The folks on "The Cosby Show" are actually white, possibly by way of Nigeria. Or so figures the manager of media relations for the South African Broadcasting Corp., which airs the show in the land of apartheid.
"You call the Cosbys (the Huxtables) black, but here they'd be considered part of the white community, although of the colored persuasion," said the SABC's Lucas De Lange by phone from Johannesburg. "Perhaps of Nigerian extraction."
De Lange implied that this socio-racial mutation has partly to do with Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable's high economic and social standing: Such success skews the usual rules in South Africa of racial separation and categorization. De Lange stressed that it's difficult for outsiders to understand certain South African perspectives on race.
Summing up in his clipped British accent, De Lange said cheerfully: "The Cosby family would not be regarded here as a black American family."
Through a press rep, Cosby said that he "views the Huxtables first as an American family, which is not to deny that he also views them as a black family." The publicist added, "He (Cosby) would never deny his blackness--indeed, he's extremely proud of his race."
"Cosby" is the current rage among English-speaking South African TV viewers. It began airing last March on Monday nights on Channel 1 (the English and Afrikaans-language channel), where it was consistently rated in the top 10. It was just moved to Saturday nights at 9:30 after a six-week break to shuffle the schedule.
"We don't have figures yet," said De Lange. "But Saturday night is prime viewing time. It's one of the most popular shows, among both whites and people of color."
According to De Lange, there are only 5 to 6 million TV viewers out of South Africa's 32 million residents. The SABC has three basic channels: TV1, which reaches the most literate and affluent segment of the population; TV2, the channel of the Nguni language group, and TV3, the Sotho language channel.
"Cosby," introduced on TV 1, is now shown on TV 4, a special channel that consolidates TV1 and TV3 at 9:30 p.m., when the all-black audience channels go off (a schedule based on the government's belief, said an American journalist there, that blacks should be asleep by then). TV4's potential audience is several million.
The show isn't dubbed and shown on tribal language channels because, De Lange said, the humor wouldn't transcend cultural barriers. (Other American series with black stars or co-stars shown in South Africa have included "Benson," "The Jeffersons," and "Hill Street Blues."
Although press reports say that the SABC routinely censors programming (particularly news), De Lange claimed that "Cosby" is free of government interference.
The star traditionally has kept controversial material out of his comedy routines--and his series hasn't exactly rattled sabres. Yet political messages have been glimpsed: An anti-apartheid slogan has been visible on a bedroom door in the Huxtable household. And the Jan. 16 episode ended with the family huddled in front of the TV, listening to Martin Luther King's stirring "I Have a Dream" speech.
De Lange, who was aware of both episodes in question, said the SABC has no plans to interfere with the segments. "There shouldn't be a problem," De Lange said. "Martin Luther King is highly regarded here. He's probably better understood here than you'd think. He was anti-violence, which is what we want. Martin Luther King had more to do with the dignity of man and sitting down and talking and was against violence."
The "Cosby" anti-apartheid message has already been discussed in the Johannesburg press, but De Lange contends it won't be cut.
"As far as we're concerned, so what?" De Lange said. "We get it (anti-apartheid messages) every day in the press. We have members of the cabinet who are anti-apartheid, who once were in prison for it. So what's a little message on a television show going to matter?"