A Star Was Born But Nobody Noticed
The TV-jeebies of an ex-sportswriter
One thing that has eased my transition from newspaper work to television is the fact that nobody knows I’ve done it. For instance, last fall I was sitting on a bench at the Toronto island ferry dock, waiting to embark for Hanlan’s Point, when the captain of the good ship Thomas Rennie strode over. He was a tall, black-bearded salt in a crisp white shirt with gold-banded epaulets. “Love your column,” the seaman barked. “Great column. Really enjoy it.”
Now this happens all the time. Once, when I was flying back from New Zealand, having essayed a dozen prime-time featurettes on Kiwi life and culture for CBC Sports, the passenger beside me on the LA-Toronto lap stared for a while, then mustered the incentive to speak.
“Love your column,” he said.
I mentioned gently that I had ceased to author The Globe and Mail’s featured sports column seven years ago, and that I have not appeared regularly in the Globe’s pages since July 17, 1986, notwithstanding a recent mention by the paper’s media reviewer that, on television, I look “really stupid.”
“Oh, yes,” the man responded. “That’s right. Can I ask you something?”
“Fire away,” I said. “Tell me. Is Wendy Mesley as beautiful in person as she is on TV?” As I’ve mentioned, this kind of thing keeps happening to me. A new switchboard operator at The Journal says her father has asked her, day after day, “Have you met Abel yet?”
“Why the obsession?” I wonder.
“He loves your column,” she says. For the past four and a half years, I have been a full-time, on-camera correspondent for The Journal, the Thomas Rennie of the CBC’s current affairs fleet. I have been assigned to projects in the Soviet Union, China, Mexico, Germany, Brazilian Amazonia, Cuba, Romania and Britain-all, apparently, incognito. It has been a sumptuous buffet of travel and turmoil made even more remarkable by the persistent public belief that, all this time, I’ve been at an Argos game.
What is it like to move from behind a typewriter to the front of a camera? (One of my first producers advised me that there are only three things you can ask somebody on television: How Does it Feel? Describe Your Emotions and What’s it Like? This man has since moved to ABC and is earning SIX figures at PtimeTime Live.)
I have not found it a difficult transition, except for two elements. One is having to view my own stand-ups and the other is having to work with other people. The latter is by far the greater of the challenges.
My on-camera performance, described variously as “monotonous” and “scared stiff” by kind reviewers, has improved to the point where I can tolerate its dissemination without asking Barbara Frum to notify viewers that small children should be put to bed. My employers encourage me with the suggestion that, should I continue progressing at a steady pace, I might be permitted to read the Journal Diary sometime in 1994.
But sharing creativity is another matter. Preparation of each Journal story is divided nearly equally between reporter and producer. Imagine that you are typing with one hand and a complete stranger is pecking away at the same keyboard with one of his hands. Imagine what the printout looks like.
Manhandling this miscegenation out of chaos into presentable order is the essence of the task. A newspaper reporter gets an assignment, goes off to cover it, comes back, writes his stuff and then hands it to the desk to be butchered. The Journal correspondent, however, needs to do his research, conduct his interviews, view his tapings and assemble his story with someone else there all the time. Reporter and producer must somehow contrive a coalition of ideas and ambitions, settle on a structure and a script, labor cheek by jowl in an outhouse-sized editing suite for days, and then hand the piece to the desk to be butchered.
How do you feel when you have been a lone wolf for 15 years and now you have to couple with a stranger? At first I found myself acquiescing to all the producer’s plans, content to toss a few gems of wit into the script here and there. Producers dazzled me with their knowledge of the medium.
“Loop the sound,” they thundered. “Flip it in the VTR suite.”
Once during that first season, we sailed to Victoria to cover a reunion of the Canadian troops who landed in Normandy. The producer conscripted one of the vets into being filmed on his journey to the grand soiree. The idea was to have him on deck at sunset, waxing nostalgic about the crossing of the Channel in June of’44. I asked him a few innocuous questions-“Do you remember that day?”-things like that. The producer moved me aside. “I’ll do it,” he said. He assaulted the aging warrior: “How’re ya gonna feel right there in your gut when you walk into that reunion and you see all the guys you haven’t seen in 40 years? Describe your emotions!”
“I dunno, good, I guess,” the man responded.
This is how those first few shoots went: the producer, in command; the rookie, trying to keep out of the way. I was afraid, not of the camera-though it certainly looked that way-but of intruding into the arcane cosmos of lights, axis, cutaways. But what never diminished was my fascination with the intricacies of editing-the frame-by-frame sculpting of the finished product-and my belief that, at the heart, storytelling on television is identical to newspaper columnizing: beginning, middle, end.
Now, nearly five years have passed and two major changes have taken place. First, I have learned enough about the technical aspects of television to be able to take an idea off paper and visualize it as a series of effective sequences. The etiquette of cooperative storytelling has, I think, been achieved.
Second, when some crisis erupts and the boss looks around the newsroom for Ann Medina, or Peter Kent, or Linden MacIntyre, or Keith Morrison, he finds that all those people have quit, and he has to send me instead. So I get a lot more airtime.
Which is why moments after our first encounter at the ferry dock the bearded captain wheeled to stern and came back over to me.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “I haven’t seen you in the Globe lately.” “That’s because I left the Globe four years ago,” I advised. “That’s right!” the sailor said. “I’ve seen you on the TV. Listen. Tell the Globe they’ve got to take you back. They’ll pay whatever it takes.”~
by Allen Abel
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.