The Big Debate is back on SABC2 with Redi Tlhabi

Redi Tlhabi (Gallo Images)
Redi Tlhabi (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The Big Debate has suddenly burst back onto the SABC with  skilled presenter and interviewer Redi Tlhabi back as the moderator.

The Big Debate, with several significant updates for the social media and internet age, made its 8th season debut on SABC2 – where it disappeared from four years ago.

Asked how the revival of The Big Debate on the SABC came about, Thabiso Bhengu, senior content producer on the show, told the SABC’s Morning Live this week that “when a notorious somebody left the SABC, the SABC was happy to have us back”.

“And we’re happy to be helping the SABC to become what it should be, which is the best public broadcaster in the world,” he said.

In November 2013 The Big Debate – just before it was supposed to start and with three episodes of its 5th season already filmed – was abruptly removed from the SABC2 schedule.

The SABC said at the time that The Big Debate was “incorrectly commissioned and compromised the editorial oversight of the SABC newsroom”.

The SABC-neutered season of The Big Debate was instantly picked up by eNCA (DStv 403) and that broadcast three seasons of the lively town hall debate type show that ended with a 7th season in 2016 with Masechaba Ndlovu as moderator.

A bold, brazen return of free speech

Now The Big Debate is “back” on SABC2 as a hard-hitting current affairs talk show that had no less than the topic of “State Capture” for its first new episode.

It is something that would have been unheard of on the SABC of just a year ago, with widely disparate guests on The Big Debate ranging from Floyd Shivambu (EFF deputy president) and Mzwanele Manyi (ANN7 owner) to Vytjie Mentor (former ANC chief whip) – all sitting and debating each other passionately in the black backdrop studio interspersed with a few banners.

“We invited the president, we invited the Guptas, we invited Brian Molefe, so that they can also contribute to this narrative,” said Redi in a refreshing frankness on the SABC airwaves. 

“They didn’t take up the invitation. When people are not here it is not because we don’t want to hear them. But for some reason they don’t want to participate in this debate,” she said.

With the show’s bold and brazen return, the SABC is sending a very strong signal and a significant marker that the struggling public broadcaster is working hard on turning around the erosion the past few years of its current affairs programming and news, and the trust in it.

The Big Debate made its debut on Saturday evening and surprised when it started with moderator Redi, who recently left her perch behind the Radio 702 microphone and said that she plans to go to America for further academic studies.

As an assertive and extremely knowledgeable and experienced interviewer, the well-liked moderator on Saturday evening brought her credibility and cache to bear on the show, with Redi who instantly elevated the SABC’s current affairs credibility despite The Big Debate being slotted into a doldrum timeslot on television’s least watched day of the week. 

Like democracy the first live broadcast episode of The Big Debate was a loud, zany, almost ungovernable, glorious mess. 

Sound and some other production problems didn’t dim the cacophony of voices, all excitedly reaching for the roving mic and speaking up with varying opinions while the positive and critical comments of viewers scrolled by.

Some people unexpectedly got up and walked off set despite the floor manager telling them to remain seated. Cellphones rang. It was the most alive, unvarnished and authentic a current affairs TV viewers have seen on the SABC in years.

Big changes

The Big Debate’s latest season marks a dramatic departure from existing SABC current affairs shows, and is a big improvement and a big step forward for SABC public audience interaction and participation.

For the first time, the show, done from Shine Studios in Johannesburg, is being broadcast live. It enables social media users to interact directly with the show by sending comments and questions that are being scrolled on screen. 

With studio guests sitting in the show’s well-known five-ringed seating pattern, The Big Debate, besides being shown on SABC2, is also being simulcast at the same time on SABC News (DStv 404), as well as on the SABC radio station, SAfm, unlocking bigger public broadcasting synergy. 

After the scheduled hour long episode of the show is over, The Big Debate now also continues seamlessly for another hour as a streaming show on YouTube with the various studio guests answering questions and making more comments. 

Also back, in a sense – and helping to elevate the SABC’s quality of broadcasting although they’re not working for the SABC – are several SABC and SABC News veterans working behind the scenes on the production, like Crystal Orderson for instance as one of the content producers.

The new The Big Debate season on the SABC will cover several topics that might seem mundane or well-worn if the show were broadcast elsewhere but that are literally breath-taking and highly notable given that it will be on the public broadcaster.

Upcoming issues that will be tackled include topics like radical economic transformation (“RET”) this Saturday and in 2018 even the controversial nuclear deal.

SABC2 will broadcast a second episode of The Big Debate on Saturday, 2 December and then go on a production hiatus before returning in February 2018 for the remainder of the season.

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