The Rise and Fall of ‘Isibaya’

What no longer works.

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The signs were there.

Once the darling of South African television, winning every award, topping the ratings, and dominating social media conversations every night, Isibaya‘s last days have spelled a sad decline for the once critically lauded soapie.

The daily drama, which premiered on Mzansi Magic on March 18th, 2013, will be airing its final episode in the coming weeks. The announcement of the television show’s cancellation might have stung the more than 800 000 daily viewers who tune in to watch their favourite program, but most were not entirely surprised. Or moved.

By the time M-Net confirmed the news last month, speculation had already been rife. The high-profile departures by some of the show’s leading cast members didn’t help quell the fires. The likes of Siyabonga Thwala and Nomzamo Mbatha triggered chatter about the show’s potential canning by mid-2020.

The mass exodus from the show was an indication that folk had begun jumping ship.

Nomzamo Mbatha went on to pursue a Hollywood career, later landing a role on ‘Coming 2 America’. Thwala, on the other hand, joined the formidable cast of ‘Legacy’, picking off where he’d left off with popular daily dramas, which the local channels often call telenovelas.

By the time the likes of Jessica Nkosi and Menzi Ngubane, both previously on Isibaya, started to pursue other projects, at one point both tipped as cast addition on The Queen, it became obvious that Isibaya had been on its last leg.

As if the cast departures weren’t enough, the show’s ratings began taking a gradual dip. Once the highest-rated program across the DStv ecosystem, Isibaya slowly lost hundreds of thousands of viewers. By December 2021, its rating had just been above 800 000. That number pales when compared to the numbers the show once did, once peaking at more than 1,4 million viewers.

The ratings dip went along with storylines that could no longer be justified. Many times without a clear direction, sometimes trying too hard to reinvent the show while alienating its core audience, and other times delivering downright hideous plots. Things started to feel weird and forced.

That was not always the case for the series, however. At the peak of its reign, none of the local television shows could compete. In many ways, the Bomb Productions show played a central role in building up Mzansi Magic to become a leader in local storytelling and entertainment.

Between 2013 and around 2017, the show had sustained the rich portrayal of black life in South Africa from angles previously ignored. With compelling storytelling layered in complexity and nuance, a brilliant ensemble, well-written story arcs with satisfying peaks, and overall amazing production, Isibaya led the pack in all scores.

What could have gone wrong?

For M-Net, it’s all about the ever-changing times. The landscape is now different, and the channel had to adapt to these changes. The channel’s director, Nomsa Philiso, told Channel 24 that “It’s always sad when a show that was popular and loved ends. However, times change and television is about adapting.”

But while there’s no doubt that Isibaya suffered the fate of being outgrown by an ever-shifting audience whose taste eventually checked out, we can also think about the end of this era in other terms.

One take would be the general decline of long-running ‘telenovelas’ and soapies.

Uniquely, local TV channels have largely eliminated actual TV dramas and other traditional primetime formats with the long-running ‘daily dramas’/telenovelas/soapies.

The appeal is obvious. The formula has worked for the better part of the last decade. Daily social media trends are one way to gauge this, as local audiences have become quite immersed in the genre. Ratings have been another.

There’s also the bottom line; why go through the headache of commissioning new shows with different budgets and logistical realities, when you can just keep the one working and proven formula with a more or less stable forecast? The risk, for some, could prove to be scarier in an increasingly competitive landscape. Keep it rolling.

The end of Isibaya, Rhythm City and Isidingo, however, suggests the rise of a new era. Where in the late 1990s and early 2000s could go out with a bang, at their peak, therefore preserving their iconic status, the telenovelas seem to go on until no one can stand them anymore.

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