The TV Guide (Part 2)

My motivation for writing “The TV Guide” series of articles was to create a sort of advisory platform for young people interested in a career in television. I have lost count of how many aspiring TV presenters – all bubbling over with contagious enthusiasm and determination – have approached me over the years to solicit advice and seek guidance. It would be easier (not to mention less time-consuming) to let our offices handle these requests but I take particular care to respond to each of them personally. I enjoy mentoring young people and helping them to realize their dreams. I also feel very fortunate to have enjoyed career success and longevity and feel that it is uncumbent upon me to pass on what I’ve learnt to others. At the same time I feel a certain responsibility to be as honest and pragmatic with them as I possibly can.

And in that spirit, here is an assembled list of their most frequently asked questions – followed by my responses:

I’ve always dreamed of becoming a television presenter! Where does one start?”

This is probably not what you want to hear, but I’d like to recommend that you begin with a little self-honesty

  • Why television?
  • Do you really believe that you would make a good presenter and why?
  • Are there others (aside from family members and friends that is) who share your view?
  • Are you genuinely interested in the medium? Or do you simply see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things?
  • Are you primarily attracted to the promise of fame and stardom or financial reward? Plainly put, do your TV career aspirations perhaps have something to do with a personal need for attention and gratification?

These may prove uncomfortable to answer, but there’s method behind them – so do attempt to answer them. You may end up sparing yourself a lot of unnecessary embarrassment and disappointment.

So many people labour under the misapprehension that television presenting is easy. I can assure you that it’s much harder than it looks. Informed by years of my own experience and hindsight, these questions are designed to dispel any illusions that you might have about the industry and how it may perceivably transform your life on a personal level. I’ve counselled many wannabe TV stars and generally found that many of these young (and not so young) men and women were subconsciously hoping that the attention garnered from a showbiz career would translate into them feeling better about themselves. If you’re entertaining (forgive the pun) a similar notion, I’m afraid you’re not going to find the validation you seek in front of a television camera. If anything, the bright lights, high-definition close-ups, public stares and relentless self-scrutiny will likely breed a more heightened sense of self-consciousness.

Fame and adulation can be heady, to be sure, but that giddiness is only temporary and ultimately insubstantial. Make no mistake, the journey towards self-acceptance and self-love is very much an internal process – you won’t find either while basking in the attention of a purportedly adoring public.

There, now that I’ve gotten all that out of the way, let me offer you some practical advice and tips…

Step 1 – Get some decent pictures taken:

I can’t emphasize this enough. For many of you, your headshot is going to be the first impression you make – so please make it a good one. So many of the photographs people have sent me over the years have been so shockingly bad that I have found myself wondering if the individual in question was deliberately trying to sabotage their career prospects. The ubiquitous mobile phone has made photography accessible to all – but please don’t use your phone camera for portraits. I’m not suggesting you go to the trouble or expense of getting professional shots taken – but surely you must know someone with a decent camera? A budding professional photographer or enthusiast perhaps?

If so, get your buddy to help you out. Put on a nice clean face (by all means use make-up, but don’t overdo it), wear something in a flattering colour that shows your actual body shape and type (keep it simple though – too much detail will distract from you), then position yourself in a spot with plenty of indirect light (no direct sunlight, no overhead lighting) and – standing in a relaxed upright position – get your friend to take a full body shot and then a couple of head & shoulder portraits (straight on and in profile). If you can, avoid shooting against busy backgrounds. Keeping your pose relaxed and simple (nothing too contrived), look directly into the camera with a natural, subtly confident smile (unless you have a killer smile, try to avoid flashing too many pearly-whites). If you’re new to posing for the camera, just think of a moment when you were at your happiest. Take my word for it, that joy is conveyed through your expression and comes across in your eyes (it’s one of the many reasons I love shooting portraits so much).

A note regarding wardrobe : keep your clothes neutral, timeless and modest. Save the hunky porn star or sexy bombshell looks for fancy-dress parties or your private photo collection. Anything too seductive or risqué will likely hurt your chances of being taken seriously as a presenter.

For those of you with access to photo editing software, try not to get too carried away with touch-ups. Your picture must still resemble you – and remember, skin is supposed to have pores!

Once you have put together your portfolio of polished portraits (forgive the alliteration), have them backed up to disc along with some low resolution copies that you can use as bandwidth friendly e-mail attachments or uploads.

Now you can start preparing a brief stat sheet containing pertinent information like name, age, gender, height, hair & eye colour, dress/suit & shoe size and previous experience (if any). Do list any special skills or talents that you may have. These include being adept at certain sports or hobbies (I was once shortlisted for an international lifestyle series, but lost the job because the other guy knew how to convincingly swing a golf club and I didn’t). Be sure to also include your e-mail and a telephone number that you can be reached on at all times.

