A Lost Art

Television is hanging on by a thread and with it, how we connect as a society. When I was growing up the 1980’s, family time was spent sitting down to watch The Cosby Show. Appointment TV was very much apart of our lives. The whole family would gather around the TV to catch the latest episode of “Silver Spoons” or “Perfect Strangers.”

Who Shot JR?

Albeit before my viewing time, over 41 million people tuned in to find out “Who Shot JR” on “Dallas.” It was an international moment. People planned their days around it. Watching this TV show brought people together, made us connect as a society. Today, a show like “The Office” is considered a hit with only 6 million viewers.

In 2010, the idea of a family gathering together to watch a hit TV show is nothing but a memory of days gone by. We have replaced this moment of togetherness by emailing a clip, or highlight, to one another via Hulu or YouTube. We take great pleasure in sharing with one another, but from a distance.

Tonight on a very special Blossom” was a familiar phrase we would hear before a sitcom with a tough message. This was a sign that we were about to dive into a topic that was going to be heavy. It would be greeted with comedy, but we were going to take it on. Sometimes an actor would even break the fourth wall just to tell us how we could find out more about the topic they just tackled.

This moment, however awkward to be sharing it with your family, opened the doors of communication. Parents could expect questions about drug abuse, teen drinking, or even sex after seeing it portrayed on the magic box. The episode of “Different Strokes” that featured a child molester still makes me uncomfortable, but it gives me pause. Yes it scared me, but it opened my eyes. I would badger my parents with questions, and it made them think too.

Television had the power to take us out of our comfort zone and questions things. With the promise of adventure, it was an experience we would share together as a family. From seeing man walk on the moon, to Johnny Carson’s last night on “The Tonight Show,” there are specific moments in television that are like flipping through the pages of a family album. People think of these moments, remember what they were doing that day, or whom they were with.

Moments, like these, are lost in time. Addressing an organization of British TV producers, Stephen Fry recently said:

television as the nation’s fireplace, the hearth and the heart of the country, the focus of our communal cultural identity, that television is surely dead. It seems unlikely ever to return. Instead of being the nation’s fireplace, TV is closer to being the nation’s central heating. It’s conveniently on in every room, it’s less discernible, less of a focus, more of an ambient atmosphere.”

Fry also said he is no longer a producer, writer, or an actor, he is a “distributor of content.”

Cable, VCR’s, DVR’s, Social Media all have contributed to the death of TV, and replaced it with narrow casting. I have no idea what the future holds for TV, I don’t think anyone does. Cable is spreading TV too thin these days. Good shows pop up, but are in limited supply. They can only be found on niche channels and are often only appreciated by critics.

We have a responsibility to save TV. We want High Definition pictures plastered on big screens and in 3-D, but somehow settle for lousy quality on a mobile device and tiny screens. We need to make up our minds.

In the mini-series “Merlin,” one of the final scenes saw Queen Mab deteriorate after the people just turned away and forgot her. I don’t think TV will be forgotten, but I fear we will evolve into a society that only connects via an email, text or tweet. The shared experience of TV is becoming a lost art. The more we loose of it, the more we loose of each other.


Use of Personas

This summer I am also taking ICM 512de. This is paper was written for this week’s assignment in 512, but it serves both classes:

My mother just turned 60. Until this year, she never used a personal computer. She has never had a need to. She used to be a dog groomer and now works the deli counter in a grocery store. A neighbor of hers was in the process of moving out and he gave her his old computer. Through a few friends, she learned how to setup email and browse the web. It is a slow process. Whenever she calls me to ask questions, I instinctively talk to her as I would anyone who has always worked a computer. This is my mistake. I needed to go back in time to the point that I first learned how to work on a computer and see it through those eyes.

Due to her lack of technical experience, you could refer to my mother as the lowest common denominator, but she is just the person we should think of when making decisions for the mass audience. The government’s usability guidelines, chapter 1:11, states “Use Personas.” It comments “Personas are the hypothetical ‘stand-ins’ for actual users that drive the decision-making for interfaces.”

I would argue, use real people. Instead of designing fake people, find a real person who fits the persona you have in mind. Product testing that takes place down the line with a group of people, but why not start with real people who you are designing the persona around. Would this not save time in the long term? Steve Krug says in Chapter 2 of “Don’t Make Me Think,” It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the web the same way we do, and –like everyone else- we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.” If you design a persona, it’s designed off of what a group of technical minds are thinking this person would do. If you had a real life person to begin with, it would save time trying to decide what path the fake person would take and simply ask what the real person would do.

