Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Charlie Brooker’s dissection of the TV news package (and what you can learn from it)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2010

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.

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