Turning tech into telly

You will often hear these days that television news ain’t what it used to be, that there was a golden age, say twenty years ago, when it was a much more intelligent and useful medium – and of course far more people watched it. Well as someone who’s been in the TV news trade for more than two decades, I say don’t believe it – yes the audiences have declined but the standard of the product is much improved.

I’ve had occasion recently to haul out of the archive some old TV news pieces to show to journalism students. They were, quite frankly, lame – as the students themselves pointed out. One in particular, about a major economic crisis of the early 90s, was hopeless in telling a complex but important story. It consisted of long swathes of what’s known in the trade as wallpaper – meaningless shots of Westminster and ministerial cars driving past – covered with commentary and interspersed with clips of politicians.

Economics was a subject I used to cover and I must admit that many of my reports were as bad, or worse, than what I showed the students. Economics and business stories have always been a challenge to turn into television. I have on occasion told one of our senior editors who trains newcomers to the newsroom that he needs to tell them less about using pictures to describe wars, earthquakes and other dramatic events and more about how you turn the demise of the final salary pension-scheme into a compelling TV news report..

Anyway, all that is a preamble for some thoughts on my current preoccupation – turning technology into television, which is, believe it or not, almost as big a challenge. Mobile phones, computer screens and endless shots of websites make for very dull pictures – and then you have the problem of getting techie people to talk in terms that will mean something to a mass audience.

But the advantage I have today is that while I may not have moved on that far, the creative people I work with – producers, camera operators and picture editors – certainly have. So here’s an example.
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more about "The future of search", posted with vodpod

Last week I decided to try to sell a story to the TV news bulletins on the future of web search, linked to the upcoming launch of the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”. This was obviously going to be extremely hard both to sell to editors during a busy news period, and to film. I wanted both Wolfram and Google in the piece, and while both are fascinating subjects, each is in picture terms very dull.

Then there was arranging an interview with the main protagonist, Stephen Wolfram. He was in Illinois, and I didn’t think our World News department would think it was worth the cost of sending a crew there.
Instead, after long discussions with Wolfram’s PR people, we arranged to chat with him over the internet, which gave us some pictures as we filmed the call from our end. The problem with an internet video call is always the quality – of the audio more than the video. But Wolfram Research agreed to record the interview at their end, and then send it to me, as a thirty minute 1.8Gb file. Luckily, I was working with Doug Dalgleish, a cameraman who is also a technical whizz, and he managed to make everything work.

Stephen Wolfram is a brilliant and enthusiastic evangelist for his vision of the future of search – but getting a 15 second clip from our interview to use in a two minute TV news piece was a bit of a struggle. (We did make more of the interview available on the web).

Google was somewhat easier – we were able to go long to their funky London offices and interview a senior executive Mario Queiroz about where search was heading. Still desperate for pictures, we shot a sequence of him using the new Google Squared product and me using Wolfram Alpha to answer the same queries. In the Google lobby the most popular search terms currently being entered by its global users are projected onto a wall – so that made a nifty location for my piece to camera, linking between the two sections of the report.

But when on Monday we came to edit the piece, we were still faced with a desperate dearth of interesting pictures. Riding to the rescue came Nick Tulip, our picture editor. Cutting film and later video together has always been a skilful activity, but the arrival of digital editing, allowing all sorts of effects, has transformed the craft and Nick is amongst the very best and most inventive of the new breed.

I decided that we shoud illustrate the type of question that Google found hard to answer – how far is the earth from the sun at this moment, how is the population of India growing compared with that of China, how far is it from London to Glasgow? Nick pulled some pictures out of our digital archive, and superimposed a Google search box image over them. He then set about making two rather dull websites somehow look interesting, with the aid of some of Doug’s imaginative shots of the Google offices.

The result was by no means a masterpiece and, like all TV news reports, could only scratch at the surface of a complex subject but Nick, Doug and I were all pretty satisfied with our work. But here’s the irony. Monday was a very busy news day in the UK with all sorts of stories – the Speaker row, the conflict in Sri Lanka , England’s World Cup bid – and our report did not make it onto the domestic news bulletins, though it was shown on BBC World.

So in my view we are now able to tell complicated stories much more effectively on television. But, in a busy world, where politics, business and sport are vieing for viewers’ attention, getting them broadcast is another matter. Luckily we now have something that was not available to TV journalists two decades ago, the web, so even something that doesn’t make it to air can find a lasting home online.

5 responses to “Turning tech into telly

  1. Great stuff, well done, leading the way along the new information highways, getting stuff to the people in innovative fashion, bring it on!

  2. Excellent piece, placing television news storytelling in an historical perspective. And an eminently watchable video segment too (pity about the aspect ratio) which definitely underlines what can be done when skilful artists are provided with advanced tools in the service of a well-written and presented story, even if the source material might be expected to lack visual excitement.

    Talented production staff, given appropriate resources, can also be relied on to avoid their techniques becoming too much of a cliché, with variety and new ideas coming in so it’s never repetitive. This approach, I would say, is particularly effective with technology-based material. It also underlines the value of an accomplished technical and creative team working together with complementary expertise.

    We tend to look back on a golden age of television, but when we review the archives it was none too golden, as you point out. In addition to the conceptual problems you mention, often the problem when video first became widely-used was a technical one: the actual standard of the images was so much worse than film, and the effects (such as chromakey) worse still. But indeed, news storytelling is probably more effective now than it ever was then.

    Turn to documentaries and longer-form programming, however, and we can raise more questions about the way that the story is presented today.

    I was recently watching some old Horizon shows from Max Whitby’s period and, in my view, they are really classic pieces of factual television. They deliver significantly more in the way of information than you commonly see today without making it inaccessible: no time is wasted with “Paris, France Syndrome”, repetitive, annoying recaps with hardly a new point in each segment, and other ills that seem increasingly common. While you won’t see these problems in, say, an Attenborough series, you will experience them frequently on commercial television and even, heaven forfend, on the BBC.

    Our news coverage today is almost certainly better than ever, and with people like yourself who bring both experience and a lively interest in the material to the screen, viewers are well served.

    There is, however, in my view at least, a legitimate concern that the presentation of science and technology in longer-form programming has suffered somewhat from a loss of depth and breadth of content, and that this is one area where we can learn positive lessons from the productions of the past.

  3. lauramacdonald

    Great post. Clever visuals can make complicated stories easier to understand and altogether more entertaining to watch.

    The most important quality a piece can have is accuracy but ensuring that its engaging is also important.

  4. Pingback: Media Picks « Laura MacDonald

  5. I also think we need a repository for this sort of work, as this is history in the making, it is our history and we should take care of it for future generations. Once we all have access to next generation broadband there will be more people doing this sort of thing and it all needs archiving somewhere…
    …a cyber museum.

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