Krug mentions early on in chapter 2 “the thing that has struck me most is the difference between how we think people will use the web sites and how they actually use them.” Krug backs this up with an example of regular people opening Yahoo! and typing in the web address they are looking for, rather than typing the address in the web browser. Yes, this can be frustrating to some, but if it works for the user then what’s the problem? The anchor of my show is the type of man who could easily be created as a “persona.” He is very well educated, makes a good salary, and is easily considered to be the every-man. Yet he is among those who open up Google to type an address rather than typing it in his web browser. Would a group of engineers, or designers, see that action coming had they created him on paper?

We use the same idea in television. My show, “207” casts a wide net. We have every type of music, cooking or story on our show. Recently, a rapper named Spose was starting to make a big name for himself. We listened to his music and thought; it was not for our audience. A week later, my anchor’s 90-year-old father said, “Have you heard of this Spose kid?” To his amazement, his dad has been reading about him in the newspaper and thought he should be on our show. A week later, Spose was on our show. It has been the most popular segment of the year. His album went gold just last week. At the time of the broadcast, we got one or two complaints, but overall people found this rapper to be interesting.

While creating the idea of personas, Kim Goodwin of Cooper says In her research notes on personas, :

“Sometimes it’s easy to focus too much on a persona’s biography. Personal details can be the fun part, but if there are too many of them they just get in the way. To avoid this problem, focus first on the workflow and behavior patterns, goals, environment, and attitudes of the persona—the information that’s critical for design—without adding any personality.”

In our minds, we couldn’t conceive of our audience liking Spose, and yet they loved him. The personas that we used to base our decisions on let us down. Had we asked around and talked to a few real people, we would have made the right decision earlier.

As an editor, there is nothing more frustrating then crafting a masterpiece and having someone look at it and say “I don’t get it.” If that’s the answer you get, then it’s back to the drawing board. If I am working on something that I really care about, and have put a lot of work into, I grab a handful of various folks in the newsroom to look at it. The last thing I want to do is air something that will make people turn the channel. So it’s best that I get a range of feedback. A lot of times I will do this as I am tackling bits of the story. I will show off chunks to see if I am heading in the right direction. Here again, I don’t want to get too far in the work to find that I had it wrong from the start.

Personas are a great concept, but the human mind can be unpredictable. When my mother calls me on a Sunday afternoon with her latest computer crisis, I can’t begin to fathom the steps, or decisions, she made to get her to the issue she is now faced with. It takes a lot of detective work to trace back to where she made her initial mistake and how we can now set it right. Had an engineer or designer had someone like my mother in the room as they made their plans, perhaps it would have saved a lot of time and frustration.


“Our Television Heritage”

I am a media professional, but that’s not why I think I am qualified to critique television. Most people sit down and are just entertained by TV. When I sit down to watch, I am studying it. I look for what works and what doesn’t. I watch for patterns or certain styles of editing and shooting. I look at how a show is made and figure out how it was done and how it can be re-created. I have been doing this ever since I realized, “I Dream of Jeannie” wasn’t real.

You always know when you’re watching a bad TV show. Often you don’t think twice when you’re watching a good show. I do hate seeing a good show turn bad. “The West Wing” was a great show in the first two seasons, then the third season was just terrible. You could tell the writers lost their voice and direction. Their show wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything. They eventually recovered, but they lost something special after the second season.

My show and “The West Wing” are obviously different worlds. “207” is a local newsmagazine show complete with cooking, comedians, and live music. “The West Wing” or even “Doctor Who” for that matter are fictional worlds with storylines. What I compare are the techniques used in telling the stories. From the shots to the edits and even the writing, I have ripped off many production elements over the years. Many of my show opens have been influenced by classic TV.

I have respect for the history of TV. Nick at Nite used to have an ad campaign for “Our Television Heritage.” It was a joke, but in there were lots of good tidbits of information. I grew up on great TV. I would watch a lot of Cheers, The Cosby Show, and dive into reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers,” “Bewitched,” “Barney Miller,” and anything else Nick at Nite served up.

Having a degree in television studies and being the producer of content gives me the right to weigh in general TV topics, but being a viewer and a consumer solidifies that right.


Meeting a TV Legend

I wrote this in 2009 for my station’s TV review blog:

Russell T. Davies

Meeting a TV Legend

It was my last day in Cardiff, after a week in the UK, and I was taking one last walk by the waterfront. I was enjoying the perfect weather in my favorite city. I was sad to be leaving, but was even more depressed that I had not seen the one thing I had hoped for. I was heading back to the hotel when I saw what I had come to see: a surprisingly tall Englishman, reading his newspaper outside a coffee shop where I had eaten the day before. It was Russell T. Davies, the executive producer and creative genius behind my favorite show, Doctor Who.

