Rory Cellan-Jones

Turning tech into telly...

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 May 09, 10:45 GMT

You will often hear these days that television news ain't what it used to be, that there was a golden age, say 20 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 just 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.

Rory Cellan-Jones in 1990sOne 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 at times 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.

What's more, the advance in broadcasting technology - from computer graphics, to digital editing, to new means of reaching people via the internet - have made it possible to approach complex subjects and visualise them in new way.

So here's an example.

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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 to sell to editors during a busy news period, and hard 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 30-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 along 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 among the very best and most inventive of the new breed.

I decided that we should 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 vying 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    "turn the demise of the final salary pension-scheme into a compelling TV news report."

    This is why I don't watch the TV to get news and instead rely on around 10 RSS feeds from the main newspapers and news aggregators.

    I don't want you to dress up a story so that it is somehow eye catching, I simply want the facts.

  • Comment number 2.

    All fair points, but there is a bigger problem. The ubiqity of new technology has made editors too eager to just play with toys, forgetting the content in the process. The literalism of most TV news now is shocking and depressing. In fact, the whole problem was nicely covered this spring on Charlie Brooker's excellent Newswipe, of which Lord Reith would have been proud, managing to entertain and yet sneak in a whole load of 'inform' under cover.

    During the 1990's many of us watched The Day Today and Brasseye and laughed at the thought that we could go own the US Network news route. We're not laughing now. It seems that many in TV News have taken them as a template, rather than the rather savage critique they were meant to be.

    Othe rnew media provision is rathe rless certain. Some is good, soe not so good. There is a tendency to 'bite-size' infomration. And for some stories (like the banking crisis or the current expenses fiasco, that's not realy possible). I think there is a danger of the technology tail wagging the content dog. Journalists have to take a great deal of care in this reagrd.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thank you for this 'back-story' piece. Whatever one feels about the issues, it is very helpful to hear media creators (if you will forgive the term) talking about why and how they are produce what they produce.
    There will always be a tendency to 'play with new toys', but that is usually a necessary stage on the road to sophisticated and careful tool usage.
    Since so many people still do get their news and current affairs from television (perhaps even more true in America), it is vital that television journalists and news producers do make every effort, as here, to make exciting television pieces out of complex and possibly not very visually interesting material. One may argue that radio has an advantage here, but television remains, at least for now, a vital medium of news distribution.
    How the internet and particularly web-distributed video and social media will affect news presentation is, I believe, becoming one of the more vital 'back-story' questions.

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm reminded of "Lord Privy Seal."

    It's happening far more often these days, too.

  • Comment number 5.

    The question that comes to my mind is how many other news items are turned into full reports ready for broadcast, but get dumped because of the more worthy news on heavy days? Why do we not have access to them all on the news website? BBC has gone to some expense covering this story surely the little bit extra to cover server space would not cost much more.

  • Comment number 6.

    With the time allowed with 24 hour news broadcasting, one would think that a good explaination of events could be made. Unfortunately the majority of our journalists today can only deal in sound bites, wasting the time available to them and do the viewing public a total diservice, especially at the BBC where they are paid out of taxpayers money. Hopefully the day will come ala MPs where out poor journalistic practice will inccur the full wrath of the people.

  • Comment number 7.

    If by "Lord Privy Seal"* you a referring to the shots through the Google screen of the sun, people in India and a train journey, then consider how you'd do it otherwise and remain interesting. It's an attempt to make what would otherwise be boring typed queries on a screen come alive. It's very difficult to be anything other than literalist in a situation like that: How would you have done it?

    I actually think the BBC does pretty well making dry news topics interesting and I don't think there is any need to apologise for doing so. There ARE some areas where I think we need to be careful, though, particularly in longer-form presentations such as documentaries, where there is a tendency (not so much at the BBC, thank goodness) towards "Paris, France Syndrome", where the most banal facts are clarified in case you might get them wrong (yes, Paris is in France and you don't need to tell us); and the tedious repetition found in commercial television factual shows where one point is made per segment, and that and every previous point is recapped after each break, reducing the actual content of an hour-long programme to about four topics.

    *"Lord Privy Seal", for those who haven't encountered the phrase, refers to the tendency, particularly among new film-makers, to be too literal with images to accompany a voiceover. So for example you might (hopefully not) illustrate the mention of the Lord Privy Seal by showing images of a Member of the Upper House, a water closet and an aquatic animal in quick succession.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hold on Rory, you are one of these people who is doing today's reporting and as such you are obviously going to defend today's poor reporting. It doesn't matter if there are red flashing lights and lovely wooden florring in the studio... we want the news, not B&Q's latest room makeover.

    The students who agree with you are taught for todays type of reporting and again they are obvisouly going to say todays reporting is better.

    But take it from the customer, we want the old news back. We don't like how the BBC is no longer unbiased and prefers sensationalist headlines instead of national news. I mean come on, how can only call the news from 10 years ago lame when we found about topics including good news while today David Beckhams latest haircut takes a more prominent stage on the News at Ten than somebody who saved several people?

    Is todays reporting really any better than 20 years ago? No. Simple answer. Todays news has sold itself to money and it is not even trsusted anymore, that is why people no longer watch the news.

  • Comment number 9.

    @8 Well, quoting News At Ten is hardly fair because you really are getting into the TV equuivalent of The Sun or the Daily Star. However, ITV know their demography. and boy, are they hitting them. The over-emotive sensationlism of News At Ten means that I can herdly bear to watch it now, it's so bad.

    The BBC, however, is supposedly the broadcaster of national record. Yes, some of the older footage seems a bit stilted now but:
    a) it is factual sound and
    b) I'm not sure why it needs to be made more visually appealing.

