Monday, July 27, 2009

bright lights, small control room

Sitting with friends on a rainy thursday night watching An Affair to Remember, I had to laugh when the scene came up where Cary Grant is forced to appear on television and the host complains that his forehead is too shiny and wonders if he has a blue shirt he can change into because he is wearing white (glare, you know) as crew members scurry about and Cary fidgets and looks uncomfortable. Several months ago this meant nothing to me, but after observing and working in the television industry for several months these little details have taken on a completely new meaning.

Whether you're watching The Colbert Report, CNN, or your local news station, there are tens of people behind the scenes constantly checking mic levels, video levels, framing, lighting changes, and prompting everything that is being said by the smiling news reporter telling the story of a cat that has been rescued from a tree. Behind the frame of your television set there is a tribe of people constantly changing what you hear about, what images you see, and how you see them. In interning at a production facility in my area that tapes two well renowned ESPN shows on a daily basis (unless we're dark because of golf. it happens), my eyes have been opened to a world that I'd never really thought about and never before knew existed. And no, I know next to nothing more about sports now than I did three months ago, and to me that's the least exciting part of the whole process.

The day in the life of a television intern, or a study in hurry up and wait:
  • 10-10:30am Arrival. Generally spent chit chatting, watching Golden Girls, or sitting in for framing purposes and an audio check when they are filming a Turkish television show that mainly focuses on Eastern Europe's relation to Russia and the United States.
  • 10:30-11am Fax out for the first show, where everyone on the crew goes to their respective locations during taping so the technical director can make sure that everyone can hear and speak to himself and the director over the headset (communication is key during a broadcast to keep things going smoothly), as well as about a million other details (are the plasmas working, which remote is going to which plasma, are any of the lights burned out, are the different sound cues working, etc)
  • 11-12:15pm Lunch and an occasional episode of I Love Lucy, or more recently the tour de france.
  • 12-15pm-2pm Final preparations for taping and the show itself. Time for television magic (or chaos, depending on the day). Unlike a film set, in television the location of those in ultimate power is separated from the set itself. The control room houses the director, the technical director who makes the actual shot changes per the commands of the director, the assistant director in charge of keeping time (unlike film television is timed down to the second), the producers, and the chyron (graphics) operator. In the room adjacent to the control room is audio, which should be fairly self explanatory. All of this is being fed to profile, where the servers are located and the tape is laid down on two different tracks. In studio are the hosts of the show, the ped cam operators, the jib operator (the camera on a crane that looks like this. i've spent quite a bit of time on it), the stage manager, and the prompter op (me) who also does lighting for the first show.
  • 2:15pm-approx. 3pm Fax out for the second show. Rinse, lather, repeat explanation of first fax out.
  • Approx 4pm-5:15pm Taping of the second show. Though in most cases the events proceed in similar fashion to those for the first show, in this case the two hosts have been away and we have either had to do shows with one remote host, two remote hosts, two guests, two remote guests, and several remote interviews that change some of the segments of the show and make prompting a bit weird when you are responding to the needs of talent that isn't actually in front of you and can't see or directly communicate with you. The second show also on rare occasion has to go live because there is something wrong with the tape or Brett Favre decides to come out of retirement again, meaning anything goes, que sera sera, whatever will be will be. More chaos, more television magic.
  • 6pm Both shows have now been fed, our work is done.
This routine sometimes changes if they have shoots for whatever client may be coming in. For example, this past week I PA'd for two audio broadcasts for a well known accounting firm and watched the filming of a music video. All I can say is that everything you have heard about music video sets (if you have heard anything about music video sets) is true. Let's just say there was a "hot dancing chick," a smoke machine, and a jaguar convertible driven onto the sound stage.

Learning the Lingo*
  • Blocks: The segments of the show divided by commercial breaks
  • On heads: Being on headset, aka laughing at whatever great comments the director is making that day and in general acting like 8 year olds on walkie talkies.
  • IFB: Earpiece used by talent mainly to hear what the producers are saying during taping.
  • Float a segment: A segment that has either been removed from the show or may be used in a different segment
  • Ready for faces: Person on set sitting in for the video person who essentially paints with electronics, making sure that flesh colors are adjusted correctly and all the levels in all the different locations and monitors look approximately the same.
  • Set your dead pot: The assistant director informing the audio engineer to get ready for the out sound cue, which has to be hit at exactly the right time to correspond to the last second of the show.
  • You're hot: Indication that one of the camera's needs to be reframed because there isn't enough head room
  • Woof: Stop.
*Because television production is like being in a special club, some of this terminology may change or mean different things because television people don't want anyone else to have any idea what they are talking about.

So next time you're flipping channels between one Michael Jackson special and another, instead of making angry hand gestures at the screen and wondering why the world has nothing else to talk about (no disrespect meant to Michael Jackson fans, I just really don't care what his fifth cousin's grandmother has to say) instead think about every detail on your screen from the name of the person being interviewed and the subtle movements (or not so subtle in CNN's case) of the camera and the people behind each and every second of what you see. There's a whole lot of life going on there.


  1. How wonderful! Thanks for the information, especially the lingo and what inspired you to write this. :)

    Very interesting, this just might change my entire perspective on life. Or, at least, television.

  2. i hope so! there really is so much going on, and as it is all practically invisible to the regular viewing public i was really amazed at the number of considerations that go into a show. glad you liked it. :)

  3. Me = jealous of your life. Really. This sounds like such a busy, upbeat environment that I think I would find enjoyable. I understand that there are times when it's chaotic and stressful, but if you can fit in episodes of "I Love Lucy" into your day, than you're doing something right :) More work/intern stories when you feel like writing them/have any good ones!

  4. For the most part it is a pretty awesome place to be, except dark days (with no shows) can be hellish when there isn't always i love lucy to turn to and no other projects.haha. but i'd say i have a much better day than a number of people and i'm thankful for it. :) aside from the no money part, but it has been rich in experience. i will be sure to if i have any!