The Pipe Dream

Tardis

My holiest of shows is “Doctor Who” and not far behind, its spin off “Torchwood.” My dream job is to work on “Doctor Who” and live in England. Last year, I gave it a shot.

“Doctor Who” is produced by BBC Wales. They make the show in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. In 2008, the Mrs. and I took our first big vacation there. We spent two weeks in England, but only three days in Cardiff. The city is a secret gem. The Brits often make fun of it for various reasons, but we fell in love with the place. We knew we needed to spend more time there.

When we returned from our big UK adventure, I signed up for the BBC employment emails. I started getting a lot of job listings for both “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Most of the postings I was not qualified for. Then in late November of 2008, “the holy grail” of jobs was announced, producer for “Doctor Who.”

Christmas came early. I was running around the house screaming and jumping for joy. All I could see was a life in Cardiff making the show of my dreams.

Once I calmed down, I needed a plan. Specifically, I needed to get going on the application. I thought long and hard about everything I had done in TV up to this point. I then considered that “Doctor Who” is the BBC’s most valuable show; naturally I was a perfect fit. It wasn’t an act of ego that convinced me to apply; it was my love of the show and the BBC. The “Doctor Who” is flawless; I just wanted to hitch my wagon to it.

The rejection letter came about two weeks after the position closed for inquires. I knew I would be turned down, so I didn’t tell a lot of people I was applying. Most of the people I told were very supportive. One friend thought it was a dumb idea to even try.

I don’t regret taking the chance, if you can call it that. Having investigated it further, the BBC (and England) are very strict about only hiring UK citizens. Unless I have a sponsor, family ties, or have been working towards getting my citizenship, they will not even consider me because I am an American.

I still get the BBC Wales job openings in my email. Many more have come through that I am qualified for. They have a show just like mine called “The One Show.” The shows hosts have just left for better jobs on a competing network. So here is the BBC’s chance to mix things up. Give the show over to an American who sees England with a fresh perspective.

I’ve been back to Cardiff since the rejection letter. We even snuck on the BBC campus to have lunch one day. I will continue to submit my resume. I like to think that someone in human resources is getting familiar with my name.

Party of One

When I sit down to produce my show, I don’t think about the audience. I know they’re out there, but not in my studio. I sit with a director, audio operator, and usually one or two studio camera people. The hosts of the show, and the occasional live guests are the only other people I will interact with. So when I produce the show each night, it’s like I am making the show just for me. I sit down and the anchors talk to me. I push a little button and I talk back to them. Some nights I forget that I should wait to respond.

When I write, I go through the same process. I know you’re there reading the words, but I can’t think about you. I am pretty self-conscience to begin with. If I start thinking about you, I will enter a deep paranoia. I need to write for me, but deep down inside, I want to share it with the world. I don’t want to just write for the sake of performing an act, I want to do it well. I have a desire to entertain you.

If I’m not entertained each night as my show goes out, then no one else will be either. The same rule applies to my writing. If it doesn’t do anything for me, I know it’s a waste of your time too.

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.