Conversations with my TV – How will the Fourth Estate survive the Social Spring (Part 1)

media05In Part 1 of “Conversations with my TV” we will explore the state of mind of a good journalist; how transmission of radio waves created enormous potential for good and evil and how good can come out of evil.

If you do not know your sound bite from your Q&A, your angle from your embargo, or your in-cue from your out-cue, you will probably struggle to fit into the world of ENG.

While the 1990s Canadian TV show ENG may have inspired many a broadcast journalist to live their dream, newsrooms all over the world and here in South Africa should ask themselves if they are still in touch with the ordinary people who rely on them for their daily news.

Vox populi (“the voice of the people”) is often lost in today’s world where big media means big power and controlling the Fourth Estate is no longer a noble quest of representing the voiceless masses.

How do world broadcasters like CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera, Russia Today or the NBC Nightly News get it right to marry solid journalistic principles with revenue objectives, while keeping their 21st century culturally diverse, tech-savvy, socially connected global audiences engaged to their traditional TV screens? Or do they?

The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons

The Protestant Reformation was one of the biggest freedom struggles that man has ever seen. When Martin Luther and John Calvin stood up for what they believed in, they had no idea that they ignited a force of change so powerful that the world would be pulled right out of the dark Middle Ages.

Fortunately for them, a new social media technology was on the cards at exactly the right time. The printing press suddenly propelled their small-town campaign above the line. For the first time, ordinary peasants were getting their heads around the phenomenon of pamphlets and found themselves engaged in their version of water cooler talk. It was the realisation that the stronghold on ideas had been broken, that took the world by storm and set the events in motion that would reshape life as they knew it.

Above all, we can thank the Reformers for the advent of parliamentary democracy. Their aversion to authority and the corruption that it brings inspired revolutionary waves and bloodshed all over Europe. In the end, the Clergy and the Noblemen (the First and Second Estates) were either overthrown or forced into power-sharing pacts with the Commoners – the Third Estate. Ever since then the people shall govern, while the rich are having their cake.

But alas, the Third Estate has become a ruling class of their own and even though elected by popular vote, absolute power diligently corrupts – causing an ever-widening cliff between the politicians and the bourgeois.

Enter the Fourth Estate.

It was one day in 1787 when the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons were in Westminster assembled that Edmund Burke remarked:

…there are Three Estates in Parliament; But, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all.

The Age-Old Profession

In his textbook, Broadcast Journalism Andrew Boyd devotes an entire chapter to finding the elusive answer to the question “what is news?”

Suffice to say that news is a collection of stories about current events that spark our interest because of their relevance to us and impact on our lives, income, and emotions. That’s the classroom theory and what we spend most of our time on.

But then people lie. They do not want us to know about the things they have done that will impact our lives. They try to hide their shame and guilt from us.

So instead of just reporting the news, the journalist’s profession is all about being overtly skeptical and wary about any ‘fact’ that is presented to them. They can smell a lie from a mile and devote their lives to catching shady perpetrators. We then laud them when their stories shine the light of truth into dark corners to expose lies and deceit by governments and mobsters alike.

We need them on this earth more than ever, and especially in a society where the veil of secrecy and spin is so easily pulled before our eyes, it is thanks only to those relentless journalists that we know what is really going on and are able to make informed decisions.

But have we created a monster? The qualities required of a good journalist are in stark contrast to those we normally seek in a trusting friendship, loving relationship, and overall healthy community. The more cynical journalists become, the more they are unlike the masses that they supposedly serve or represent. The masses are generally more conservative in world view; more convicted in faith and more trusting of people than the average newsroom.

The danger lies in the considerable power yielded by the Fourth Estate in its ability to make editorial decisions and act as gatekeepers of what we end up seeing, hearing and reading. The mirror they hold up to reflect society back to itself is inevitably tainted by their own experiences and prejudices.

The Ripples of Power

It’s just a network of isolated transmission towers.

Tirelessly sending out radio waves to millions of household receivers.

But Guglielmo Marconi even received a Nobel prize for inventing wireless telegraphy in 1909 because of the countless opportunities it opened up for the free flow of messages.

Nobleman John Reith conceptualised the lofty ideals of public service broadcasting for the United Kingdom in the early 1920s. He had seen the potential for the broadcast platform to educate, inform, entertain and have consideration for all points of view. At about the same time, the Americans went full-on commercial as they realised how much money they could make from the new platform.

But before the technology was even in its teens, dictators’ mouths watered for the control they could exert over people by firmly holding onto those towers of power and indoctrinate the populace with their evil intent.

His Master’s Voice

In 2013 one is tempted to say that the Reithian ideals of public service broadcasting for the greater national good are totally lost on South African society.

The turmoil and upheavals at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) are as bad as it has ever been. No sooner had an Act of Parliament established the statutory body in 1936 or it succumbed to political Masters who were desperate to keep strategic control over the broadcast platform – and by extension their constituents.

The Masters may have changed but their methods are the same. Since half of the South African population relies solely on the SABC for their information, it is extremely difficult for the politicians to keep their hands off it.

