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The Perils of Live Broadcasting

Robert Weedon | Television | Wednesday 6th May 2009

Live televised events are a nightmare. Performing anything live is a risk; you can try as hard as you like to maintain an atmosphere in your carefully crafted stage play, but the minute a phone goes off or somebody breaks wind in the auditorium that atmosphere is gone (possibly replaced by another one), and it'll take a hell of a performance to recreate that sense of place. The added difficulty with live television is that you have all the problems of having a captive and unpredictable audience of human beings present, but a much greater number of them at home as well who expect their sense of being there to be almost as good as being there.

It's strange, but when a live "event" is covered by television, it's so easy to focus on the content of the event that the craftsmanship being shown by the technical team is often ignored. For musical events, for example, rarely does a reviewer comment on the quality of the event coverage in their preview/review; they comment on the musicians or even the presenters, but it's rare to actually consider the television production team.

It's only if something goes wrong that we, the viewer sitting at home, really notice and sadly it's that tiny glitch that the audience will go away remembering. In the live television broadcast of 2008's Last Night of the Proms on BBC1, Clive Anderson's microphone clip broke, meaning that his final address to the viewing audience sounded dreadful. Owing to this glitch, which was probably no more the fault of the sound technician than Anderson himself, the overall impression was probably that the whole event had been a cock-up. This must have been especially disappointing for the technician and the production team as a whole, because the rest of the broadcasts I saw were excellent. BBC Television cover roughly 20% of the Proms, mostly on BBC2 and the excellent BBC4, although sadly most of the general populace are only aware of their existence through the uncharacteristic Last Night on BBC1 where the mistake occurred.

Anyway, not wishing to dwell on a small, unforeseeable error, the reason I bring this up is that both this Christmas and Easter I ended up watching the live broadcasts of religious masses from Peterborough Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral, respectively. And it was about half way through the Christmas broadcast I was suddenly aware of how good the coverage of these events was - plenty of cameras, well framed shots, good sound. All the "action" of the service was well covered, and even unexpected elements such as a man walking in front of the camera were dealt with in a quick-witted manner. There were some lovely 'reveals', particularly at Peterborough, where the camera panned back from a detail to 'reveal' the size of the building. One got a real sense that the whole production team, from the director/producer downwards knew what they were doing, knew what to show, and when to show it.

Southwark Broadcast

I think there's a few reasons for this. Firstly, according to the London SE1 website, the BBC crew had spent two weeks at Southwark Cathedral preparing for the broadcast, including several rehearsals, meaning the camera crew, etc, knew exactly what was happening, which one would assume was the case at Peterborough as well. After all, as the wizened expression goes, "practice makes perfect". The other factor is, I suspect, more speculative. I imagine that the reason it was well made is that they probably genuinely cared about what they were filming. I don't know if you have to be religious to work for the BBC Religious broadcast unit, but it probably helps.

Despite sport ranking low on my 'interest meter', I also get the feeling that the team working to produce the television coverage of, say, the FA Cup final, have a genuine interest in what they're filming. Have you ever stopped to think about the chap who operates the main camera during the World Cup final? That's a lot of pressure for one man, yet I've never seen any mistakes. You could argue this is due to the fairly formulaic structure of a football match, but I can't really think of anything the coverage could improve on, which is surely the sign that it's successful.

It's surprising how much difference a little preparation on the part of the whole crew can make, and the choice of presenter can also make a big difference. In 2007, I went to Prom 2, which was themed around British film music. Because of this connection, it was presented by the noted actor Richard E Grant. In the middle, Grant made quite an embarrassing mistake when talking about the recently deceased composer Sir Malcolm Arnold. The way his autocued script was written implied that it was his personal opinion of the composer, so when he accidentally confused him with the 19th Century poet Matthew Arnold, a huge cry of derision rang out from the suitably annoyed Prommers. Had the producers gone for a sensible choice, and got a presenter who is genuinely interested in music instead of going for "star value" (i.e. a Radio 3 presenter who would have read the script beforehand), this mistake might not have occurred. Oh well, it was ironed over for the non-live TV broadcast anyway by a nice photograph of the composer.

An occasion where this didn't happen was during the BBC's rather half-hearted live broadcast of the RAF's 90th Anniversary Flypast, which was quite possibly the worst coverage of any TV event I've ever seen. It promised so much, but because it was clearly directed "on the fly" (see what I did there?), rather than with any real preparation, it came across rather like a home video shot using expensive equipment, rather than a professional production made by a flagship national broadcaster. The fact that they got nepotistic spawn-of-Peter Dan Snow in to present, plus a female newsreader who didn't seem to have any interest or knowledge of aeroplanes, didn't help. My impression of the coverage was that both presenters managed to patronise and annoy all their interviewees, talk inanely over the interesting parts, and by focussing on "people value" managed to miss the very thing that people had tuned in to see, namely the aeroplanes. It was a flypast, after all...

In summary, if you're going to cover an event on live TV, for God's sake get in some people who actually have an interest in what they're filming or presenting, and make sure they roughly know what's going on. It's all in the preparation, guys.



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