We’ve been big fans of Charlie Brooker round these parts for some time, with at least four articles about him on this very blog since 2006. Combining an ability to conduct a withering criticism of television with a brutal and acerbic wit, Brooker has risen to become one of the BBC’s most cherished (but underexposed) properties.
His current series Newswipe on BBC Four, in the UK, is a must watch for anyone in journalism.
He’s been given extra kudos all round this week after a particularly accurate breakdown of the tired, cliched and over formulated television news package, which hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. And with nearly 500,000 views on Youtube since domestic transmission on Tuesday, he’s clearly touched a nerve:
Charlie effortlessly highlights television news’ ugliest and laziest conventions:
- a dull establishing shot
- an over affected piece to camera in the street
- visual eye candy in slow motion…
- …which monochromes into a graphics overlay
- pointless and unenlightening vox pops
- the inevitable “case study” – human interest
- cliched GV’s (general views)
- and a wry signoff
This critique has the BBC’s domestic output firmly in its sights, but similar conventions exist across the UK networks and even more so in North America.
So why do they exist?
The overuse of the TV news package formula isn’t down to shear laziness alone: it has been developed over decades to suit the financial, time and style constraints which come with producing 30 minutes of live television every single day.
These packages are a lot quicker to produce for one; filling in the gaps in a proven templates enables the reporter & producer to clearly picture the final package before filming starts – and therefore only shoot the interviews, shots and pieces to camera they know they need. Similarly it can be turned around in the edit in less than an hour.
It’s cheaper too, relying on the simplest shot structures and filming in public places. It sums up complicated facts (often about consumer data, financial information or government policy) with graphics, quickly and simply.
And of course, sticking to a style enables a consistency across a programme, or even network of programmes.
So all well and good, but it comes at the cost of visual and narrative creativity. We’re fed stories in the same pattern every day, and as Charlie Brooker says, we become so accustomed to what a TV news report looks and sounds like, we watch on autopilot…and who does that help?
So what’s the takeaway?
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re not working in a TV newsroom. You’re more likely to be a video journalist working for a newspaper or the web, right? In which case, the rule is a simple one:
video journalism is NOT TV news!
Journalists from big newspapers have expressed frustration to me before that their attempts to ‘go into video’ end up looking amateurish. What they mean is they don’t look as good as TV news. And the reason: they’re trying to copy this TV formula without really understanding it. And they’re imitating without any need too.
Video journalism is free of so many of the contraints which which created the TV news formula; they might have more time, fewer people, and no style conventions to adhere too…so make the most of that! It’s cheaper than TV news too – so you can afford to experiment and make mistakes.
With the technology to produce video narratives cheaper than ever, I hope more people will pick up a camera and learn how to tell visual stories in new ways. Leaving it in the hands of the conventional herd of the mainstream newsroom alone means we’ll only emerge from this industry upheaval with more of the same. And that would be sad.
Having said that….!
The traditional TV news package still has its place. For proof, look no further than (who I think) is one of the most superb Broadcast Journalists working right now: the BBC’s Matthew Price. Here’s a powerful story from his stint in the Middle East. It’s classic TV news reporting at its best:
Update: Video Journalism guru David Dunkley-Gyimah has cross posted his response to this one on his blog: “The alternative key, I think, to new video making is to look towards new visual languages, rather than hark to traditional ones” – read the rest here.
This whole multimedia journalism thing seems very new a lot of the time.
We’re always being told we’re breaking new ground, doing things no-one has done before. But that’s not necessarily so: some of the ‘innovations’ we have come accustomed too have been around for decades.
When do you think the first citizen journalists appeared? Did amateurs start recording news events a few years back? 2004? 2002?
How about 1940?
BBC Four in Britain are screening a series of programmes called Shooting The War, about how ordinary soldiers and civilians used the first cinecameras to record daily life during World War II. People like Leslie Fowler and Derek Brown provided us with an intimate portrait of life in Britain in the run up to, and during the early years of the war.
Their footage shows Home Guard preparations for a possible invasion of England in the summer of 1940.
The documentary describes amateur film-making as an unusual hobby in the 1930s, but it was still there.
Now what about solo-journalists? The one man* film-maker, out in the field on his own with a camera? 1990s? 1980s?
How about the 1940s again?
During the war, the British government became aware of the extent to which the Wehrmacht had been using propaganda films to accentuate their sudden invasion of Western Europe. Realising the potential of this, they created a new division in the army: the Army Film and Photographic Unit. It trained ordinary soldiers to carry their own film cameras and shoot activity on the front line.
As well as lugging their weaponry and everything else, they were carrying a huge wooden cinecamera and probably loads of film too – and then filming entirely by themselves, something most of us didn’t think could happen until Betacams in the 1980s.
And number three, what what the first newspaper to go multimedia? Was it the NY Times in 2000? Or the LA Times in 2003?
What about the Observer…in 1951?
I’ve spent the last two weeks documenting a project at the Southbank Centre in London, the home of what was once called the Festival of Britain. In the festivals last weeks in the summer of 1951, the Observer paper (the Guardian’s Sunday edition) commissioned a 15 minute film called Brief City. You can watch it here too.
It explained how the Royal Festival Hall was built, and how it was used. It is a stunning piece of film making of its time, with its own specially orchestrated score.
So that’s a newspaper investing in moving pictures to tell stories. In 1951.
It’s a shame they all forgot pretty soon after how to do that.
*sorry ladies, it is still the 1940s after all
And again, I return in a triumphant beam of my own smugness to command you to watch his brand new series on Monday nights, BBC Four. Last night he tackled OFCOM, Celeb Big Brother and TV Psychics and I’ve since spent the past 18 hours reattaching my testicles to my body with chicken wire.