Kumalo connects Mzansi with authentic stories
Businesswoman finds winning formula with Our Perfect Wedding and other shows that get Black Twitter buzzing
Television titan Basetsana Kumalo walks into her attic boardroom at Connect TV’s headquarters in Braamfontein on an overcast Monday. Wearing a pair of leggings, she’s a far cry from the slay technician her followers see on Instagram. But she’s stylish.
She downs copious amounts of green tea during the interview, then makes us wait while she gets her face ready for photos. "I thought it’s going to be just an interview…. I didn’t know you were going to need a photo shoot as well," she says before dashing downstairs.
One floor below is a posse of no fewer than 50 staffers seated in front of MacBook Pros and other gadgets. "Most of the staff are out on the road," Kumalo says. "They are on shoots. I employ a little over 200 people at Connect alone."
Her crew includes technicians for shows including Date My Family, Utatakho and Mzansi Magic’s number one-rated show, Our Perfect Wedding.
The wedding show is among the highest grossing local productions and one of Africa’s most watched reality shows.
Industry insiders laud it for its dual-screening revolution (the art of watching a TV show while simultaneously tweeting constantly about it).
The show has a propensity to disrupt Black Twitter.
"We simply set out to tell authentic South African stories," Kumalo says. "We decided, going in, that the show was not going to be posed. We don’t curate anything. It’s a reality show — you point and you shoot.
"It’s probably one of my biggest productions and its success is about telling authentic South African stories.
"What we’ve done with Our Perfect Wedding and subsequently with our other reality shows is revolutionised how people consume content.
"We’ve revolutionised Black Twitter. People cannot watch the show without engaging on Twitter. So if you watch the show, you can’t miss the commentary and the engagement … everyone has an opinion," she says. Kumalo says social media has a life of its own and the people interacting on Twitter about Our Perfect Wedding "managed to get other people to fall in love with television again".
The Twitter thread on Sundays provides valuable, real-time audience reactions to the content. When Kumalo pitched for Our Perfect Wedding, she had been producer of Top Billing, the lifestyle magazine TV show she has coproduced with her best friend and business partner, Patience Stevens, for 19 years.
So she had the credibility of a consummate producer, but says her first foray into reality TV was a tad daunting. "Naturally, we went for broke with production and content, but because it’s a new property you are creating, you don’t know if it’s going to resonate with viewers."
WITH TOP BILLING … A MISTAKE WAS THAT THE PRESENTERS THOUGHT THEY HAD A JOB FOR LIFE.
Launched in 2011, the show was informed by the rise of the reality genre and SA’s penchant to celebrate weddings lavishly.
"South Africans are suckers for love stories and we also realised, while working on the concept, that our people wanted to celebrate their love. Think about the proverbial tent when there’s a wedding in the townships. The tent serves as an invitation," Kumalo says.
"So, with viewers who are now part of the ceremony, as it were, everyone is invited. It’s a proud moment — you want to showcase that ‘I’ve saved for 10 years for this do of mine. I’m committing to a person and it’s a big deal’.
"The channel was also obviously looking at trends internationally, and at the time reality as a genre was beginning to take off," she says.
Kumalo says that going into production, there was a call to create a show steeped in the ordinary lives of people. She instructed her team to ensure it had an authentic local flavour.
"I know that when there’s a wedding in the township, there’s always a proverbial malume [uncle] who is sloshed and suddenly becomes the life of the party. So I made it very clear to the team I don’t want anything cut out. It is what it is.
"We know what it is; we know how we live as black people. We know how we celebrate and therefore it has to be reflective of our mannerisms.
"We create content that speaks of how we are as a people and how we live. But at the time, we didn’t know if we had a winning formula."
Previous presenters of Our Perfect Wedding include Nomsa Buthelezi, Tumi Morake, Brenda Ngxoli, Jessica Nkosi and Thembisa Mdoda. The current presenter is Kayise Ngqula.
A change in presenters is necessary, Kumalo says, adding it is important to continually scout for new talent.
"With Top Billing a … mistake was that the presenters thought they had a job for life. People became demigods thinking that Top Billing has to employ them for perpetuity," Kumalo says.
"I realised that I was evolving as a producer who wants to keep the show fresh, so I must also think about the talent in front of the camera."
Kumalo organises a new presenter search every three to four years, to keep Top Billing fresh and exciting.
"Consider the beauty of my Simba [the late presenter Simba Mhere], who came and was embraced. I remember him with great fondness.
"We do the same on Our Perfect Wedding: keep the talent fresh. That gives the show talkability and relevance," she says.
It’s just before midday when we leave Connect TV’s offices and there are several new comments pouring into the Twitter thread about the previous night’s episode of the show.