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The Perils of ‘Live’ TV: Here’s My Own Experience

Aka confessions of a (former) TV presenter

Once upon a time, I was a host on the top-rated morning talk show, ‘Malaysia Hari Ini’ (MHI) on TV3. It was then that I read a totally relatable and brilliant piece about all the funny and unexpected stuff that could, and have happened on ‘live’ television overseas, and decided to write about my own experience for my blog, mzulkif.com. Which I am now happy to share with the readers of Gendang, with some updates.

Right off the bat, I can safely say that when it comes to ‘live’ television, Murphy’s Law applies almost without exception; anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong.

To host a ‘live’ talk show, first and foremost, you must have the gift of the gab; the ability to talk on cue, and on a variety of stuff, from the mundane to the philosophical. But that alone is NOT enough. You need to be able to think on your feet, not crumble under pressure when something unexpected happens, and yes, to “pandai cover line”. Really, REALLY pandai to cover line.

One of the things I struggled with most when I first started hosting, was compartmentalising my brain in order to listen to the producer(s) talking to me through my earpiece (that thing we have stuck up our ears, in case you didn’t notice) WHILE talking and addressing the viewers.

Imagine me going: “Oleh itu, kita kena ingat pakar-pakar perubatan pernah menyatakan…”  (“So we have to remember that medical experts have said…”) and suddenly the booming voice of the producer goes: “Cepat, cepat! Kita berehat seketika!” (“Hurry up! We need to take a break!”). Yes, at this point, your train of thought would be diverted to another station, and you stopping dead in your tracks would appear so damn awkward to the viewers. Not to mention how you’d look like on-air with your face trying to go back in time to figure out what was the point you were trying to make in the first place.

Different producers have different styles, so while some would only bark out single word instructions, others would prefer to have running (one-way) conversations with you. Which is both good, and bad. Good, because it keeps you on your toes and makes you feel more appreciated. But bad, because you might get sucked into the conversation and actually react to it on-air. I’m sure you’ve seen a host suddenly smiling or laughing for no apparent reason. Well, now you know why.

This happened to one of my co-hosts: At the end of every show, we usually thank the caterer of the day for sponsoring our breakfast. One morning, when it was time for the thanking bit, the producer said, “No catering today”. The host, trying to compute the message while saying goodbye, eventually muttered: “Dan terima kasih kepada NOH Catering untuk sarapan pagi ini” (“And thank you to NOH catering for today’s breakfast”). Haha.

But LOSING the earpiece would be a problem as well. It could be due to the battery running out, or just a “regular” technical glitch, but not having the producer in your ear would require you to make stuff up until the floor manager realises the problem and saves you with some improvised sign language.

Being able to get the proper cues is needless to say, VERY important when doing ‘live’ TV. Once, the camera went right to me after Buletin Pagi at 7.15am, WHILE I WAS CHECKING MY ZIPPER, simply because there was no cue. Grrr… And it’s never a good idea to blurt out something unpleasant right after you’ve tossed over to a location or an ad break, just in case the soundman forgets to cut off your audio.

Blanking-out was also something I was guilty of a couple of times. I usually plan and imagine what I would say for every segment as advised by my mentor (let’s just call him “Halim Othman”), so I’d always be fully prepared. But there were times when the planned scenario didn’t materialise.

For example: we usually start with two hosts greeting the viewers and go on to banter. But I remember when my co-host was a tad late due to a wardrobe difficulty, and I had to start the show on my own. I was only prepared to banter, so I blanked out and struggled to think of what to say while the producer kept on going: “Cakap dulu! Cakap dulu!” )(“Say something! Say something!”). Oh, man.

Something else that usually happened to me was the Curse of the Growling Tummy. Yup, we used to start the show at 6.30am and usually breakfast would come right at the end at 9am. I have a loud and sensitive tummy, and it doesn’t think twice about going “Grrrourrourrrr” (or something like that) … right in the middle of an interview. While my co-hosts were already used to this, I don’t know what the guests must have said about me after the show.

And speaking of guests; while we always hoped and prayed for articulate guests who know their stuff, the reality was most of those who come to promote something were first-timers who would go: “Er…. jadi…. er….” I have to admit that sometimes my mind did wander off to other stuff like football and the upcoming breakfast while waiting for some guests to finish their point. But thank God for producers who were quick to sense this and immediately cut the interview short and spared everyone the pain.

While we were given the “running order” reasonably in advance so we would be able to prepare for the interviews, that wouldn’t matter when you suddenly had to take over an interview with a subject matter you knew nothing about. And on MHI, we do cover a variety of subject matters, from government policies to the intricacies of ventriloquism. So, the trick was to always have some apply-to-all questions ready, before you warm up to the subject and find more specific and relevant questions to ask.

Another thing that I was guilty of was the “word-not-coming-to-mouth” problem. Don’t know why it happened, but sometimes certain words would be a struggle to pronounce. Once, I repeated: “Manafa, manfa, menfa…” until the guest had to complete it for me: “Manfaatkan” (“to benefit”). Damnit! It later became a running joke between me and a co-host, and I got nervous when I DID have to mention the word again. Haha!

While we mostly sit down comfortably and interview people on MHI, there were also occasions when we had to be part of a demonstration or do something out of our comfort zone on-air. Personally, I experienced taking a shower with kids who were about to be circumcised, jogged around Bandar Utama as a run-up to the ntv7 Feel Good Run and cooked a few dishes.

I was rather lucky that the dishes I attempted to make turned out rather well, but I remember a couple of my co-hosts burning the pancakes they were making. Of course, they cover line by saying that some people DO like burnt pancakes. Haha. Nice one, guys!

Being able to put on a straight face when something doesn’t really impress you is also a must. I remember one time a certain chef cooked something for us (not giving details away!), but when I took a bite, it was salty as mad. My reaction? “Mmmm…. OK, kita berehat seketika!” (“Mmmm… OK, let’s go for a break!”). And when a band comes on and goes badly out of tune, you should remain courteous and diplomatic instead of offering them vocal or guitar-playing lessons. After all, it is no easy feat to fully rock out at 8 in the morning.

Indeed, it is definitely NOT easy doing ‘live’ TV. So please save your heckling on social media when you see a TV host struggling with his or her thoughts on a morning talk show. After all, it’s probably the producer’s fault!

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