Idols SA is a chimera of sorts. For some people it’s wish fulfilment at its best — the chance to be South Africa’s next great singer or just that person who got their 15 seconds on television. It’s a delightful bit of escapism, providing the opportunity to laugh at the poor souls that enter the competition thinking they have talent. It’s a powerful soap opera offering up soppy tales of impoverished backgrounds and triumphs over adversity. It’s also empowering in a way, providing viewers with the chance to vote for their favourite after much pandering.

But, to others it means a lot more. Namely, Naspers, the media company that introduced the international format to a South African audience and Gareth Cliff, the judge that has been part of the show since 2003.

A debacle between the two has been dominating headlines as of late. When Penny Sparrow compared black people to monkeys, Cliff tweeted that “people really don’t understand free speech at all” in response. He received criticism for what many perceived to be condoning racism and was dismissed by M-Net (the television channel owned by Naspers) following the negative press coverage received.

A battle has emerged that has taken on a “David versus David” narrative depending on whose side you support. Cliff claims he is an “ardent believer of free speech” and finds Nasper’s stance hypocritical. M-Net has stated that it will not align itself with Cliff’s comments and denies charges of unfairness. A lawsuit of R25 million for “wrongful dismissal” has become part of the mix.

Gareth Cliff (Tsheko Kabasia/Gallo Images/Sunday World)
Gareth Cliff (Tsheko Kabasia/Gallo Images/Sunday World)

It’s easy to dismiss the source of the furore. But, the truth is that Idols SA is very important for the parties involved — and for good reason. On M-Net and Mzansi Magic, the channels that broadcast the show, it easily ranks as one of most watched programmes among adults and children. While its American cousin, American Idol, is limping through its fifteenth (and final) season with poor ratings, Idols SA continues to rise, growing in terms of viewership and the votes that pour in each season. Last year’s run broke records with “78.8 million votes” received — more than triple the votes recorded for its preceding season.

It’s no wonder Cliff is fighting to be reinstated back into his position despite his treatment. Cliff earns R356 160 for judging 10 sessions which translates roughly into a cool R35 000 per appearance — an amount few would sniff at. He also enjoys several perks in his judging capacity such as organised transport, accommodation, a daily allowance and business class flights. It’s true that beyond the show Cliff is a popular radio personality and his post-Comedy Central vehicle, Cliff Central, is proving to be successful. But, online radio is a niche market in South Africa — something Cliff himself has acknowledged. Idols SA remains an intrinsic part of his brand and he benefits from the exposure he gains from the show.

His antagonist, Naspers, also values Idols SA. There has been an increase in the uptake of DStv among black people, many of whom watch Idols SA and generate conversations about the show on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. It is also this population driving the significant growth of the company. Since Idols SA has previously come under fire for being racist (read here and here), it’s unsurprising that the company has cut Cliff out in light of the commentary surrounding his Penny Sparrow comments.

There’s also another reason why Idols SA is so important to Naspers. With free voting being offered on their subsidiary, WeChat, the show’s tremendous fanbase factors into the subscriber base for the messenger app. And, more subscribers means more people buying games, stickers and viewing adverts on the platform. At a time when DStv’s monopoly over the paid TV market is being threatened by competitors such as Netflix and WeChat is facing off against WhatsApp, Idols SA is an important part in Nasper’s battles.

A court case between Cliff and M-Net is currently in process. While a winner has yet to emerge, fans of the show have certainly been entertained by the drama created. And, in the unlikely scenario that Idols SA is not aired this year, there’s always The Voice SA which starts later this month.



Rasvanth Chunylall

Rasvanth Chunylall is a media and cultural studies master's student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He currently works as a research assistant with the KZN...

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