Against all odds, 2020 was 20Plenty on DStv

South Africa’s can-do spirit turned 2020’s catastrophes into opportunities to bring us great shows on DStv

Every man, woman, child and dog popped the champagne on New year’s Eve 2019/2020 while crowing about their “2020 Vision” for the incredible things we were set to accomplish, the things we’d do to grow our brands, the places we’d go, the weddings we’d throw and the sights we’d see. We’d all be thinner and more fabulous as we took on the world.

Well… no. Even the most charitably loose readings of our horoscopes got this one wrong.

Thanks to the COVID-19 global pandemic, resolutions became revolutions in how we would live our lives, and by March we were locked indoors, praying and raising a noise for the essential workers who were out there risking their lives to save our families and loved ones in hospitals, keeping us fed and keeping the lights on. It was a 21-day eye-opener. And as banana bread took over the internet, our fitness resolutions turned to wondering if we’d still fit in our clothes when our offices reopened.

In the entertainment industry, the lights in theatres, live-event arenas and sports stadiums went down and would stay down for the rest of the year, while behind the scenes, TV and movie production teams were frantically working out what to do next, and how to keep creating shows. Because in 2020, TV really stepped in to help keep our hopes up, give thanks to everyone on the front lines, and to keep us all entertained during the long wait indoors. We saw celebs – local and international – as we’d never seen them before, filming from their sofas at home, sharing the experience we were all living through, along with their fears, hopes and dreams. We really were alone together. Here are some of the highlights, looking back.

Non-stop Education

DStv kept viewers up to date with what was happening not only in the pandemic, but within the TV industry itself. DStv added channels like news channel Pan-African and AfricaNews to deliver unbiased coverage of the pandemic throughout the African continent and globally. And through the DStv App, DStv opened up its major news channels, from BBC to ENCA, to CNN and the SABC to everyone, whether they had a subscription or not, throughout April. They also opened up kids’ education channel PBS Kids (DStv 313), and SuperSport Play (DStv 238). Across the channels from March 2020, there were documentaries and shows on the pandemic to bring us the latest research and developments in the battle against COVID-19. kykNET’s (DStv 144) current affairs show KN Pandemie was on-air within just 10 days of lockdown being announced.

As well as keeping everyone informed, DStv stepped it up for education. One of the first entertainment sectors to react to the pandemic was educational TV, with the Mindset Network launching Pop Primary to keep primary school children learning within days of the lockdown being announced. March also saw the launch of the DaVinci channel (DStv 319), which proved to be such a hit with its strong educational shows and documentaries that it went on to become a permanent channel.

As well as straightforward educational content, DStv launched the School of Laughter to give all the little kids stuck indoors shows that would make them laugh as they were learning.

Let’s Talk About it

The talkshows were among the quickest to react to the demands of producing TV under lockdown and social-distancing conditions. Given recording equipment and video conferencing, the hosts could do it all with a skeleton crew and pretty much everyone working from home. In the US, South Africa’s Trevor Noah had us seeing the bright side of a very dark time as the comedy sketch news round-up programme The Daily Show became The Daily Social Distancing Show, and over the months we got to watch him slouch around in a hoodie and grow his hair out while still being on point on global and US politics, which didn’t pause a second of their chaos for the Coronavirus.

On with the soapies!

There were 2 types of soap that became essential during the pandemic. One is used to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds (or one round of Happy Birthday To You). The other is there to wash our cares away at the end of a stressful day.

Thanks to the fact that our local soaps had built up stashes of episodes in advance, production lockdowns led to relatively little time offscreen in the end. Behind the scenes, producers were scrambling to meet safety regulations and inventing brand-new ways to film kissing and intimacy scenes, which the actors discussed during DStv’s September Roundtables (an excellent place for all your local behind-the-scenes scoops). And by May, the soaps and drama productions were back up and running again. Did we say running? We mean sprinting! This was an Olympic-level race with shoes flying right off people’s feet to get new programmes up on screens so that viewers barely noticed the gap. Check out the extraordinary effort that channels across the board went through to keep the lights on.

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Meanwhile, three extraordinary new soaps and telenovelas entered our world in 2020. Mzansi Magic’s (DStv 161) telenovela Gomora dropped us into the intersection of gangster and glam on Monday, 30 March with a hijacking and change of fortune that echoed the shock that we were all going through as lockdown hit. With the great Connie Chiume and Katlego Danke going head-to-head as glamourpuss Sandton daughter and kasi crime queenpin mother, by October 2020, Gomora had climbed the list, beating even the mighty Idols SA and starting to nip at the heels of DStv’s top show across all channels, The Queen.

M-Net (DStv 101) launched its first-ever backstabbing billionaire telenovela, Legacy, in September with an all-star cast including Mary-Anne Barlow and Michelle Botes in full Madam mode as a mother and daughter with their eye on the money, and Kgomotso Christopher as the second wife and (not that wicked) stepmother who could inherit the lot.

