Janet Stewart: When good television goes bad
CBC’s Janet Stewart gives a behind-the-scenes look at how things can go wrong in the studio
We used to call them trouble slides, those old signs you’d see pop up on TV from time to time. They usually said something like "Technical difficulties. Please stand by."
The Simpsons uses a series of funny ones. My favourite is the one that shows a guy behind the camera who is drunk, holding a bottle marked XXX.
The sad truth is these days there often isn’t a human being behind the camera, drunk or otherwise.
At CBC, we have robotic cameras. I sit in the chair before the show, and someone in another room (called the control room) remotely adjusts the camera shot, telling the camera’s memory what a tight shot, a wide shot and shot with a graphic over my shoulder should look like. Hopefully the camera’s listening.
Ever tune in and see a wildly off-centre shot? The camera hasn’t been listening.
Lately, hard-of-hearing cameras haven’t been our problem. Hard-of-playing stories have been.
Our state of the art, up to the minute (quick, find me another technical cliché) computerized control room system has been messing up in a most frustrating way.
Our reporters, photographers and editors scramble all day long to put together stories for you to see. Then this system decides at random to spit them out, midway through playing them back.
It’s incredibly frustrating for all of us, and I’m sure it is for you, too. Our fabulous control room directors and our brilliant engineering staff have been powerless to stop it or even predict when it’s going to happen.
Our screams of frustration have resounded all the way to the New York head office of the company that makes our control room system. The company’s sent in one of its top technicians who is right now upstairs, working with our team, trying to figure out how to keep this from happening.
One of our stories on Wednesday was particularly poignant. We all cringed at the possibility this beautifully crafted tale might stop playing at an emotional moment.
So, instead of letting the story play off the computer system like it’s supposed to, we went old school. We dubbed it from its digital state on to an analog video tape. We hit play when the time was right, and it went to air flawlessly. We found ourselves wishing we could do that with all our stories.
To heck with state of the art, with digital editing and high definition. I’m longing for the old days, when someone physically juggled video tapes in a room full of VCRs to bring you your news, and I could joke with the person standing behind the studio camera.