Step 2 – Seek representation:

A great way to come into contention for television work is to find agency representation. Research casting agencies on the net – there are plenty in South Africa – and drop them a brief e-mail or fill in one of their online enquiry forms. You may need to attach your mini stat sheet and lo-res photos. Agencies vary in area of speciality, so shop around to see which one is the right fit for you. Some agencies only specialize in representing established talent. Others are merely looking for a face or a certain look or character – often for print and electronic media advertising campaigns – so they may not suit your end goal of being an anchor presenter. But the work can be rewarding and the experience, invaluable.

It is important to note, however, that if you are successful in acquiring representation of some kind, you will probably end up being invited to innumerable casting calls and/or auditions, so be prepared for much schlepping and (unfortunately) many rejections! I’ve been to quite a few of these in the past – they can be quite soul-destroying, especially when you tank during your audition (and believe me I did, on more than a few occasions). But try not to let that discourage you – it can be good experience and who knows, something may come of it. If you have any acting skills, you’ll find that – with South Africa having become a favoured destination for foreign filmmakers – there are many more opportunities for local actors nowadays.

Step 3 – Hone your skills :

The television camera is one of the most intimidating things you will probably ever face. It’s mechanical, invasive and cold. I’ve seen it reduce confident, intelligent and articulate people to babbling and incoherent nervous wrecks so many times during my career!

If I were coaching you, I’d start by first working on boosting your confidence levels in front of a camera. Even if you have superb oratorial skills, finding a way to engage with your audience through the camera takes a very different kind of know-how and panache.

My advice? Place yourself in front of a camera as frequently as possible. Make it your friend, in a manner of speaking. If you own a device that is capable of recording video (or are able to borrow one), set it up to record you as you deliver lines to the camera (as if you are on location or in a studio). Set up mock interviews where you are the interviewer and the interviewee. Work towards cultivating a natural, conversational style of presenting.

Play with the medium. And by all means, have fun!

It may seem vain or frivolous at first, but it is vital homework if you want to be better prepared for that all important audition. In performing this exercise regularly, you will psychologically disarm the device (camera) and demystify the medium (television).

Remember to review your performances all the time, until you start to see a greater level of comfort, poise and ease in your delivery. Trust me, if you keep at it, it will come. Very few people in this business start out super-confident – that comes with time, practice, practice and more practice! The added advantage of (constructive) self-analysis is that it better prepares you for external criticism, like your first bad review – an inevitable rite of passage for most television presenters (except the ones who manage to ingratiate themselves with the media).

You may also want to upload one of your better demo reels to YouTube for prospective casting agents or producers to view.

There are also several television presenter courses available. If you can afford to attend one, go for it. But remember, it’s up to you to do the work and put in the practice.

“What are the hallmarks of a good presenter?”

That depends on the genre of the show you’re presenting. News anchor? Investigative journalist? Game show host? You need to identify the genre that you think you’re best suited to. I personally prefer working in the lifestyle/magazine and talk show genres because they’re more spontaneous and loose. I was once offered the news and even the weather – but I turned both opportunities down because I genuinely didn’t believe I was right for either (not easy decisions to make as I desperately needed the work at the time).

I think a good presenter is someone:

  • Who speaks well i.e. someone who speaks clearly; is articulate and has a pleasing, well modulated voice
  • With a healthy command of whatever language/s the show is presented in
  • Capable of retaining large chunks of information and then reciting it all (convincingly)
  • Who is able to improvise and spontaneously make up banter or dialogue should the occasion call for it (some of the best TV presenter moments are unscripted)
  • With a healthy work ethic i.e. a ‘can-do’ attitude; a willingness to try new things; physical and emotional stamina and the ability to work together with others as a team (diva, prima-donna or star-like behaviour isn’t well received by the local industry). I’ve worked with some brilliant presenters whose careers eventually crumbled under the weight of their bloated sense of self-importance and entitlement. There is a lesson here folks!
  • Who’s sociable and amiable. Of course, charm and charisma are highly subjective – but you’ve got to be a people’s person
  • Who looks the part. You’ll notice I mentioned this one last. That’s because I think it’s unfair when promising presenters are overlooked because they’re not deemed handsome, pretty or slim enough – but, like it or not, television is a visual medium and physical appearance therefore counts. But more importantly, I left this one for last because good looks alone are not enough to get (and help you keep) the job. No matter how drop-dead gorgeous you are, you are still going to need some talent to make a success of it. Audiences quickly tire of a pretty face or washboard abs with little or no substance.

“How did you get into TV?”

I got into television quite by accident (and dumb luck). I was roped in as a creative consultant for a pilot (lifestyle series) and one day I found myself in a boardroom full of marketing execs, production heads and some seriously heavyweight sponsors – all trying to solve the problem of finding a last minute replacement for the male presenter who had been cast as one of the show’s anchors, but who had to be dropped because of a conflicting contractual obligation. We were less than a week away from the shooting schedule and the PR machine had already started to churn out pre-publicity – so it was a critical meeting. A time for decisiveness. At some point I was asked to comment on who would be right for the role and I started to (passionately and enthusiastically) describe the qualities that this individual should possess before firing off a list of well known male presenters who (I felt) embodied the necessary sophistication, eloquence, charm and worldliness required for the position. I must have made quite an impression, because at some point one of the marketing people interjected with a question…

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Do what?” I asked (a bit dazed).

