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All Africa, All the Time

Giving an unsung continent a boost in the ratings


Get ready to program Africa into your TV remote. If James Makawa and his partners at the North Hollywood-based Africa Channel have their way, your cable menu soon will include round-the-clock programming centered on Africa and Africans. With Jacob Arback, a former vice president of DirecTV International, and Richard Hammer, a former executive with Columbia Pictures Television, Makawa, a native of Zimbabwe, hopes to show audiences facets of Africa not frequently seen in mainstream media reports. Africa Channel programming includes original newsmagazine, reality TV, travel and soap opera segments produced largely in Johannesburg in partnership with Weller/Grossman Productions. The channel will debut late this summer in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., areas, and it's negotiating for slots in Los Angeles and other American markets. For CEO Makawa, a 45-year-old Santa Monica resident, the Africa Channel is a chance to do good. We tuned in to find out what's on.

Why an Africa Channel?

Let me put it this way: The country of Nigeria has more than 100 million people. Did you know that the United States of America, including Alaska, will fit into Africa about two and a half times? There are almost a billion people on that continent. It deserves recognition in so many ways, and it continues to be ignored. Take Coca-Cola. One of its most profitable operations is in Africa. There's no money in Africa; there's loads of money in Africa. That's the paradox. Africa not only has resources, it also has buying power. That Africans have money is the biggest-kept secret in the world. People only started flocking to China and Southeast Asia when people started having information about China and Southeast Asia. They started seeing pictures. CNBC, CNN started broadcasting and so on. Why do it now? Well, it's about time.

Can you give us some examples of Africa Channel programming?

"Carte Blanche" is our version of "60 Minutes." Great feature reporting, both hard and soft, dealing with people and issues and stories across the entire [African] continent. You'll see soap operas. I may not be the biggest soap fan in the world, but these soaps also portray the African in a different light. These people are educated, these people have cultural issues to deal with, they've got ambitions, they have love interests just like everybody else. You never see Africans portrayed in a loving way.

What does that mean?

Africans are simply portrayed as tribespeople. It goes back to the Tarzan era. It's somebody else's interpretation of what Africa should be. That image will persist unless we start to take care of our own images. [Tribesmen] are a subset of what we have. We're proud of the heritage and rural life that goes on in conjunction with the urban life. But when you portray just that, it says, "These people are uneducated, these people have no capability of being able to function in the modern-day world, we cannot go there and do business."

Why do you think that is?

You know, if it bleeds it leads. There's just this focus on disaster. Oh, poor Africa, those victims over there. That has got to change. Africa cannot be a bottomless pit for aid. [Africans] are proud, resilient, resourceful people. Irrespective of all the challenges Africans have, they are alive people. They are not dying off everywhere. As it stands now, everybody in Africa might as well be relegated to the dump heap. [Americans] don't see that Africans are actually in pubs dancing and having a great time. They don't experience this.

But Africa faces severe problems. Will your programming address issues such as AIDS?

Absolutely. [The AIDS crisis] is the defining moral issue of our time. Our intention is to try to balance these issues with other information about Africa. We know we have some tough issues to deal with, and we will deal with them. War, famine, AIDS, corruption. If we don't deal with these issues, we won't have any credibility. The Africa Channel will not be all rah-rah.

Most of your programming is currently slated to come out of South Africa, which has more prosperity and infrastructure than many regions of the continent.

We had to start with a place that had the kind of [production] quality we were looking for. Also, South Africa practices copyright law that is internationally recognized. This doesn't mean [the Africa Channel] is not going to be addressing things from all over Africa. "Studio 53," one of our travel shows--53 being the 53 countries--goes all over Africa, including the adjacent islands, from Mauritius to Cape Verde to Mali to Ghana.

At this stage, the channel is being marketed to air in non-African countries rather than Africa. Why?

The people who need to be informed most about Africa, the people who make decisions about trade with Africa, [are in] the United States. Unless the most powerful nation in the world knows of Africa and understands it, nothing will change. We'll start here, we'll go to Europe, Asia and get back to Africa.

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