The doyenne of afternoon TV

Sixteen years after Sellili went on air for the first time, Claudette Pace’s magazine programme is still going from strength to strength on national television. I interviewed the presenter to find out how the show has evolved through the years.

When Claudette Pace first came up with the concept for the television show Sellili, little did she think that sixteen years down the line it would have become a household name, breaking boundaries for being the first production to make a success of the afternoon television slot, which was previously considered dead.

Today, Sellili is a bit like the gregarious granny of local, magazine-style productions: besides launching Claudette’s television career on the national station back in 1997, the show had also evolved and moved to Max Plus (the now defunct TV channel formerly owned by Claudette herself) and then on to both One TV and Net TV. Last year, after a break, Sellili returned to back to our screens and back to its original television station, TVM. Although previously Claudette, to use her own words, “did everything” on the show, this time round production has been entrusted to I ask Claudette how it feels, partly letting go of her baby.

“It’s a very new thing for me, of course. In a way it is great to have a team you can trust. Like this, some things are taken off my mind and I can focus on the actual content. The whole team is very into it and I work particularly closely with producer Jordan Degiorgio and director Sandro Kitcher; we have constant production meetings and it does help to have everyone brainstorm and bringing new ideas and a fresh perspective to the table,” she tells me.

Despite all the advantages, all this did feel rather “strange” at first, she confides with a smile. Having been used to doing everything herself from A to Z, the process of looking to others for their input took quite some getting used to. Now, she has learnt how to reap the advantages fully.

“The team has added some valuable ideas to the Sellili mix and the fact that not all the ideas come from me does help keep it all fresh. I also find it beneficial to pick the others’ brains whenever I have a new idea – usually, throughout the ensuing discussions we can see whether the concept will work or not,” she tells me.

As an example, she mentions the Good Friday special edition – all features and discussions on the day will be prepared bearing in mind the particular occasion.

“On occasions like this, it really leaps out how invaluable the support of the team has become,” she says.

Another factor that has helped shape the evolution of Sellili is the advent of social media, particularly Facebook. The official programme Facebook page counts over 5K followers and these followers are integrated within the flow of the show itself.

“We take a very interactive approach to social media. While the show is live, on air, we are constantly in touch with whatever is happening on our page so as to be able to adjust or direct the flow of the features accordingly. Our members are very active; it never fails to amaze me how reactions start pouring in to any given interview or discussion pretty much instantly.”

These fans also interact between them, Claudette tells me, thus acting as a spring-board for discussions and even helping in the decision of which future topics to include.

“Thanks to our followers we find out a lot of things that without them we’d never have known about and which we then can include in Sellili . To mention just one instance, on one particular edition of the show we were talking about Maltese people who have ‘made it’ abroad. I remember mentioning all the obvious names but then the messages start coming in and we discovered that there are so many people leading a successful life in foreign countries and we don’t necessarily know about it. We even had people instantly posting pictures of family and friends online, it was such a wonderful and interactive feature,” Claudette says.

Something else that has become apparent through the show’s Facebook page is that it attracts a huge diversity of viewers. Whereas before, television shows tended to be followed by the same group of people – who would also phone in on a daily basis, today the situation couldn’t be more different.

“This phenomenon was very common with a lot of TV and radio shows in the past years. The same group of people would call in at the same hour every single day – this often turned things a bit boring and predictable for the audience. Nowadays whenever the phone rings it’s always someone new. You don’t think to yourself: oh look, it’s 2 o’clock – it must be Mrs X from Zebbuġ calling!” she continues with a smile.

The format of magazine-style programmes of today, the television presenter tells me, has changed drastically from that of fifteen years ago. When the first edition of Sellili hit our screens, viewers tended to expect a particular selection of topics. There was dress-making, health, arts and crafts (in particular ganutell, which was incredibly popular), interiors, cookery… The topics were definitely slanted towards what, in those days, were considered “housewifely issues”. Of course, nowadays this no longer holds true. When I ask Claudette about what kind of topics she typically covers during the show, her reply is that there is nothing typical and the team likes to include “everything under the sun”.

“There’s definitely no crafts in the traditional sense of the word. Viewers nowadays never request anything of that sort. Topics that are really popular involve a mix between education and entertainment. In fact we don’t really have daily regulars, like all magazine shows used to have in years gone by. The only regulars we carry would be every month, or maybe every fortnight,” Claudette tells me.

The only topic that seems to have survived in popularity is the recipes, but even here the difference is immediately obvious.

