TV Trends: Conspicuous cameras
By: Robert Weedon | Written: Tuesday 8th June 2010
Once upon a time, one of the major conventions in programme making was that "television should not acknowledge that it is television". In the early days, the magic of getting live pictures in your living room was a mysterious, even miraculous process to the public, many of whom could remember a time when even getting broadcast sound was an exciting innovation. However, today’s television viewers are perhaps less in thrall of the process, and, presumably as a result of DVD extras showing how things are made, often get to see exactly how programmes are put together, with the production process increasingly incorporated into mainstream viewing.
Even though in the early days of television programmes often unintentionally showed cameras or microphone booms (as a result of being live), as production processes continued to improve it was usually rare to see any form of technical equipment on screen. Indeed, even by 1963, when the then-groundbreaking satirical show That Was The Week That Was wanted to show how 'edgy' it was, it made a virtue of showing the cameras, studio and audience, microphone booms and so forth, even down to the autocue, as seen here after a rather weak joke on the final episode:
In the next two decades, seeing the cameras and production techniques, along with any production-related mishap became something of a rarity, and it was only on live programmes that these were ever seen, for example the notorious episode of Panorama where David Dimbleby has to telephone the producer after all the films became unavailable:
Production errors, especially on pre-recorded programmes, were rarely, if ever seen, usually being reserved for the VT Christmas Tapes. The tide perhaps began to turn with the rise of outtake clip shows, such as It’ll Be Alright on the Night and the BBC’s later equivalent Auntie’s Bloomers. These gave the public a chance to see actors making mistakes, arguably breaking the invisible wall that television had created around itself. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, even being given a glimpse of the production process was viewed as a rather exciting treat, a good example being the opening introduction of the 1978 Good Life Royal Command Performance, which is enjoyable mainly for seeing the whole production crew dressed as if for a formal dinner:
In recent years, television has become more willing to show how it is made. For example, for the last few years, the satirical show Have I Got News for You has regularly included production 'outtakes' as part of the show, particularly on the part of the guest hosts, usually showing the assistant floor manager prompting the host with the script, or the host talking to the director speaking into his earpiece. Oddly, these cannot really be defined as 'outtakes', as they are often included in lieu of actual jokes or entire rounds, one would assume because the mistakes are sometimes funnier than the straight presentation of the script; the recent episode with John Prescott (June 2010) being a case-in-point.
Indeed, in light entertainment, seeing the production team has become a regular 'trope' – the crew of The One Show are often seen standing at the sides of the set, and provide most of the laughs for any jokes made by the guests or presenters. Similarly, in Top Gear the camera crew are often seen in shot. Whereas once this was unusual, now it is the norm. Perhaps the greatest example of this behind/in front of the camera informality is in nature documentaries, where in series such as Springwatch the cameramen and crew actively participate in the programme, to the point where they tell the audience what they’re doing. The follow-on spin-off Springwatch Unsprung even features the crew walking about the set while it’s still being broadcast on BBC2:
So what’s changed?
Partly, I wonder whether it’s a new culture of programme makers being more inclusive of their staff. After all, if you work in television, it’s quite nice to be featured on it as well - the excellent Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, for example, goes as far as to use members of the production office as illustrative examples although as this programme is about television anyway, it makes sense to feature people involved in it.
It could be a result of a decade when the 'false' nature of television was constantly highlighted and under scrutiny from the print media, perhaps leading programme makers to decide they would be as honest as possible by showing how their product is made.
There's also the possibility that by showing the massive size of a production crew acts as a subtle reminder to licence-fee payers what their money is being spent on. After all, everyone carries a video camera around with them these days.
More prevalently, the number of "making of" type shows which accompany a big-budget series, such as Doctor Who Confidential, have also increased. As well as the reasons conjectured above, this is largely a result of wanting to provide DVD extras for any series that has cost a lot of money. It also provides a good filler for a sister digital station badly in need of some viewers (such as, ahem, BBC Three).
However, I wonder whether it’s simply because the barrier between being in front of and behind the camera has gone, and audiences are now willing to accept that television is a filmed entertainment format, with many, such as myself, finding the process of making programmes often just as interesting as the programme itself.
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