Not to be beaten, BET (DStv 129) also chose September 2020 to launch its first-ever South African soapie, Isono, with the extraordinary Nthati Moshesh leading the cast as a church lady who is living a secret second life as the East Rand’s most-feared gang boss.

The right kind of drama

June 2020 saw the long-awaited return of one of Mzansi Magic’s (DStv 161) fiercest drama series, Housekeepers, as a second season saw lawyer-turned-housecleaner-turned-murderess Linda Ndlovu, played by the magnetic Thando Thabethe, go undercover at a creepy, horrific funeral home that was keeping itself busy filling those coffins. Originally expected on Monday, 6 April, the pandemic bit hard and it was 2 more months before it was ready to air. But really worth the wait!

M-Net’s (DStv 101) brand-new local drama series Inconceivable beat the lockdown odds and a serious pandemic break to launch its tale of parenthood perils and stolen babies in early September. The drama had addicted fans tweeting, “I can’t cope ’til next week’s episode’, “I caaaaan’t,” and “poor hubby visiting the loo to get me fresh tissues, eventually left me the whole toilet roll”.

With sports on hold around the world, the fearless production team – led by Lockdown’s man with the magic touch, Mandla N – behind Mzansi Magic’s (DStv 161) soccer-centred drama Vula Vala, knew exactly what they were doing when they launched in October. With stars like Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, Tina Jaxa (remember her as Eve in the TV series based on Madam & Eve?) and Darlington Michaels scoring goal after goal on the performance side, Vula Vala has climbed the ranks fast and in its launch month it was already number 12 in the overall DStv viewership ratings.

All the feel with the reals

The year started on a high note with all the romance and drama from the second season of dating reality show The Bachelor SA, which took us from February to the end of May. And in July, we met the first-ever Bachelorette SA, The Bachelor S2’s Qiniso Van Damme, the first lady out of the limo in her season. Madam & Mercy brought us much-needed glamour and humour with their reality show, which launched on Wednesday, 8 April on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161).

The big reality hit of lockdown came from kykNET, whose pop-up channel Kwarantyn (DStv 149) was dedicated to the reality show that followed 2 families that entered quarantine together for 50 days as the country watched.

During lockdown, celebs got us laughing again by playing silly games with hosts Anele Mdoda, Jason Goliath and Ayanda Thabethe in the delightful Celebrity Game Night on E! (DStv 124) as the first season returned from a break in April. No wonder we’ll be getting a second season in 2021.

And front and centre of our “if they cancel, I’m cancelled” list this year was Idols SA. Fortunately they figured their way round the pandemic and had all the audition rounds in the bag before the pandemic hit, leaving them enough time to work out a way forward with the live shows by the time the reality show’s latest season launched in August. But that took frantic paddling behind the scenes.

There was a different kind of passion and drama in The Single Wives SA, which took us on a romantic journey between September and November. Meanwhile, VIA (DStv 147) dialled up the romance and the science with reality show Die Liefde-eksperiment in October.

And Phat Joe and Somizi both overcame social distancing to bring celebs into their kitchens for a good natter and really dished up the inside kiki and controversy, with Cheeky Palate’s launch on 1Magic (DStv 103) in October and Dinner At Somizi’s on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) in July.

And to sweeten November, entries opened for the first-ever South African version of the hit sexy singles dating show Love Island.

Sports goals

The lights are back on, the sports roster is packed and teams around the world are now playing games in front of virtual audiences. But this has been the toughest year for sports, for both fans and players. There was one bright spot in the darkness, though, thanks to SuperSport’s shift to opening up its roster of sports documentaries. The extraordinary Chasing The Sun gripped everyone from devout rugby devotees, to people who don’t even know what stick you hit the rugby ball with, by the heart. It was a perfectly timed celebration of what we can do with unity and a winning spirit. And in no year have we ever needed that message as much as in 2020.

And here’s the thing

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we managed to accomplish in South Africa. Around the globe, production houses got creative to bring us so much brilliant TV that if you hadn’t kept up with the news, you’d have no idea that the world had ground to a halt. It was a year of big stars and big themes. We had the spy obsessions of Sandra Oh’s Killing Eve on FOX (DStv 125); the brilliantly acted Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington drama Little Fires Everywhere on M-Net (DStv 101); and the takedown of the capitalist nightmare in Kirsten Dunst’s On Becoming A God In Central Florida. Then there was the extraordinary imagination and examination of racism in the US in Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country on 1Magic (DStv 103), which paired beautifully with Samuel L. Jackson’s documentary series Enslaved on 1Magic, and the genius of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, also on 1Magic, all of which brought fresh voices and fascinating perspectives on black lives at a time when protests around the world were clamouring for equality and representation.

2020 tried its best to plunge us into darkness, but as we mourn the losses, we also celebrate the triumphs of art, dedication and creativity on TV that kept us entertained, informed, educated and clinging to hope and wonder.

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