6 minute read

Opinion | The early days of TV

By Stephanie Saville

My dad had a famous saying at that time directed at anyone who entered the sacred area of the TV lounge: “Come in, sit down and shut up.”

Stephanie Saville, the editor of The Witness.

Cast your mind back to the first days of TV in South Africa.

The whole concept was regarded with suspicion by the Nats.

Could we, the South African population, be trusted with it?

To be on the safe side, we were dished up wholesome white-centric programmes by the state broadcaster — Haas Das, Biltong and Potroast, The Dingleys (modelled on a PMB bookshop!),The Villagers, Little House on the Prairie — with precious little for people who were not from the pond in which the National Party fished for votes.

The little we had was imbibed voraciously.

My dad had a famous saying at that time directed at anyone who entered the sacred area of the TV lounge: “Come in, sit down and shut up.”

We didn’t have pause buttons back then.

Hell, we didn’t have remotes!

Now, remember the night Dallas was on the telly.

ALSO READ | Opinion | Saved by the jelly

(Was it a Tuesday?)

No one went out.

Restaurants may as well have shut their doors as they bemoaned the lack of flashing chefs knives in their kitchens on those nights.

The extraordinary world of JR Ewing, Bobby, Pamela and Swellen, as we thought she was called for the longest time (Sue-Ellen), and their family, friends and foes was a foreign world in our formative years.

Sprawling cattle ranches, the life of the super-rich, love affairs gone haywire and very big hair were incredulous things to be pondered over and fantasised about.

As kids we’d act out scenes from Dallas for fun, choosing parts and ad libbing wildly dramatic dialogue as we hammed it up.

Dallas was an institution because it had morphed into such a pop culture event.

The Equity Ban meant we were often left with the dregs of imports on telly (American) and the little we had was consumed with great excitement.

We didn’t know what wonders we were missing out on from the rest of the world.

Then years later, remember when we thought we were on the cutting edge of technology with simulcast?

We had a TV in our bedroom, hidden in the cupboard, in the first house we owned.

When we heard the Stones’s Paint it Black, the theme song for Sending (mission) Vietnam, the Afrikaans name for Tour of Duty, we’d quickly turn the sound down on the TV and retune the radio from Capital 604 to the SABC simulcast channel, to listen to the original American soundtrack for the series.

ALSO READ | Opinion | Lost and found

The SABC in its National Party lack of wisdom thought it better to transmit the amateurishly dubbed Afrikaans version rather than the original American soundtrack on the TV programme.

Often the simulcast was not quite in sync with the picture so the audio didn’t match the video.

So damn annoying.

But the series was excellent in its drama and characterisation, and the guy and I lived for those nights when we’d share a slab of chocolate in bed after the kid had gone to sleep.

(Don’t tell her. She may demand reparations.)

That “LT”, lieutenant character was in truth not at all unpleasant to look at either.

(Don’t tell the guy I said that.)

What about China Beach, another American series also about the Vietnam war.

I looked at the cost to buy the full series online a while ago but in dollars, it translated to too many rands.

Maybe one day.

And Mash!

We loved those series because they at least made some attempt to protest the tragedy and futility of the war, in a way SA drama had not been allowed to protest about the border war under NP rule.

All these series were broadcast just once a week.

If you missed an episode, it was gone forever.

There was no catchup or streaming back then.

We organised our lives to be able to watch them.

In each episode we had a brief interlude with the characters, immersing ourselves in their lives and stories for 40 edge-of-your-seat minutes or so.

Then, just when the latest high-drama had been unveiled in a thrilling climax, poof! the credits rolled and it was all gone again.

You’d have to wait an agonising week for the next instalment.

Who remembers how “Who shot JR?” was the talk of the town.

Do you remember who it was? (I had to Google the perpetrator of the greatest crime of its time, to be honest.)

I was taken back to those days this week as the guy and I binge-watched yet another great series.

We don’t generally hop around within series, unless they are incredibly heavy going and we need some light relief before bedtime to get us into a more relaxed frame of mind.

We find a series we really enjoy and watch a few episodes at a time as time allows.

Watching multiple episodes with multiple seasons allows a thorough immersion in the lives of the characters, to the point where you feel you really get to know them and their stories.

At the moment we’re watching a very absorbing women’s prison drama and we’re united in our solidarity with the prisoners against the cruel prison governor.

If the guy takes too long to shower when I’m waiting to start the next episode at night I get twitchy.

And we have eight seasons to watch. (Yay!)

ALSO READ | Stephanie Saville named to edit ‘The Witness’, lead it into digital future

I’ve learned a lot about life in a prison and I’ve learned how to smuggle contraband in a loaf of bread or a raw chicken if I ever wanted to do that.

The thing about these series is that with social-media exposure they are part of the local and global conversation to the extent that if you don’t watch them, you have a real fear of missing out.

Take the Squid Game phenomenon.

We couldn’t not watch it given the hype around it.

Watching it, you can understand the conversations around it and join in.

If you don’t, you’re on the outside of that.

A paper published online last year at says that binge-watching is associated with mental-health concerns, including stress and anxiety.

According to the authors of “Binge-watching and Mental Health Problems: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”, stronger associations between binge-watching and depression and sleep problems were found during the Covid-19 pandemic than before the pandemic.

Their conclusion is that the “associations between binge-watching and mental-health concerns were significant and positive”.

They recommend that “programmes and interventions to reduce binge-watching should be considered and tested”.


But in a way, how is binge-watching different to binge reading?

As long as we continue to read to feed our brains, binge watching is okay, isn’t it?

As long as it’s after supper and a shower and before reading a chapter or so at night, it is damn well okay in our house.

There’s great hope in the promise of spring, isn’t there.

It was lovely to have had some rain this week too.

If you can get near a flowering jasmine hedge or buddleia tree or scented blossom, breathe that in.

It kind of keeps you going, doesn’t it.

• Stephanie Saville is the editor of The Witness.