The power of the remote control

2013-09-01 14:01

Ferial Haffajee spent a week comparing SA’s24-hour news channels.

Choice. We live in an era of choice. On a Sunday, I read four newspapers – there are a total of 10 across the country.

Every day, I read seven South African titles, and then the Financial Times and New York Times.

This is because I’m a journalist and need to know what’s happening in the media.

And there is competition not only among Sunday reads, but from all the things people do on the day of rest: chilling, chores and church.

Expand this into television and the choice is even greater.

While watching TV, I read on my phone, send text messages and engage social media.

South Africa’s three 24-hour news channels not only compete with each other, but with the power of the remotecontrol to take me to series, blockbusters and a wide choice of international wall-to-wall news channels.

You have to be very, very good to hold my wandering eye.

“When we launched in 2008, we thought our competitors were Sky News and CNN,” says Patrick Conroy, editor in chief of eNCA, South Africa’s first 24-hour news channel, now joined by two others, SABC24 and ANN7.

He continues: “We soon discovered viewers were as likely to switch over to a movie or popular soap opera.”

It takes a lot to satisfy viewers who, with such choice, have become very picky.

As ANN7 has discovered, it takes a lot to satisfy today’s discerning consumers.

And we’re going to have way more choices once we migrate to digital broadcasting.

“Five years ago, a live crossing was impressive. Today, viewers expect to see a live crossing the moment a story breaks on Twitter,” says Conroy.

“The pace of 24-hour news has speeded up. The pressure is relentless.”

Polish. Polish. Polish.

That’s the advice from Kim Norgaard, CNN Africa Bureau chief.

When CNN launches a product, be it a new channel, studio or show, it is dry-run (rehearsed) for weeks or even months.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based global newscaster, ran like-live rehearsals for months ahead of their recent American launch.

Slickness is the price of competing in a fierce market. And even that didn’t help – Al Jazeera America’s early ratings are dismal.

They will battle to win over politically wary American viewers.

Purpose is also important, says Norgaard. “There must be a reason to watch. (CNN founder) Ted Turner wanted the world to shrink and for people to learn about each other. To satisfy our curiosity about each other.”

Besides polish and purpose, the other essential ingredient is talent. CNN only hires journalists and if they’re good-looking, that’s a bonus.

To critics of the fetish for looks, Norgaard points out: “Television is a visual medium.”

Hiring journalists means you can throw out the Autocue (the prompting device that displays scripts for anchors) and go live.

Good journalists ask good questions, says Norgaard.

“Our journalists must be well-read.” And, adds Conroy: “You don’t just need people; you need the right people with the right stuff. They must be able to work in big teams under enormous pressure and must communicate clearly.”

eNCA now has 500 people with the right stuff.

Of the starting team of about 200 people, only half had television experience.

Training is ongoing and constant.

The “right stuff” also means having the temperament for breaking news.

“When the visuals were beamed in from Marikana, we had no idea that we were about to broadcast pictures of dead and dying miners,” recounts Conroy.

Another time, the control room (the nerve centre of live television) watched in horror as an Ermelo protest turned violent and cameraman Linge Ndambi bled from head injuries as his colleagues watched, helpless.

“Fatigue, stress and burnout are always a concern,” says Conroy.

He adds: “I believe 24-hour news is generally misunderstood. There seems to be a misconception that all it takes is an endless cycle of lights, pretty faces and Autocue copy. If that were true, there would be many more news channels in South Africa.”

The ANN7 news anchors are gorgeous, but half the time I watched, I had no idea what they were saying.

Television professionals give words meaning. They understand what they are telling you and so make you understand.

The Gupta girls fluff their lines, add commas where none exist and know very little about the world.

Plus, it’s clear (and cruel) that they were not adequately trained or rehearsed.

It is a major gap and gaffe on ANN7, where mispronunciation and poor ticker tape spelling has made the channel a competitor not of eNCA or SABC24, but of LNN, the popular news satire show.

Where there is talent, there is insufficient production value.

Chantal Rutter Dros, formerly of eNCA and Carte Blanche, is a seasoned pro, but without an effective back office, she too stumbles over poor scripts and spelling.

Bulletins lack pace and packages, though interesting, feel like they need another edit. A great break on the slime-green travails of the formerly wonderful Hartbeespoort Dam needed pace and better camerawork to give it impact. Watch a seasoned pro from the international networks.

They constantly switch shots and move their journalists around to give you the full picture that makes CNN, Sky, the BBC and Al Jazeera a joy to watch – even with the sound off.

Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon was brilliant on television when the SABC was first democratised, so I looked forward to her breakfast show on Vuka Afrika.

Again, it needs slicker production.

When I tuned in, her interviews ran for 10 minutes on topics (how to build your brand; a convert from Islam to Christianity in Northern Nigeria) more suited to an afternoon show.

We all have ADD (attention deficit disorder) these days, so TV must be gripping to hold you. Jimmy Manyi and Arthur Mafokate, ANN7’s other big names, are going to need tough executive producers to make them stars.

At SABC24, there is more depth and the channel is finding its feet. It has a competitive edge in multilingual news and the breadth of its correspondents. But quality is uneven.

The evening bulletin, for example, is ably led by Vabakshnee Chetty, but her co-anchor, Peter Ndoro, is too slow and elegant for the pace of a primetime news bulletin.

With five years on air and owners who have deep pockets, eNCA leads the field.

Study trips to the best channels around the world have paid off.

eNCA is world class, from the quality of its studios to the prepping of presenters.

SABC24 can make it work. It has the studios and the people, but is it slick enough to compete on a very competitive bouquet?

What of ANN7? Its editor in chief, Moegsien Williams, declined an interview this week, but invited me back in a month because they need to settle down first, he said.

I can’t wait to go and see if a nation of television critics has an impact on its quality and style. I certainly hope so.

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