Getting the basics right

In this column in the last issue of TV-Bay I wrote that, thanks to technology, some jobs in broadcast are now more suited to people who have no broadcast training. It was, in the way of columns at the backs of magazines, more a call for comment than a reasoned argument.
As it happened, the same issue also included an article by the admirable Freddie Gaffney of the extremely admirable Ravensbourne College. (This was, I assure you, pure coincidence: if it was planned then it would mean I know what I am going to say when I sit down to write, which is far from the case).
The nastier end of the public press finds it easy to sneer at the profusion of meeja studies courses at polytechnics which now claim to be universities, and in truth they do churn out a lot of graduates with few skills beyond being able to name three Buuel films.
My experience is that is not the case with Ravensbourne, whose students at least have a solid grounding in what this industry is about. Which is a good thing.
I have a young friend, for instance, a Ravensbourne graduate who now works for a large corporation involved in broadcast in Britain. Every evening she ensures that the local news in my part of the south-east comes and goes on time, and even occasionally says something interesting.
Recently, as part of her continuing desire to improve herself, she found herself on an internal course run by her employers, to learn to be a production co-ordinator. She was shocked to discover that half a day of this course was given over to a tour of a studio, where the lecturer said “this is called the ‘gallery’… this is where the ‘director’ sits… this is a ‘vision mixer’” and so on.
Not unreasonably, my friend thought that anyone who wanted to work in television production ought to have taken the trouble to learn at least the basics of how it all fits together before trying for advanced attachments with the nation’s leading broadcaster. And call me old fashioned but I think I agree with her.
[Small diversion here: do you know why we Brits call the control room in a television studio the gallery? It’s because the first television trials took place in the ballroom of Alexandra Palace, overlooked by a minstrels’ gallery which seemed the ideal place to put the switching equipment. But you probably knew that.]
Back to my thoughts on learning the basics before you try to take over prime time television. At the time my friend was suffering the indignity of being shown around a gallery I was on holiday, doing almost nothing in a luxury hotel in a warmer clime.
As the sun went down one evening I felt that lying on a sun lounger all day, reading an improving book, was not sufficiently relaxing, so I went to the spa and sat in the hot tub. Above it was a television screen (for we can do nothing today without visual stimulation). As is almost always the case with 16:9 displays in public places the geometry was wrong, but I was on holiday so I resisted the temptation to start prodding menus with wet fingers.
The television was tuned to something called Fashion TV, which must be fairly important because it is shown around the world. The particular programme I was watching was about a Victoria’s Secret fashion show and, as my relaxation programme could only be boosted by ladies in scanty underwear I watched.
Within moments I realised that this programme, being seen globally, had been made by people who not only had no training in television whatsoever, they clearly had never even watched it to see how it works.
The charming young lady models, for instance, were interviewed individually. They were plonked in the middle of the frame, with enough light to flatten their features and burn out their foreheads.
The interviews were tightened with jump cuts, which was particularly exciting as they took place beside a road in Miami, so on each edit the cars in the background changed colour. Who, in their right minds, takes a beautiful woman, interviews her by the side of the road, then hacks the piece together so that the eye looks at anything but the interviewee?
I will not list all the other disasters in this programme, although special mention has to go to the red carpet sections: the director clearly thought that as it was for Fashion TV we should see what the C-list celebs were wearing, which was accomplished by standing right next to them with a Z1 and doing a quick pan down and up the body.
Last month I suggested that the best people to log sports programmes might be sports fans. This month I feel I need to make the even more fundamental point that the best people to make television programmes are camera operators who have studied framing and lighting, and editors who understand pacing and telling a story without visual distractions.
And, on behalf of my friend in the Tunbridge Wells newsroom, the best people to be production co-ordinators are people who have worked on a lot of productions.

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