Sadly, as the political battle for the heart of the SABC intensifies, the more crippling it becomes for the strategic direction of the national public broadcaster.

Judging by what comes out of the screen or out of the speaker, one is able to make a fairly good assessment of what is going on behind the scenes in Auckland Park.

The most viewed newscasts during prime time seem like the holy cows. Its formats have not really changed in decades. It still caters to a 1990s way of content consumption.

Thirty minutes of pre-packaged reports, some voice-overs, some international ‘NIBs’, a voice-over graphic for the financial indicators, a sports segment during the second quarter-hour and finally a weather report on a map seemingly designed in 1976. Sanitized; safe; not very creative; very little critical analysis; no input from the public at large.

On top of that, the almost sacrosanct separation between newscasts and current affairs shows is reminiscent of a bygone era that does not provide for modern consumer behaviour.

As with any organisation, there are pockets of excellence – usually driven by creative individuals or small teams who are determined to excel amidst all the adversity. They get streetwise within the colossus of an organisation and learn to navigate their way around all the red tape. With trade-offs, they get many things right and deserve all the recognition that they are not getting.

The latest announcement that the prime time English news broadcast on SABC3 will be extended to an hour (18:30-19:30) is one of the smartest scheduling moves the channel and SABC News have done in many years.

It capitalises on its production strengths at a time when the Corporation, because of its financial woes, is struggling to procure the best entertainment content for its commercial channel. It is also a good example of clear positioning against competitors.

The question remains how it will prevent the millions of thumbs on remote controls nationwide to switch over to at 7 pm in order to get the real, unbiased news. It will take a lot of smart and unconventional programming tactics to entice the viewer through all four those quarter hours and deliver a substantial mass audience to the channel’s prime time advertisers.

The greatest challenge will be to deliver content that is relevant to the channel’s viewers. The bad perception that SABC News is the conveyor of government propaganda is possibly its biggest nemesis. Any media strategist would tell them, without a solid commitment to change that, their plan is dead in the water.

Broadcasting at its Best

The period during South Africa’s transition to full democracy in the early 1990s was good for the SABC. Their rather unimaginative payoff line at the time turned out to be some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ever since the late 1980s, the establishment started to lose its grip on many of the managers at the Corporation. Winds of change were sweeping through the hallways of Broadcasting Centre. During the vacuum before the new rulers fully asserted their authority, many journalists, strategists, and leaders had the unique opportunity to start serving their professions instead of Pretoria. That’s if they were able to break free from the old habit of self-censorship.

Still, in the years leading up to South Africa’s first one-man-one-vote democratic election, the broadcaster had a lot of practice. For many South Africans, the TV1 prime time show Agenda provided the window on their future fellow South Africans and political leaders that they otherwise would not have known. Under the intense scrutiny of all political groupings who demanded equal exposure, it was raw, live, unedited and often heated.

It is one of the best ways to make your audience ratings spike. Put a newsmaker on the spot and make him respond live to probing questions under glaring lights and cameras. There is no greater test of a man’s character. The viewers get the chance to see them sink or swim without any editorial gatekeeping. They get the chance to really form an opinion about the person.

As the election drew closer the powers that be conceptualised South Africa’s first multi-lingual 24-hour news channel in order to cover one of the biggest news events of the decade. For the first time since the inception of television in the mid-1970s, the SABC unceremoniously pulled their regular services off the air – including TV1, the biggest channel in South African television history with enormous market share, brand awareness, audience loyalty and above all a commercial money-making monster.

On 27 April 1994, the Election ’94 broadcast went live and provided 24-hour coverage in English – 30 minutes on “Channel 1”, followed by 30 minutes on “Channel 2”. The alternative half hours were filled with coverage in indigenous African languages, including Afrikaans. On top of that, all SABC radio stations provided extensive coverage. An enormous number of reporters were deployed in the field. In the custom-built Johannesburg nerve centre, a mix of old and new anchors hosted in-studio discussions and analysis. They held the mirror up, and South Africa was watching. It lasted for days.

In the end, the critics loved it. For many SABC journalists, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Darryl Ascone of The Star wrote: “They might not be as slick as the Allen Pizzeys or Peter Arnetts of the world, they nevertheless had a better understanding of what the election meant to those taking part in it”.

The hard and honest truth is that the SABC was able to pull off that massive broadcast and all subsequent major relaunches and restructuring because of relatively stable management, good foresight by its strategists and a visionary, empowered leader at the helm. Without stability at the very top, the organisation will inevitably fall apart, and we will see it come out of the screen.

There is indeed hope for a vibrant national public broadcaster with its vast transmission networks and studio infrastructure. If the new leaders are willing to learn from the past as they regroup to chart the way forward.

End of part 1 of “Conversations with my TV”

Coming up in Part 2: How your bad competitor can keep you from greatness; how social media forever changed the way people consume content; radio and TV redefined as ‘custodians of context’ and ideas for innovation in capturing an audience.

Gustav Greyling is an independent media strategist and freelance TV news anchor (