I am obsessed with the show Doctor Who. I grew up watching the show on public television, falling in love with a character known only as, The Doctor.  The show is so special to me. When I was a little boy, we would go to my Grandmother’s house and watch Doctor Who every weekend. I even asked my grandmother to make me a 12 foot long scarf. As a kid, I had no idea it was from the early 70’s or that most of it wasn’t real. What I loved was simply that the little blue box was bigger on the inside.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the show, it’s about a time traveller from the planet Gallifrey, known only as The Doctor. He travels through time and space with his companions. The Doctor travels in what is called a TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It’s in the shape of an old English police box and its bigger on the inside. The show started back in the late 1960’s and came to an end in 1989 when the show was cancelled.

As I got older, I wanted to know more about the show and threw myself in whole- heartedly. As the years passed I started to drift away, occasionally going off to watch a DVD or an old VHS copy of the show. In 1996 there was a brief comeback for the show as a TV movie, but it didn’t take.

Fast forward to 2005, the show made a fresh and brilliant return. The show was given the budget it needed for what it always tried to be, plus, special effects had finally caught up with writers imagination. “Doctor Who” was back and better than ever. It was a show I could be proud of and not hide it as my little secret. My girlfriend was even a fan. So my obsession with the show exploded. I was going to incredible lengths to get anything “Doctor Who.” After all, “Doctor Who” was the reason I got into TV in the first place, inspiring me to want to get out there and make television.

It didn’t take long until I became very familiar with the show’s current production. There is a show called “Doctor Who Confidential,” where viewers are taken behind the scenes of each episode -great for a TV junkie. The show even has its own magazine (titled, “Doctor Who Magazine”). It is mostly through these sources that fans have become familiar with the name, Russell T. Davies.

Russell is the man behind the show’s reincarnation in 2005. His official titles are “Show Runner” and “Executive Producer.” He is also head writer on the show. He has his hand in every script and has written many of them solo. This man is Doctor Who.

He recently published a great book called “Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale,” co-written by Benjamin Cook, a writer for “Doctor Who Magazine.” The book follows Russell over the most recent series on the production of the show and examines the creative process. While he states this is not a text book on television, I feel you could easily teach a class around this work.

Needless to say the man is a genius and a brilliant talent, who I have admired for years and am so excited to have now met.

The show is produced by BBC Wales in Cardiff, England, and many of its scenes are filmed around the city. Being the geek that I am, I recently took my second vacation there. It’s a beautiful place, and if you know what to look for, you can find Doctor Who everywhere.

It was a fun week, but I had not seen any on-location production of the show. They were in studio all week, locked up tight. I was feeling depressed on our last day, not having had any direct Doctor contact (and not wanting to leave the beautiful location). I decided to go take a few last pictures when I turned around to to see my hero, Russell T. Davies. He was just sitting there quietly outside a cafe having his morning coffee and reading a paper (and, coincidentally, waiting for Benjamin Cook).

I caught my breath and walked over quietly saying “Russell?” He replied “Yes?” and I introduced myself and we had a lovely chat. He was very kind and gracious. Soon my brain caught up with my mouth and I began to fear I was talking gibberish, or about to begin gushing like a 12-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. I like to think, looking back, that I kept it together, but I suspect some of my geekdom may have seeped out. I did have enough common sense to walk away before I freaked out too much.

I ran back to the hotel, grabbed my girlfriend and another friend of ours and back we went. We got a few pictures and he autographed my copy of his book. He even included a little Dalek drawing.

While producing 207 over the last five years, I have met and talked to many celebrities and important people. None of them have meant as much to me as meeting this man. He is a legend in TV and brought the world back to one of the the best-loved shows in history. All I wanted to do was thank him for that and for introducing us to Cardiff, my favorite place in the world.

So Russell, thanks for taking a few moments out of your day to humor a TV geek from Maine. Maybe one day we will meet again and have a longer chat…
Maybe one day you can come to Maine?


The Future Via the Past

One of my favorite quotes from “Doctor Who” is “wibbly wobbly timey wimey.” There is no way I can explain it properly. It always pops into my head when I think about the future. My future always seemed clear when I was a teenager; I would work in television, it was that simple. At the time, I didn’t know in what capacity, but I knew I would end up in TV somewhere.

The moment I started playing around with TV stuff, I had great teachers. Smart people who helped influence my direction. Having a purpose and a sense of direction isn’t easy when you’re a teenager. The daily teen-angst can be overwhelming. Everyday presented newly discovered end of the world drama. Through these great academic minds, I still found my focus.