“Be the host?” came back the reply.

I took a moment to scan the room (and was pleased to see a few approving smiles); I panicked for a millisecond and then regrouped. “Yeah okay, why don’t I?” I said to myself.

It was a watershed moment!

I had had very little experience in front of a camera – and was deeply afraid that I might let everybody (and myself) down. But I did have considerable experience working behind the scenes on a couple of television shows – and consequently knew what was expected of a presenter. It was a huge advantage – and made those first few crucial shoots so much less daunting.

Which brings me to a very important tip or pointer : Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom and work your way up. Many big names in television began their careers as runners. It may not be the most glamorous job, but it can be a way in. It will also provide invaluable insight into how the TV industry actually works.

Incidentally, my debut that came as a result of filling in for ‘the other guy’, came to set the tone for my early career. Most of the short-term presenter gigs I got offered were as a result of the original male presenter either pulling out at the last minute or letting the producers’ down during production. I owe much of my career success to those temperamental gentlemen. Yet another lesson folks!

“Does the job pay well?”

Well, that depends on what you define as “well”.

There is most certainly a popular perception out there that television presenters earn handsome amounts of money and receive plenty of freebies and cool swag. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

Bottom line : You simply can’t get by (comfortably) by being a presenter alone. Many South African TV personalities have ‘day jobs’ and other business interests. Even established presenters who are lucky enough to get full time work find that they have to supplement their income by taking on other gigs as MC’s or compères. Indeed, that is how many presenters really earn their keep. I have the greatest of respect for some of my esteemed colleagues who tirelessly take on these engagements (sometimes back to back) and make it look so effortless. I can assure you it isn’t easy work. But it can be good money (particularly if you’re a big name). The more sought-after and popular the presenter, the higher the fee they’re able to command. Some TV personalities are fortunate enough to earn appearance fees just for ‘showing up’ at an event.

Nice work if you can get it.

A rare (and I do mean very rare) few may also land a lucrative endorsement deal or advertising campaign – but those golden opportunities are few and far between.

Simply put, if you want to make a career as a presenter financially rewarding, you have to diversify.

Many presenters make a decent living off-camera as MC’s, voice-over artists, scriptwriters, directors and even producers. You might want to consider taking a similarly proactive approach.

“How important a role does age, gender or race play when it comes to getting work as a presenter?”

This is always a difficult question to answer, particularly since it touches on sensitized topics such as gender and race.

Of course, it makes sense for producers and casting directors to hire presenters that are consistent with the target audience of the show – and therefore, age, gender, race and language will most certainly be key factors when hiring presenters.

It’s important to remember that television is a populist, commercial medium that thrives on revenue generated from advertisements and corporate sponsorship – and if advertisers and sponsors are aiming their product at a particular demographic, then broadcasters will naturally hire from within that demographic.

South Africa is a uniquely multi-cultural society, but with the majority of our country’s population being of black African ancestry, it stands to reason that there will be proportionately more opportunities for black African presenters.

If I were to candidly reflect on my own experiences, I’d have to say that my ethnicity was definitely a hindrance when it came to getting mainstream work (certainly within the magazine-show genre). The unofficial South African magazine-show template at the time favoured casting black African and white presenters as obvious (safe) choices. And because there weren’t many magazine shows on local television back then, there simply wasn’t enough work to go around. I was extremely lucky to have gotten my first two shows – and the only reason I was able to sidestep the ethnic pigeonholing that was particularly rife at the time, was because research revealed that audiences thought I was of Italian, Portuguese or Mediterranean descent. That my name didn’t tip any of them off as to my actual ethnic origins remains a mystery to me to this day!

Nowadays, however, my ancestry is no longer a mystery. Many South Africans now recognize me as “the guy from that Indian show”. The fact that I was eventually only able to find steady work as the host of “Eastern Mosaic” should paint a realistic picture about the opportunities that were available to ethnic minorities within the South African broadcasting industry back then.

But that is in the past.

The television industry – like our magnificent country – is evolving. It’s uncurling from the past and redefining itself. This shifting reality offers hope and opportunities to a whole new generation of budding South African television presenters.

That said, I must reiterate that your success will ultimately be determined by your ability. It’s hard to argue with talent. And if you have the talent, the future looks very bright indeed!

Author: Imraan Vagar

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  1. Nothing but great, constructive advice. Thank you Imraan. And congratulations on a stellar career! I wish more celebrities gave of themselves so freely. Respect!

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  2. Hi Imraan, nice article. I watch Eastern Mosaic whenever I get a chance (mostly to check out what you’re wearing in the studio locations). I like how you combine your ties, pocket hankies, suits and shirts. And I really dig the little details like the cufflinks etc. I can see why they named you Mr GQ! I wanted to ask where one can get clothes like these? Does one have to shop overseas? (e.g. I notice that your shirt collars are kind of broad and starched.. most local men’s stores seem to sell shirts with really narrow collars) You should do a series of articles on men’s style. Thanks, Lex.

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  3. This really wowed..

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