For its first 30 years, television news looked pretty much the same wherever and whenever you watched it.
A middle-aged man sat behind a desk in front of a cardboard set introducing the occasional filmed report, but mainly just talking.
In the early Eighties video replaced film and “electronic newsgathering” was born. News still consisted largely of middle-aged men introducing “reporter films”, only now there were more of them and they tended to be more up to date – and the male anchor was often accompanied by an attractive younger woman.
Now, in the “digital” phase of television, there are almost no desks and very few chairs. Live “two-ways” via satellite are often favoured over filmed reports and male and female presenters wander around the wideopen spaces of their virtual news studios, gesticulating at video walls and three-dimensional graphics.
Technology and fashion have bought us to this point. Television news is now faster, glitzier and probably more diverse than it ever was, yet it still remains riddled with clichÃ©s and conventions. .
One of the favourite TV staples of our day is “the list”, so I now present my own – The Ten Most Irritating Conventions of TV News.
Blackboard and chalk graphic.
This is guaranteed to make an appearance at the slightest hint of an education story. It often also includes an old-fashioned teacher with mortarboard and cane.
The ordinary family. This bewildered group of individuals are wheeled out at Budget time to illustrate the impact of the chancellor’s tax decisions. While they sit like lemons on the sofa, the consumer affairs correspondent explains how “average mum” works part-time and likes a glass of wine, “average dad” earns £450 a week and runs a Rover 45 and the teenage twins both smoke pipes and that (pause for deep breath) this “average family” will be worse off by twenty three pence a week. Of course, no-one else in Britain bears any resemblance to the “average family”, so the whole exercise is futile.
Urgent music. Every news programme must have some – first and foremost in the titles, but increasingly to be played underneath shorter news items which might otherwise challenge the attention span of the ordinary viewer. News music tends to be heavy on the brass and on the drums and may have a trance-like quality that can place the viewer in suspended animation.
The chapter heading. If a news story contains more than three thoughts or facts then it is generally thought to require graphic chapter headings to make it comprehensible.
Serious analytical news programmes like Newsnight and Channel 4 News are obsessed with chapter headings, which are often used as a substitute for an actual story or real pictures.
Giant video display. The rule of thumb here is the bigger the better.
It started with widescreen plasmas, then multi-screen video walls, video floors and now Imax-style total video environments. This screen technology may impress the viewer but tends to dwarf the presenters and reporters, who are effectively reduced to the size of a Subbuteo figures.
Walk and talk. In the old days TV news people were essentially seated and static – now they have to walk, talk and think simultaneously.
Reporters and newsreaders once had to look good only from the waist up, now they have to worry about visible panty lines and footwear. Walking and talking gets more complex when it is taking place in a virtual environment – some are even required to walk backwards and talk.
Pointless vox pop. When covering a topical issue, one of the favourite techniques is to hear the views of “ordinary people” and present it as some kind of semi-scientific public opinion survey. The fashion is to bypass the policy makers, pundits and lobbyists and go straight to the man or woman in the street for a view.
Interactive vote. This not only gives the viewer the illusion that he or she is somehow contributing to the news coverage, but it can also be a handy revenue generator if viewers are texting or voting on premium telephone lines.
Lazy lunchtime diary story. You can spot this a mile off by the presence of an articulate well-rehearsed representative of a charity or pressure group. The usual pattern is to highlight some new survey or initiative such as Personal Hygiene Week, and then speak to the organisation which dreamt it up as a publicity stunt.
Live two-way. Instead of allowing journalists and camera operators to record what they’ve seen on location, the preference today is for a live conversation between the newsreader in the studio and the reporter on location.
In theory the live two-way creates a sense of immediacy and does away with “meaningless” wallpaper pictures and it is also ideal for reporting late-breaking news. In truth, the “latest” may actually be something which happened half an hour ago but has been held back deliberately to appear live. Two-way is popular with news organisations because it accentuates personalities and opinion. It is also inexpensive as it doesn’t involve any significant news or picture gathering.
The trouble is that investing in live two-ways effectively turns the location reporter into a sub-presenter rather than a newsgathering journalist.
Eventually all these conventions become parodies of themselves and then get killed off and replaced by original new ideas which in turn become conventions. At the moment it feels like we’re waiting for the next quantum leap on TV news.
Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five.
Next week: Bernard Shrimsley