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DECLINING TECHNICAL STANDARDS IN BRITISH TV BROADCASTING
by Derek Budd

“The future is bright”, so the ad-man tells us. TV headlines declare that “we are entering the new and exciting age of digital broadcasting”. However, all is not so well as they tell us. A clue perhaps...? On a recent radio show, presenter Terry Wogan glibly made the comment “Did you see yet another cookery programme on the telly last night? The camerawork – well, it made me feel quite giddy to watch it!”

But wait a minute Tel Boy, “surely British Television is the best in the world!”

“NO IT ISN’T – IT’S BL…Y CRAP!” No, this isn’t Jeremy Clarkson being devils advocate. In case programme executives haven’t been paying attention, this is increasingly the response of the British viewing public. Enter any pub conversation, listen to comments on street corners, read the Television reviews... for heaven’s sake, is anyone listening or, more worryingly, is anyone still watching? In fact, does anyone else care? 

Well it would seem not, for I have contacted various broadcast professional bodies. Even the chief engineer of the ITC quotes that the industry works well under self regulation, and they (the ITC) no longer have the requirement, under present day legislation, to monitor all public broadcast channels. 

To be fair, I am also criticising BBC technical standards, once the bastion of our world broadcast service.

Oh gosh, now I feel like the lone little boy who saw the king without his suit of clothes. Mention such views within the broadcast industry, and you will be reassured that many will secretly agree. Indeed, one much respected Producer has commented that we now make programmes for cretins and morons! That may be reflecting his own viewpoint about the bland ratings-driven schedules, but what about the deteriorating technical standards that we were all once so proud of? There would appear to be more unsupervised trainee staff let loose on daily prime-time shows these days – simply because they are so innocently vulnerable and cheap to exploit. Indeed, working hours and conditions in studios, and on location, must now compare with sweatshop labour markets, and after all it’s not “brain surgery” we are dealing with.

Television production, suffering from the decline in regulation by the ITC and trade union enforcement, has now reached the age of multi-skilling. Fiercely competitive freelance technicians, desperate to keep working, are forced more often to agree to so called buy-out deals for their terms of employment.

Colleges churn out media students at an alarming rate, all keen to get to the top. Whilst recognising their achievements during college life, there is little furthering of valuable training within a declining industry. Technical departments and crews have been cut to such small levels that there is no longer the opportunity for newcomers to “serve at the master’s heel”. Runners are now given cameras, researchers (even girlfriends!) erect lights and sound equipment, and the endless examples make for depressing news.

MONEY

In the light of a very bad Broadcasting Act during 1990 under Margaret Thatcher’s Government, there is little doubt that television is now solely about making money - high short-term profits whatever the long-term costs. The importance of the social and moral regional broadcasting requirement to inform, educate and entertain by quality programming has now been cast aside. Just look at the TV listings. Q.E.D.

With growing competition from developing interactive media, programme budgets have been drastically cut by ruthless narrowly-focussed Accountants (to fuel the profits of the shareholders). Why is it that British industry loses the self-confidence in investing for future quality products?

The “ethnic” cleansing amongst the production labour market has resulted in a mass exodus of skilled and mature labour. Tight budgets and unworkable schedules often mean there is no opportunity for training on the job. Compromises are made in filming conditions - so the excuses go on. The all too common phrase “you pay peanuts and get monkeys” regrettably comes to mind.

Instantaneous demand for TV production often means that some programmes are now ‘thrown together’. The industry is very bad with regard to “brainstorming” (back-stabbing, yes). Once transmitted there is rarely an enquiry, lessons are never learnt, tomorrow’s another day, another programme. We are the pioneers of communication and sadly, like many other industries, suffer through the lack of it.

DISCIPLINES

Since the demise of film, the loss of the clapper board has resulted in a lack of discipline. When the ‘ident’ board went on (like the red warning light in a studio) the crew were silent and focussed. However it is all too common these days to view entire sequences filmed completely out of focus and/or with incorrect sound levels. The basic procedure for zooming in, focussing, then framing seems to have been lost. Indeed, the art of composing a subject is misunderstood. The positioning to the rule of thirds using the strength of base lines (the basis for picture composition) appears itself to be a lost art.

With today’s sophisticated equipment to be found in post-production, the sound mixer ought to be more aware of the final sound as received by the average viewer. Light entertainment shows frequently suffer due to the imbalance between the vocalist and orchestra. The viewer does not always have the benefit of high range speakers offering an acceptable balance and separation of sound.

There have been all too many examples of appalling exposures (video is so unforgiving in its contrast range – more especially if the camera has not been regularly maintained or lined up correctly). Camera viewfinders, due to the requirement for high image detail, are often in black and white. Inexperienced camera operators therefore rarely see the pitfalls and hazards of filming without the benefits of a colour viewfinder. Another glaring fault whilst filming back-lit subjects is the problem of dirty filters and lenses. Disciplines in cleaning and protecting equipment during all weathers and conditions are commonly overlooked. The misuse of wide angle lenses (enhancing both dirt and distorting limbs and faces) scream out to the viewer.

A leading camera salesman once boldly demonstrated the light sensitivity of a new camera with a drama scene lit by a single candle. The irony was that in addressing a group of experienced film technicians, he perfectly demonstrated the often overlooked requirement for additional creative lighting. Another example comes to mind of a palace state room interior. The cameraman had so incorrectly balanced the interview key light that the magnificence of the room itself was lost, due to his under-exposure.

Low budget amateur lightweight cameras are being used all too often – though in their place can offer some benefit. Misused by inexperienced hands, then sequences show the camera waived around like a handbag – often in a frenzy of angles all disturbing to the viewer. The positioning of multiple mini-cams (often with distorted lenses) is yet a further example of big boys’ toys.

Network shows, once graced with multi-camera OBs, now make do with single or two camera live links. It would seem that to offer the variety of shots is to run around with an ‘unsteady’ hand-held camera; the long suffering operators incorrectly holding a weighty camera often adding to their own fatigue and unnecessary stress levels.

The power of the press and communications media is enormous and vitally important in a modern and developing society. Its misuse and abuse of the craft and disciplines of a generation of film technicians is now becoming all too common place. Viewers deserve an adequate and enforceable regulator to maintain and improve higher standards! The ITV network was established to service the regional communication needs of the British Isles. Whatever its future size in the expanding global market of mass communication, quality regional access must be maintained at all cost.

© Derek Budd, 2001


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