When I entered junior high in upstate New York, I found the Cortland Video Club. A program ran by the school district. They had their own television channel on the cable system. The club was ran by only one man, Jim Forshee, it was his entire life and he loved it. Jim, quite naturally, was a former engineer. One day back in the late 70’s he was handed a bunch of TV stuff and told to make something out of it for the school, and thus the program was born. Jim taught all the TV classes. The classes were fun, creative but held the line on what TV was and did.

For a turbo television geek like me this was heaven. I spent all of my free time there, soaking up as much as I could. Sports were the focus of programming for the channel. We would broadcast live football games every Friday night during the football season. Basketball season brought the same schedule. We would also cover: volleyball, softball, gymnastics, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey. As I developed my skills behind the scenes, I learned the more you knew the more valuable you were. Jim told me that almost everyday. It was the most important lesson he ever taught me. I took that nugget and ran with it. I would shoot, edit, direct, technical direct, and even call the games.

Certain games were sacred. Only the best could take the reins of football. I generally ran audio or did camera on those nights. That was fine by me, there was so much pressure on football nights. I just wanted to blend in the background. I learned a lot by doing so too. I was usually given the commentary jobs no one wanted. I would handle girls’ basketball, softball, volleyball, gymnastics, and field hockey. I was around the age of 15 when I started doing more commentary. I was a TV geek, not a sports freak. I had no clue what I was doing up there, but it was still fun.

Among most of the jocks, I could kinda slide around and not be noticed, but you knew in me in high school, I was that guy. I tried to be cool when I was on air, but that got away from me pretty quickly.

I spent about two years doing CVC. Then I moved to New Hampshire. I was sad to leave it behind, but life got in the way. My folks had gotten divorced and I needed to live with my Dad, who had a good job waiting for him in New Hampshire. This was the fork in the road in my life, the tricky “timey wimey” moment that set me on the life I live today.

When I talk about teachers who helped mold me, my dad is number one. He encouraged me to go after the things I wanted. He told me “find something you love to do and make it your career.” The school in New Hampshire had little to no video program. I came in and submerged myself in all that they had. Once again I build my schooling around what I could do with video. It was a smaller school so being “the video guy” made me stand.

The school wasn’t exactly what set me on my path though; it was my chemistry partner. The very first hour, on day one, I walked in to Mrs. Hopkins chemistry class and met my new chemistry partner. The blonde girl in flannel was my entire future, and I was clueless. We became friends quickly. For a while she was my only friend. She introduced me to others and soon I made other friends. She was a senior and I was a junior. At the time, I didn’t really look at her in a romantic way. She thought I was funny and she made me laugh too.

She graduated and enrolled in Lyndon State College in Vermont, under protest. Her mother had fantasies of everyone singing atop the green mountains like the Vonn Trapp family. So off she went, planning on a career in education. She was a brilliant writer with an exceptional command of the English language.

She discovered the education classes didn’t jive with her. She never saw eye to eye with the teachers. Then that temptress television found its way to her. She discovered the Emmy award winning TV program the school had. She met with some of the teachers and quickly changed majors.

Back in New Hampshire, I was trying to decide if college was in my future. Boston was only an hour away, and Emerson College was looking good. Sadly, Emerson didn’t want me. Next in line was the University of New Hampshire, who also didn’t want me until I took a math class. So I started a general math class at UNH, while I sold shoes at Red’s Shoe Barn. I was stuck, out of high school, big dreams and nowhere to go. My plan was to keep knocking at Emerson’s door.

My old chemistry partner sent me an email talking about this cool TV program in Vermont. My dad and I took a trip up to check it out. To both of our amazement, this was it. This program was everything I had been looking. Finally the clarity I had been hoping for!

Through Lyndon I worked with teachers who held great influence over me. Brilliant minds that knew how to reach me, I had a jumble of knowledge collected over a combined 6 years of jr. and sr. high school, and they put it all right.

Meanwhile, I discovered my chemistry partner was meant to be a life partner. After all these years still giving me the best advice. Where would I be without her? What kind of a life would I be living?

Since graduating, I have worked in TV for 8 years. So now what? TV is becoming a dinosaur. I still love it, but just not as much when I was 15. I am not exactly thrilled with where I see TV going. What does my future hold? Where can I go? My gut tells me its time to give back and become the type of teacher that guided me to where I am today. Do I go to high school, or do I find my way in college? I have always felt, you need to have a plan. So far, I have always had one. I turn 30 this year, and I am ready for a change. I could go back and teach in Vermont, but I don’t want to live there. So it’s up to me to figure out my next plan.