Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Focus

The Look of News

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Network Logos

I’m dating myself, but I remember when there were just three channels on TV.  Well, not really just three.  There were the PBS channels and everything else that lived above Channel 13 on UHF.  But in most places, viewers watched network programs through their network affiliates that existed somewhere between Channels 2 and 12.  For the most part, they still do.

I am thinking about how much the local channels try to look like their network parents and what that really means.  If you are a connoisseur of the look of TV, you might get what I’m saying.  With the years I’ve spent behind studio cameras, in master controls and at home, the feel a station wants to convey with its look is very recognizable and distinctive to me.  And I am convinced that they each have had decades long recipes for how their picture looks to the world and what they’re saying about themselves with those pictures.

CBS, it seems to me, has colors that have higher than average black levels.  Black level is one of the components of a TV signal that becomes your TV picture.  High but not too high black levels make the pictures rich in their clarity and sharpness but not overly bright or overly colorful.  The feeling I get from a CBS image is credibility, authority and power.  So with that in mind, it’s probably no coincidence that the old nickname for CBS headquarters is “Black Rock”.  Anyway, their picture is what you might see with your own eyes if somebody else was controlling them on the assumption that you wanted to see the most real reality* possible.  That may sound a little woo-woo, but I think that’s how CBS has always tried to present the world to its viewers; in a digitally sharp, not a lot of frills, down to business, just the facts ma’am manner.  Local CBS affiliates mirror the network look and feel as much as they can.  If CBS’s look was a setting, it would be an office.

NBC, by comparison has a film-ish look.  Not grainy exactly, not soft focus exactly.  But when I watch NBC, I think of history in the making.  Also, for many people, film is to images like vinyl is to sound.  There is just something about the earlier mediums that feel original and thus, more true.  Film makes the things we’re seeing more authentic and believable in part because film is what we all grew up with.  That’s why almost all of the movies we see don’t look like a TV news story and instead, look like, well … life.  Even movies that are shot digitally are made to look like film.  You can bet the engineers, producers and executives at NBC, as well of all of its affiliates know that’s how people see them and that is a perception they want to protect.  If NBC’s look was a setting, it would be a library.

ABC has always struck me as the most immediate network.  I think that mostly because of the colors.  Colors always seem most intense and lighting always seems brightest to me in ABC programming.  I see this especially on ABC news programs although I also noticed it on the old After School Specials and see it in many current prime time shows.  Of the three networks, the action on ABC programs seems to move fastest, with quicker edits and effects, more in-your-face use of sound and overall pacing.  The feel I get from watching something on ABC is it’s a wind in your hair kind of experience.  To me, ABC creates a mood of immediacy and energy with the way it presents itself.  And again, local ABC stations seem to follow suit.  If ABC’s look was a setting, it would be a party.

What I’m talking about here is how television engineers light for the camera to create a world that exists on a continuum from stark reality to dreamtime and everything in between.  Each of these networks has settled on a recipe for a picture of the world that mirrors how they see it, and they attract people who see it the same way.  They and their affiliates, present that world but we each have a preference for how we want to see it which is why many of us choose one network over another.  Of course, if a better show is on a different network, that’s where the viewer goes.  But networks are brands and they have brand loyalty based in large part on how people have come to expect they will look and feel to them.  There are distinct differences which is no accident.

*BTW, Aaron Schachter of PRI’s “The World” also used the superlative “real reality” in an April 7th radio story but I hadn’t heard it yet.

Run it Down or Let it Go?

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I talk about interviewing as if the interviewer is like a Greek warrior, always at the top of their game. But it’s not always that simple or affirming.  Sometimes, most times, an interview is a conversation.  But sometimes, it’s a hunt. It’s seek and evade.  Sometimes, the interviewer fails to get to the truth or the point because they’ve been diverted or hall of mirrored. And when you realize its happened, it doesn’t feel good.

The most common way is when an interviewer asks a simple question, and what they get is a long and elaborate backstory that provides deep and wide context of the situation.  The problem is that it offers everything except an answer to the question.  But it may be so smoothly or forcefully delivered that two things happen in the interviewer’s mind.  Either they think, “What was my question again?  I don’t remember but that sure was a rich, elaborate and coloful reply” or “I know that wasn’t an answer.  But after all that, I’m just going to let that non-answer go and move onto the next question”.

What should be going through the interviewer’s mind is, “I’ll be damned … you don’t have a clue, do you?” “You are trying to blow smoke up my ass, aren’t you?”  “Are you avoiding me on purpose?”  What should be going through the interviewer’s mind is “You didn’t answer the question, so I’m going to ask it again.  Maybe a different way, but it’s coming.  Get ready”.  It should be said though that it can also be the case that the interviewer didn’t ask the question clearly enough, so the interviewee misunderstood it.  So they paint around the center because they don’t really know what you want.  But in the end, an answer that’s not an answer can’t explain away the fact that there is no “there” there.  What that means for the interview recording session is large chunks of the conversation end up in the delete folder.  For a live audience, it can leave them trying to find the point in huge bubbles of nothing.

That doesn’t mean an answer might not be in there, though.  Sometimes, an interviewee will answer your question by first repeating it in some way, give a big block of history and finally, summarize their answer.  When you’re trying to get to the essence of their answer, many interviewers/editors will connect the beginning to the end and cut out the middle with little change in the overall message, which can be a plus.

For those times though when the result isn’t so neat and clean, you may have to repeat your question.  And asking the same question can piss off an interviewee, especially if they’re intention was to get you off track.  And interviewing etiquette is a lot like any other kind of social etiquette; when somebody is doing something unacceptable, watching them do it in a bald faced kind of way is almost as socially unacceptable as whatever they’re doing that you’re staring at.  But the problem isn’t you acknowledging the breaking of convention, it’s them breaking it.  So if they get mad because you caught them not doing something they implied they were qualified to do when they agreed to talk with you, the problem is theirs not yours.

But of course, like Odysseus, you have to get past the silver tongued devils first.

Written by Interviewer

March 4, 2014 at 12:17