For more than two weeks now, fans across the country have been wondering why NTV's hit miniseries, The Hostel, has not been showing.
The only official communication Fasttrack Productions - the popular show's makers - put out to that effect was a brief post on their facebook wall informing fans that they had taken a Christmas break.
"We will be back on Monday 14th January 2013. Make sure you watch the show. It's going to be epic," read the December 21 post in part, which was not telecast on NTV, leaving millions of fans in the dark.
However, it has now emerged Christmas was only a convenient excuse to cover up for a pool of problems that had eventually forced Fasttrack to suspend the show's production and airing. The Hostel, which has largely courted positive reviews since its premiere in February 2011, may in fact not return to the airwaves any time soon, we can reveal.
Bosses at Fasttrack have intimated to us how they have been compelled to halt the show, whose fine production and cast endeared it to fans across Africa.
"The truth is that we have been having financial challenges ever since we had issues with two of our top sponsors," Fasttrack MD and veteran journalist, Conrad Nkutu told us. "High inflation rates have forced [sponsors] to adopt aggressive cost-cutting measures."
The Observer has established the sponsors in question are MTN and Uganda Health Marketing Group (UHMG) which halved and completely terminated - respectively - their sponsorship packages for the third season.
"We lost over 40% of the initial sponsorship package and this has hurt us so badly," Nkutu said, revealing only Housing Finance bank and Pepsi have maintained their original discharges.
Nkutu admits his company's choice to sell the show to sponsors rather than TVs might also have escalated their financial woes. The normal arrangement would have been that Fasttrack sells The Hostel to NTV. It would then be NTV's discretion to look for advertisers so as to recoup its money. But instead, Fasttrack opted to get its own sponsors and buy the hefty airtime of NTV.
"All the TVs didn't believe that a local soap [could] attract advertisers, let alone last through one season," Nkutu said, explaining the deal had only fetched paltry profits that could not sustain the show.
"We have now decided to sell the show to TVs. We are in talks with both Kenya and Uganda's NTVs and M-net," Nkutu said, promising fans the show will resume in mid-February.
Nkutu also lifted the lid off the mystery surrounding the exit of three of the show's lead actors - Isaac Kuddzu (Sober) Richard Tuwangye (Twine) and Daniel Omara (Odoch). The trio's exit was justified in the storyline as each of them met their fate differently. But in real life, the actors left on messy terms.
"I am a big fan of these lads and I feel they are great actors. But they had become intolerable, leaving us no choice but to fire them," Nkutu said, adding that Tuwangye and Kuddzu were fired for indiscipline while Omara demanded a 300% pay rise.
"We tried reasoning with him but he remained adamant. He refused to come to work and production had to stop since he was the main character," Nkutu said of the city comedian whose stint as the hostel hustler won him massive acclaim and a fan base.
"It cost us a lot of money and time since we had to go back and change the entire script. We even had to destroy some of the already shot episodes where he appeared. We could have easily sued him," Nkutu lamented.
He said Tuwangye and Kuddzu's absenteeism got out of hand when the duo spent three days without setting foot at the Luzira-based location that acts as the titular hostel that houses a bunch of university students.
Ex-star speaks out
A former actor on the urban-set TV show has nonetheless disputed Nkutu's allegations that the aforementioned trio was fired. "We all decided to quit because of the exploitation and greed of Fasttrack," this ex-star told us.
"How can you claim to be the best-paying set in Uganda when you only offer Shs 50,000 per episode?" he queried, adding the show's directors put inhumane demands on the actors, including having to appear on set from Monday to Saturday, 7am-7pm.
The actor also said the contracts The Hostel cast is made to sign are so binding and leave no room for exit.
"Some of us were smart enough to reject those clauses on our contracts and that is why we were able to pull out. Most of those young actors were so naïve about contracts and that is why they are suffering now," he said.
But Nkutu said the contracts between his company and the more than 50 members of The Hostel's cast and crew are lenient. He, however, said: "We have now made it clear that whoever leaves in that manner will face the consequences - we will tell the public about it."
The ex-star also talked of disgruntlement among the cast, including constant fights over love affairs.
"These are things the MD never gets to know of," he said, praising Nkutu for being a father figure to the actors. The actor heaped the blame on the underbosses.
The sudden suspension of what has been a highly-successful show has cast its long-rumoured problems in the spotlight and raised fresh questions about its ability to continue. Some of the current members of the cast seem to be sure of the future.
"There is nothing going on right now. I am just waiting for a phone call summoning me back to work," one actor said, before dismissing his former co-stars' claims that they are paid peanuts. "Those people overestimated themselves. They were impatient and greedy."
Several other members of the cast we spoke to said they expected production to resume either late January or early February. But Nkutu says mid-February.
"The Hostel is here to stay. We are looking at over ten seasons," he says of the show now midway its third season. "We are currently working on another five TV shows."
The Hostel cannot be easily written off. Barely two years on air, it has achieved what no other local TV programme could ever dream of, becoming the most viewed entertainment show across East Africa, according to respected research organization, Synovate. No any other Ugandan production had ever provided a bigger platform to its actors than The Hostel, thanks to its global audience courtesy of DStv and NTV Kenya.
The drama series also boasts of a strong professional crew, comprising some of Uganda's most celebrated directors and writers. However, it now remains to be seen how long the prize show can hold on to its past glory.