“Nowadays we like to take a more healthy approach. In actual fact I kicked off my own weight-loss programme in conjunction with the launch of Sellili. I couldn’t very well expect my viewers to make healthy food choices if I don’t do the same myself.”

This has led to a “virtual” community of viewers who support each other in their quest for a healthy lifestyle, with everyone exchanging tips and recipes online. Once a week, the resident nutritionist invites people to get in touch with their weight-loss difficulties through the programme.

“It’s like having our own private weight-loss group. We get the right advice about how to cook, which ingredients to use, how to avoid temptation…”

Claudette tells me that this healthy approach is also reflected in the recipes that are presented during the show. She encourages the chefs who are invited to present recipes during Sellili  to promote fresh, local produce and to come up with recipes that can be incorporated in a weight-loss regime, without their necessarily being “dieting” fare.

“Occasionally we do have a recipe that is less healthy than others, of course. It’s impossible to remove the naughty stuff completely. But I always make it a point to warn my viewers to use this as an occasional treat and to enjoy it in moderation. I find that this is the technique that works best when it comes to weight loss,” Claudette explains.

Something else that has changed is that viewers have now realised that shows like Sellili are pretty much a free service that they can use for advice. Health issues are probably the top puller, with the subjects being discussed being as diverse as the backgrounds of those people who follow the show.

“I’ve tackled some topics that I never thought would be mentioned on national television in the afternoon. Such as circumcision. We invited a specialist to explain the procedure, the do’s and don’ts, what to watch out for. Other topics that stuck a strong chord with viewers include autism – in all its spectrums – and ADHD.”

Autism was given a particularly in depth treatment and one aspect that “shocked” Claudette is the amount of people who find themselves somehow affected by the condition.

“I even had adults who had never been diagnosed getting in touch with me. I found it really mature of people. Before, there wasn’t much awareness about the condition – particularly if the child happened to suffer from one of the milder forms – and many went undiagnosed. The response we get everytime we feature this topic is incredible,” Claudette says.

Not that it’s all about the serious side of life only. Viewers nowadays want a mixture of the funny and the series, the presenter believes. In between learning about health conditions, they want to be given the opportunity to chuckle too.

“Although it’s not all airy-fairy like magazine programmes were expected to be two decades ago, I do like to lighten up the vibe regularly. When I had the Maltese Gemgem feature, to mention just one instance, everyone loved it.”

So what is the biggest challenge Claudette faces with this show? The daily frequency, for starters. Then there’s the need to keep a balance between the entertainment and the commercial elements, making sure one side of the content doesn’t out-balance the other.

“It’s always a headache to ensure you don’t go overboard on the commercial content. Although I have to say that people seem to love these shopping spots. I’ve met people who tell me that they really look forward to learning about the new products available on the market,” she says, her voice a touch perplexed.

Another challenge is maintaining the pulse on what the viewers really want to see on their screens.  It’s not about including items that she likes, or even items that the rest of the team finds interesting – it’s all about the viewer.

“We started out with good ratings in the surveys but we have also kept getting stronger and stronger. The formula has proven successful. Topics change on a daily basis, also depending on whatever is happening around us. We have to keep constantly on top of current affairs and that is one of the biggest challenges ever. I think that this choice of strategy has helped the programme gain in strength,” she continues.

She mentions again how the team’s contribution has proven invaluable in this regard.

“It’s like getting the benefit of a whole pool of different experiences, which is always much better than one point of view. It’s always good to accept a critical eye about your work, otherwise there is the danger of stagnation.”

The upside to these challenges, she tells me, is that through Sellili they have helped a number of people to address their personal issues. Claudette never fails to be impressed by – and grateful for – the trust that viewers are ready to place in her, often contacting her personally to sound her out about things that are troubling them. These, she usually directs to the competent authorities for assistance.

“I lend a sympathetic ear but of course I always advice people how and where to get professional advice. The trust that they show in me is a major responsibility but I certainly don’t give out the advice myself. But I am really grateful that they let me into their private lives, it gives Sellili a much more human angle. I’m always touched by their stories.”

This reminds Claudette of a particular story – also related to autism – where one of the viewers called, convinced in her belief that her now adult son was not the misbehaving child that everyone had thought him to be, but rather suffered from a particular form of autism.

“She had tumbled to this after the specialist we invited on the show delved into the condition in some detail. She was distraught at the thought that he had grown up without ever being properly diagnosed. But in a way, the realisation also brought her the comfort of finally knowing what was, in reality, the matter with her son.”

Child development and child education are perennially popular topics. Claudette is also particularly proud of having turned the spotlight on fostering, which she’d love to see become more common in Malta.

This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).