosene shortage, causing hardship to households and an expanded indigenous aviation industry.

Time was, leading up to the real 'golden' age of television in Nigeria in the early and mid-eighties, when we had the Nigerian Television Authority network (viewed by up to 30 million people daily) and sub-stations in most state capitals. There was an excellent menu of daily programmes on TV that included an assortment of documentary programmes.

One would have thought, logically, that the opening-up of the electronic broadcasting sector under Babangida - which allowed for the participatory presence of a multitude of state government as well as private television and radio stations - would have been accompanied by a flourishing volume of a variety of television programmes including documentaries.


Alas, the opening-up was accompanied by a devastating commercialisation policy which ensured that both the NTA and the new generation of state government and private TV stations opted for the line of easy financial resistance.

They drastically changed their programming from a rich menu of diverse programmes to essentially predictable 'cash-cow' fare, almost entirely sponsored, except for news broadcasts.

There is cultural and creative evidence that those who by design, rather than by merit, were chosen to run the NTA, were limited and prejudiced by their personal preferences, not to protect the preservation of documentary programmes. In the case of a particular head of TV, a renowned drama buff, there was a disproportionate proliferation of entertainment shows.

And, by this example, the trend was established for the new private stations to set store with entertainment programmes. These, by the power of their commercial sponsorship, have now become the huge chunk of TV programming on NTA and other fifty-odd TV stations in Nigeria today.

TV is about information

Those who are now acclaimed as the 'fathers' of TV in Nigeria, including the engineer, heads of NTA, definitely lost the plot on rich and balanced programming way before the mid-eighties when they failed to realise that news and current affairs aside, TV is about information.

Ideally, there should be a variety of documentaries in a higher proportion than entertainment. It is this proper mix and blend of information and entertainment that has created the 'new' concept of infotainment in mass communication. This explains why predominantly all-news TV stations like CNN, BBC World, and Aljazeera also feature documentaries and entertainment.

Three decades on, the multitude of Nigerian television stations really have nothing exciting to offer (apart from the obvious government-slanted news) than talk shows, phone-in-programmes, sponsored dance-and-music competition show, Nollywood movies, loads of religious slots, and the now in-thing, voyeur reality.

Relay stations

Where are all the documentary programmes on Nigerian television? Gone with the wind of commercialisation, one would say.

One is tempted to conclude that the state governments and private individuals who set up TV stations and chains in Nigeria, deliberately or ignorantly forgot the hard facts that TV is definitely capital intensive and very much about a rich programming menu.

Yes, with available lower-level technology, it is now possible to set up 'cheap' small TV stations, for use on campus to provide hands-on experience for mass communications students. And the vast majority of stations masquerading as TV stations in Nigeria can best be categorised as 'relay stations'.

It is very humbling to note that while many so-called TV stations in Nigeria have less than six cameras (VHS cameras in many cases), CNN used as many as 1000 state-of-the-art HD cameras to cover just the Democratic Party Convention to choose their presidential candidate.

The case for the prominent return of documentaries of varying lengths and on various subjects, on Nigerian TV screens cannot be overflogged. They make for excellent fillers between programmes as well as legitimate programmes with their own time belt. Music videos, usually sponsored, have now become fillers on most Nigerian TV stations.

Unfortunately, the rapid proliferation of radio stations in Nigeria has also resulted in the decline of content quality and variety on radio.

They hardly offer programmes like radio drama, book reviews, specialist women and children's programmes, and radio documentaries.

We need documentaries on both Nigerian TV and Radio. They are akin to features in the print media. They inform and educate and, God knows that we all need to be educated on a whole lot of things about and in Nigeria.

Back in the day

In 1984 alone, NTA Network's Documentary Unit, to which I was a consultant, produced many documentaries as diverse as Command and Staff College, Jaji, and Aladja Steel Mill, which were screened to great appreciation.

Then there was C.Y. Okonkwo's series on Agriculture (including NIFOR), Mansur Macaulay as cameraman. It was therefore no surprise that some decades after, Okonkwo's body of documentaries won him an award at the West African Documentary Festival in Accra.

And as far back as 1974, the Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture produced a series of documentaries on various aspect of culture.

Nigeria has an excellent tradition of producing very good documentary films. There are many 'younger' filmmakers who are carrying on this noble tradition. The federal and regional film units have an amazing treasure of documentaties on various aspects of Nigeria that ought to be aired on TV.

Unfortunately, the political ideologues who wanted to rebrand Nigeria did not have the wisdom to realise that documentaries will effectively freshen up Nigeria's image abroad!

We need to tell our own visual stories; both good and ugly, for our own consumption as well for the world's.

Film your own

We grumble about BBC's documentary on the challenges of building a megacity like Lagos.

Recently, Aljazeera aired its own documentary, Streets of Lagos. Much the same, with visual emphasis on Makoko, street trading, and a slap-in-the-face shot of a scavenger waving a huge Nigerian flag in the middle of a rubbish-dump mountain. A few hours after the bomb attack on the Force Headquarters, Abuja, Aljazeera aired a quasi-documentary on Boko Haram.

The inability and reluctance of Nigerian TV stations to air many documentaries are down to twin reasons. A lack of a budget for documentaries tied to the reality of not wanting to pay well for independently-produced documentaries and, a lack of the creative foresight that most TV programmes other than the News are farmed out or sourced from independent producers.

Luckily, the Film Institute in Jos and Mass Communications departments in Nigerian tertiary institutions are yearly producing the needed manpower.

Depending on corporate and social documentaries for which the sponsors pay air-time cannot compensate for the relative dearth of a spectrum of documentaries Nigerian TV stations should screen daily.

To a great extent, it is their social responsibility.



  1. Great article and it is very on point on what's happening.

  2. Thanks Obehi, this is a very nice write up.

  3. The music and home video we see on our TV's these days is getting too much. If only they will change.

  4. I can't remember the last time I saw a documentary on our local television. this is really serious.

  5. This is a good article. Because its hard to fine such pack of facts this time around. Good job there.

  6. I remember when I actually waited for documentaries as I was growing up but this time around, the story has changed.

  7. I thought I was alone missing out on the show, good to know that some of you out there are also missing out on it. Thanks for all your comments!

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