How entertainment can be used to instigate a cultural shift

How many of us look forward to collapsing on the couch to watch our favourite series at the end of a long day? Or, getting the family together for the traditional Sunday night movie?

Nomsa Philiso, CEO of General Entertainment at MultiChoice Africa

While entertainment has long been viewed as a way to relax, it’s come to mean more than that to many people across the world. A global study from 2018 called The Truth About Entertainment found that 76% of Americans say entertainment has influenced the person they are today. And 60% of people say they have a go-to source for entertainment when they’re feeling low. Dr Valorie Salimpoor, neuroscientist at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto says, “entertainment stimulates the pleasure and reward centres of the brain, which are very central to humanity”.

Entertainment gives us many ways to connect with friends, family, and society at large, helping us de-stress and divert our attention from life’s demands. One could even go as far as saying movies or series help promote happiness, which is fundamental in improving mood, strengthening friendships, and increasing competence. The entertainment industry plays a crucial role in our lives and societies. But how has it changed over the years? And how can something as simple as movies and TV series be used to bring about cultural shifts and the expansion of an audience’s perspectives?        

The value of entertainment in societies and cultures  

I’ve always believed that a good piece of entertainment content should leave you better off than you were before sitting down to watch it. It’s about evoking emotions and displaying elements of relatability so that people feel part of what they’re consuming. In South Africa, at the moment, most audiences are looking for a feeling of hope. Whether you’re watching a period drama, documentary, or a reality series, it’s best if you can come away thinking, “my problems don’t seem so bad, I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end”.  

But, despite wanting to create a positive atmosphere for viewers, the content we create should also reflect the society and community we’re in. It’s about finding a balance between escapism and social realism. It’s important to tackle a few social issues that people care about and find a new way to represent themes and angles that might help create corrective or teachable moments. It doesn’t have to feel like learning for a test but, hopefully, audiences come away with a little more insight into and understanding of current issues. In this way, entertainment can be used as a catalyst to encourage diverse conversations, foster a culture of tolerance, and help create a more inclusive society.   

Challenging viewers and content creators

A show like Becoming…, that explores the lives of four trans-gender people from conservative African backgrounds, pushes the boundaries when it comes to the stories we tell on TV. We certainly wouldn’t have seen anything like it 10 or 15 years ago. But it became incredibly popular and has even been renewed for a second season. Challenging content creators and viewers with these stories has multiple benefits. It gives certain viewers an opportunity to see stories similar to their own on screen, it expands the knowledge of audiences, and it helps reflect the modern culture we’re part of. Hopefully, it also helps shift today’s community culture to be even more open minded and accepting. Bravery, inclusivity, and authenticity are three ingredients for success in today’s entertainment industry.    

Where are we headed?

While the willingness to learn or broaden one’s understanding isn’t the same everywhere in Africa, there’s more demand for provocative content than you’d imagine. This is evident in social spaces where people feel more confident expressing their true opinions and preferences – and that’s a brilliant place to generate content ideas.

It also helps to have several platforms on which to display various content. While live TV may encourage more family-friendly viewing, there’s nothing stopping anyone from streaming a show like Devilsdorp or Sex in Afrikaans on their mobile tablets in a private room. There’s definitely room to be more experimental on streaming services – and audiences are lapping it up. It’s clear that today’s culture is vastly different to that of 50 years ago, and it’s the entertainment industry’s job to not only reflect the current culture but keep pushing it to evolve and adapt.    

Entertainment is a form of activity that holds the attention and interest of an audience, giving pleasure and delight. Understanding how entertainment functions as part of culture could lead to an important interaction with others in how people see the world. People are all influenced by media – TV, film, music, and internet culture – almost more than they are influenced by their surroundings. For this reason, it’s vital to view entertainment as more than simply passing the time. Entertainment provides a valuable opportunity for stories, characters, and themes inclusive of all kinds of people to be shared, because educating audiences can shift cultural norms and understanding.