Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Requiem for The Probe Team

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

There was a time in my life when I actually thought that being part of the Probe Team was the best job one could ever have. Of course I eventually changed my mind when I became acquainted with the kind of work Ian Wright gets to do for The Lonely Planet (I’d still kill to have that job even at this late stage in my career). But back when Jullie Yap Daza, Niñez Cacho Olivarez, and Tina Monzon Palma were the grand dames of public affairs television programs, there was the no-nonsense Cheche Lazaro and her brave clutch of daring reporters.

The Probe Team pioneered that genre in local television called “investigative journalism” but is really a mélange of many formats. To try to pigeonhole The Probe Team into a specific category would be doing it a great disservice. They did investigative journalism, yes; but many looked upon it as a magazine show, or a documentary show, even a lifestyle show. For many years, The Probe Team was one of the very few shows I made a point to watch.

This is difficult to write, but I must admit that I eventually outgrew my devotion to The Probe Team. And it really wasn’t just the fact that the reporters that were hired to replace those who eventually got pirated by the giant networks seemed to have become less and less engaging. The Probe Team boasts of having been the training ground of many of the top media personalities in the local television industry—from Maria Ressa, to Luchie Cruz-Valdez, to David Celdran, to Twink Macaraeg, to Bernadette Sembrano, to Pinky Webb. But those who followed in their footsteps seemed to have lacked the zing and the pluckedness of say, Manny Ayala or Karen Davila.

Although they tried as much as they could to stick to the original format, the show underwent a number of tweaking here and there supposedly to respond to the fickle preferences and the evolving tastes of the Filipino audience. They shifted to using Tagalog as the primary language and churned out more human-interest stories.

When they brought in the frisky Love Anover and her humongous microphone, people sat up and noticed but not even the vociferous criticism was enough to perk up the ratings. At that point, the show started to lose its connection with its core audience particularly when the new reporters started to let loose their lack of maturity such as when Robert Alejandro did that extremely homophobic piece on gay men who frequent movie houses for sex, complete with subliminal messages (that piece ended with the word “shame” flickering onscreen, which was a clear judgment). Lazaro had to publicly apologize for that slip.

Last I looked, the show had metamorphosed into The Probe Profiles, which featured life and personality sketches of controversial personages.

But through the many changes in format and reporters, through the series of moves from one network to another, three things remained constant: The steady and commanding presence of Cheche Lazaro, the relatively higher level of cerebral content that went into each episode, and the gung-ho, never-say-die attitude of the whole production team which was always palpable week after week, episode after episode.

The Probe Team officially aired its swan song last Sunday in a special tribute that relived the ups and downs in its 24 years of existence and tried to put some form of closure to the whole ride. The inimitable Boy Abunda put Cheche Lazaro on the hot seat Saturday evening on The Bottomline. A grand reunion of everyone who has ever been part of the phenomenal show was reportedly staged also recently.

There’s lots of tongue clucking and sighing that has accompanied Lazaro’s announcement of her (semi) retirement and the show’s demise.

The general sentiment seems to be one of regret because Lazaro is, without doubt one of the best (if not the best) female broadcasters around. She is great at what she does and what’s more, she is one of the very few broadcast journalists with unblemished integrity and impeccable taste. She has never figured in any controversy, has not been known to flaunt her weight around, and has not been involved in any anomalous transaction. In short, she is squeaky clean which unfortunately many people in this country equate with being boring.

Lazaro’s professional persona is an enigma. Although she is widely recognized as extremely competent (she is a noted professor of broadcast communications at the University of the Philippines), she is not exactly a household name. Although people with influence in this country look up to her as the epitome of what a broadcast journalist should be, but the sad reality is that Lazaro was never given a slot on primetime television. She has not been asked to anchor the coverage of major events such as presidential debates, or even the recent inaugural. In her stead, we had the usual clowns who seem to believe that having the ability to resonate their voices or get away with wearing a flamboyant costume equate with competence.

It’s a sad reflection of the way things are in our country that someone of Lazaro’s talent and character has not been given the opportunity to play a more dominant or lead role in local media. It can be argued, of course, that Lazaro probably chose the arrangements to be that way. It’s very obvious that Lazaro is the type of media person who thinks the messenger should not get in the way of the message, which is quite admirable given the way the divas in our local networks strut around and call attention to themselves as if they were the most important part of the news or event.

We do have this predilection to pick physical attributes, flair for drama, or overall entertainment potential over genuine talent. This sad state of affairs is not limited to media because we know that a lot of darned good artists—theater actors, singers, classical musicians, etc. —are not getting the recognition and attention that they truly deserve. One network’s insistence that the reason there is obvious preference for form over substance and for escapist and mindless programming is that they are simply responding to audience demand is such a cop-out. Media’s responsibility is not merely to entertain but also to educate.

Clearly, Lazaro and the Probe Team would have had made better impact on the general population if our networks helped create the ecosystem that would have made it thrive to begin with.

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