Cape Town – Since TV journalist John Webb left South Africa just over a year ago, he didn't disappear from Carte Blanche. In fact, he did the opposite – jet setting globally and infusing the long-running weekly current affairs show on M-Net (DStv 101) with a "worldwide Webb" perspective through interesting, pertinent and beautifully-done inserts for viewers.
Since John emigrated to the United Kingdom just over a year ago, he has not only kept to and made good on his promise to remain and keep reporting on the show – he has wholly shattered and surpassed all expectations.
He has helped elevate South Africa's long-running, weekly investigative programme on M-Net that has remained outstanding, to even more eye-popping and must-see appointment television on Sunday nights at 19:00.
Bringing incredible production values and visuals to Carte Blanche as he continues to file multiple absorbing inserts and interviews from the United Kingdom, and across Europe, John as producer and presenter has managed to successfully infuse the venerable current affairs show in its 31st year of pay-TV existence on DStv with something incredible – a great international flavour.
Carte Blanche and the seemingly indefatigable John broadcast a fascinating insert on global warming when he went to Sweden on assignment in October 2018, utterly mesmerising visuals and can't-look-away storytelling formed part of the package.
It was beautifully shot.
Part of the incredible scene-setting shots included fly-over landscape panning scenes of the Swedish wilderness along winding roads. It was movie quality and done using a camera drone – a seemingly small touch that elevated the entire story and enhanced it in scope, content, visuals and substance.
You don't see that in or on South African weekly television on a regular basis and the effort, the thought, and the enhanced production values in that unforgettable moment raised the bar.
The incredible quality of camerawork, combined with exciting topics, and well-done research that are part of John's filed overseas stories have now been seen several times since.
Channel24 decided to reach out to John not just about his incredible and dedicated work over the past year for Carte Blanche but to find out how working for the show has been different since he's been doing global stories from afar.
"The most significant difference has been taking on the additional challenge of producing as well as presenting the inserts," says John.
"It's heightened my regard for the Carte Blanche production team which has – for 30 years – generated amazing content in often very taxing conditions and with very short turnarounds.
"You're taking responsibility for something which is only a concept when you begin shooting – a collection of thoughts and images in your mind's eye – and trying to find the visual and human components that bring it to life.
"Not only that, but then you have to bring it to life in a way that draws people into their TV rooms on a Sunday night – and, while doing that, you're booking yet another Uber and thinking about what to buy your crew for lunch," John explains.
"It's also brought home the central role of the presenter – not only as the person guiding the viewer through the complexities of any given story but as someone to turn to for help with the creative process and bounce ideas off.
"In my case, the absence of a second set of eyes and ears can sometimes be a little disconcerting," he says. "In those instances, it helps to have a camera operator not afraid to voice an opinion."
TALES FROM A TRUE INTERNATIONAL TV CORRESPONDENT
And who now comes up with the story-ideas that will find John in Italy the one week, interviewing experts about Brexit, or literally standing in the middle of a frozen river somewhere in Europe?
"These are discussed and dissected at our weekly editorial meetings," he says. "The ideas come from the producers themselves, the editorial and management team or our excellent researchers. They're pitched, discussed, refined and then either approved or turned down."
"It's a thorough and – quite rightly – rigorous process. The challenge for me is finding ideas that will make it through that process unscathed," says John. "And that means stories that aren't being shot in Europe simply for shooting in Europe's sake."
"For example, a piece-to-camera in the middle of a Norwegian fjord might look extraordinary, but there'd be very little point filming one if what was happening in Norway wasn't in some way relevant to a South African audience.
"So, while there are always interesting events unfolding in the northern hemisphere, our task is to seek out the ones we think our viewers will feel a connection with. It's an inexact science, and it's always extremely helpful to have the input of the editorial team in Johannesburg, as well as the other producers and presenters.
"Thankfully, I think our audience responds to a wide variety of stories. The key is ensuring they're well-told and well filmed. And, given that we're in the story-telling business, as long as we get that part right, we're on the right track."
Then I ask John – who already travelled extensively to several places and countries around Europe the past few months, how this experience has been.
"Travelling is one of the great privileges of this job," he says. "Driving through the magnificent tundra of the far north of Sweden or sharing a bowl of clams with a cameraman in downtown Lisbon isn't part of the job description of too many other professions. It also helps that nowhere seems too far away when you're flying within Europe. I can board a plane in Dublin at 06:00 and be shooting pieces-to-camera in Munich three hours later."
"There's also an upside to using local crew when shooting abroad. They tend to show great enthusiasm as amateur tour guides and are often very knowledgeable. A story in Germany last year involved a long drive from Munich to Stuttgart.
"The cameraman, while driving at an obscene speed down the autobahn, filled me in on just about every historical aspect of the areas we were passing through. My life would be poorer for not knowing how deeply some Germans feel about asparagus!" he says.
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REACHING OUT IN THE DARK WITH A NEW CONTRIBUTION
When you moved, did you think you would do such a lot of stories and inserts, I ask? Was it a brave goal from the beginning, or something that developed and continued more organically?
"I certainly hoped to do as many but, in a lot of ways, I was reaching out in the dark," says John. "I wasn't sure I would be able to regularly find stories that my colleagues would consider interesting and worthy of an insert. I'm absolutely thrilled that it's worked out that way and delighted that my executive producer, Wynand Grobler, sees the value in global content."
And what does he want to say about this new chapter of working for Carte Blanche from the United Kingdom? "I'm sure I'm going to be accused of cheerleading here, but I think it's important to say that Carte Blanche, even by global comparisons, is a unique product," he says. "I simply don't see, outside of the flagship programmes on the major networks, anyone in any other part of the world with our level of content."
"Of course, there's astonishing programming being produced all over the world at any given time, but to broadcast up to five world-class inserts week-in and week-out is quite unprecedented. And the ability to make my contribution from thousands of kilometres away is a rare privilege."
Carte Blanche is broadcast on M-Net (DStv 101) on Sundays at 19:00. It is also available on MultiChoice's DStv Now Catch Up, and is also made available to international Showmax subscribers.