    For instance, I saw a couple of Rory's quotes later in his entry. The first was this,
    "What's more, the advance in broadcasting technology - from computer graphics, to digital editing, to new means of reaching people via the internet - have made it possible to approach complex subjects and visualise them in new way."

    What concerns me here is the implicit assumption is that "new" way of visualisation = "better" visualisation. And it's not always true. As I said in my previous post (@2), the explanatory graphics used are becoming increasingly more literal and simplistic. Election nights in particular are becoming a bit of a joke, with the graphics and the toys distracting from what's actually going on.

    The second quote of Rory's was "He then set about making two rather dull websites somehow look interesting" about the Wolfram Alpha story. Perhaps it's just me, but if the story was so difficult work into a televisual format, why do it? It was clearly more suited to an online audience, who would be the ones most likely to read it anyway (the fact the WA is hardly the paradigm shift the PR puff tried to push and the BBC kind of initially fell for is another issue). Online services do actually do this extended content thing better, as examples like local election content on BBC News show.

    Unfortuntely, the TV approach seems to be to the journalistic equivalent of Alistair Campbell 'sexing up' content to make it palatable to the drooling hordes. Once a gain I fall back on the analysis of Charlie Brooker and, in particular, the fantastic segment contributed by Adam Curtis during the Newswipe run that talked about the TV need for some kind of 'narrative'. We've seen it with the whole expenses issue, and with the economics. Let's be honest, Robert Peston's new status is built on the apocalyptic doomsying of last summer. It's a problem with all TV news.

    The other classic problem of current news is having the 'reporter on the spot'. Example: today (May 19) just as Michael Martin was standing up to deliver his somewhat anti-climactic resignation to the House, a reporter called James Cook on the BBC News channel was standing outside Martin's house near Glasgow. WHY? What thing of any use would he able to tell us?

    It's a bit like the endless shots of Nick Robinson standing in Downing Street, just to show us that he's there. There's no value added and the studio-based presenter has to sit there and engage in a stilted and agonsing dance of asking questions that will elicit little or no useful product. Even worse, the presenter in the studio is more likely to know more than the person in the OB, resulting in the embarrassing spectacle of the n on the scene having to be told what's going on there. Crazy. This is definitely one practice that is not an improvement over that of even 10 years ago, let alone 20.

    There seems to be a belief that the audience need "stories" to explain the world. Sometimes the interplay of events is so complex that you just can't build a simple narrative like that. sometimes things just really are random, like school shootings and earthquakes. There seems to be the added belief that the news needs to be slick and whizzy. But the bells and whistles actually act like noise; they drown out the actual news.

    A note here: you may be forgiven for thinking I'm something of an old fart in this regard. But I'm not. In terms of the idea of transliteracy, I fall squarely into the wired, social-networking technology focused demographic. And I suspect that I'm not alone in this little segment in feeling rather ill-served by quite a lot of TV news.

  • Comment number 10.

    @fusen2 you may "just want the facts" but many switch over the 6'o clock news after the first couple of stories because it doesn't catch their interest. Surly producers and reporters have a job to make a report stimulate the visual senses, rather than just stand there with a bit of paper?

  • Comment number 11.

    I don't believe it's reasonable to fail to cover a potentially important tech news story because it doesn't naturally look pretty. If it's important it should go in, and if you want people to watch it, you might want to do your best to ensure that it holds their attention. Something that does seem to have changed over time is peoples' attention spans.

    There's something else we should remember too. In this article we are seeing behind the process of making a tech news story. The fact is, Rory did not actually manage to sell the report to the majority of BBC news editors (I won't comment here on how strange I find the concept of having to sell a news story or what actually "selling" a news story today in the BBC actually means). We're seeing it here on the Web while domestic TV-only viewers didn't see it. Rory admits that it's "by no means a masterpiece" and perhaps those who are critical of the approach can be reassured by the fact that the majority of editors turned it down.

    But I think the attempt is valid and, fundamentally I do not believe that news coverage has to be boring. You are telling a story whatever you do in the medium, and any good storyteller tries to match the audience's expectations: today, for better or worse, that includes holding the attention of people who have plenty of other things going on. If we look at the viewing figures we can see that the BBC is pretty good in this respect.

    When we look at historical television something I did quite a lot during my tenure as editor of a major online publication on the topic it's easy to use what we see from the past as a reference for "what should be done" today. We need to bear in mind that a great deal of the time, what you see is all that could be done with the technology and constraints of the time. True artists are always seeking to transcend the boundaries of current approaches and techniques, and not all of the results will be "good" in the abstract, let alone appreciated by commentators at the time.

    All this being said, I am not a huge fan of literalism and I certainly dislike the "Lord Privy Seal" approach to imagery, as discussed earlier. However a professional practitioner will weigh up a significant number of considerations, often with very limited time and resources to hand, and come to a decision on how to tackle a story. Sometimes the results will not be to everyone's taste. Such is life.

  • Comment number 12.

    @7 regen: "where the most banal facts are clarified in case you might get them wrong"

    I can agree with you here. The problem I find is that so much of what is presented to us these days automatically assumes we're stupid and don't already know something about the subject.

    I've just watched a clip about English Channel wrecks. It was very interesting. However, I already know what ROV stands for, yet every time the term is used it's also given in full. Why? I already know, and if someone doesn't already know by now then they can use any search engine to find out for themselves. John Humprys felt the need to interject with an expansion on a set of initials earlier this week (I can't recall the exact circumstances, now) but it upset the flow of the discussion remarkably well. I already knew what those initials stood for, and didn't need it explained again.

    I just want to be treated as an adult while I consume news. Please don't keep pandering to the lowest common denominator all the time. We're not all morons.


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