Broadcasting: A reality check, thanks to Tim 'n Koos
On Tuesday night as I was watching two 7pm bulletins – e.tv in real time and then SABC3 courtesy of a PVR decoder – I thought of two grumpy old guys who taught me a lot about journalism. The one, Koos Coetzee, was a workaholic-alcoholic type who was expelled from Stellenbosch University's seminary in his final year some time in the 1970s because he drank too much and stopped believing in God. He became a journalist then.
"Why the fuck do we call it a story," Koos used to ask me as a young 'un at Vrye Weekblad in 1989 where he was news editor-chief sub-food writer.
He would answer it himself: "Because we're telling a fucking story!"
The other grumpy old bastard I thought of, Tim Knight, must be nearly 100 years old by now. He already looked advanced in years when I met him in 1997 at the SABC where he was presenting a TV news training course. Two years later, when I was at the then fledgling e.tv, someone clever got the brilliant Tim to train us there too. That crazy Canadian taught us what his decades in the field as a journalist taught him.
Like Koos, Tim also believed in The Story. I still have his handout.
E.tv's anchor Sally Burdett is proof that a credible and experienced journalist as newsreader will trounce big hair and perfect teeth any day. I bet she writes her own intros, too, because they are short, crisp and vivid. As Tim's notes remind us: "Actuality is always more interesting than narration."
Otherwise it becomes radio with pictures: mention a name and show a picture of the person. There were a few of those blemishes, but mostly the bulletin's videotape editors were not shy to use natural sound and the excellent visuals its camerapeople have always been known for.
But the e.tv bulletin was not faultless. An interview with Professor Dirk Kotze was out of sync and the words jarringly lagged behind the lips. Johns Hopkins University was called "John Hopkins" in the script and caption.
There was a well-told story about a baby murder in the Cape. But it could have been better. Television is the most intimate medium and we needed more close-ups and emotion to make us care.
Sports anchor Xolelwa Majeke is a real pro, but what is it with sports reporters leaving no cliché unturned? The package about Ajax produced "found wanting", "held their own" and "spur to greater heights". But it also had the best visual sequence of the night of the team's bench all following the ball from left to right in unison like a mob of meerkats.
Over at Auckland Park, they transgressed Tim's storytelling rules – and more. Their droning headlines at the top of the bulletin did not whet my appetite for what was to follow.
Anchor Eben Jansen looks and sounds good on TV. But every time before he starts reading his intros, he purses his lips and then makes a smacking sound. I guess it is to
psyche himself up before attempting those clumsy, ponderous intros – "The ANC heads into a lekgotla this weekend to refine its policy proposals. One of the key drivers ... blah, blah."
The bulletin was littered with poorly edited, inappropriate and washed-out visuals, hardly any ambient sound and sound bleeds and clicks. It had the horrible goldfish effect where a person is talking in the visual but you do not hear him or her because the narration rambles on over the pictures. It had President Jacob Zuma opening something somewhere but actually electioneering under the guise of, well, electioneering, plus lots of government and World Bank officials using "growth prospects", "targeted policy interventions" and "fast-track development".
It had one of the best stories on both bulletins: the sad but compelling story of one of the family members of the "Sunday rapist's" victim. My mentor Koos (he died in 1992) would have approved because it told a story about real people. And as Tim wrote, "we cover the most fascinating subject in all the world – people".