The state of technical standards in British Television

I am seriously concerned about the state of British Television.  I am saying that from my own perspective as a professional cameraman whose main income is derived from the British television industry.

My primary concern is that of technical standards.  I wonder if there any these days?  I don’t watch a great deal of TV, but when I do I am usually appalled at what is allowed to end up on the screen, and I really want to have a moan about that, so I will.

TV is having a tough time.  Theres no doubt about that.  There are a zillion channels, who all want a slice of the advertising budgets of big companies.  Not that long ago there were only four channels, and only two of those were commercial – that is, they were the ones who paid for their programming by selling advertising, and that advertising pot was proportionally quite large.  More cahnnels have to make more programmes with the same money spread between them.  But in those days of two commercial channels technical standards were very high.  Now, with the advent of new technologies, and new channels, those standards are rapidly going down the drain.  How often do I see a programme that I can’t hear?  How often do I see a DV camera hunting to find the focus? How often do I see washed out pictures caused by very poor exposure?  The answer to all of those questions is A LOT.  The problem here is that new technologies make television more accessible – theres nothing inherently wrong with the technology, its the people using it thats the problem.

Why is this happening?  Well the simple answer is money – or lack of it!  Well I’m not sure there is a lack of it actually.  There seems to be a fair amount of cash sloshing around, and a lot of that cash is being siphoned straight into the drain!

I do a lot of work for the main broadcasters who all moan about how tight their budgets are.  To make sure they end up with something on the screen they have to resort to using people who are unqualified!  Well they may have degrees in Physical Education or something, but they don’t have degrees in film (and if they do they were badly taught!).  If they were qualified professionals, they would know what is and is not unacceptable as far as technical standards go.  If the National Geographic published out of focus poorly exposed images in their magazine NO-ONE would read it!  So why does Television?

The sad thing is that highly skilled professional film cameramen and sound recordists, with years of experience, are leaving the industry in DROVES.  They are leaving because they are considered to be dinosaurs, who want to be paid lots of money for doing something which they are extremely good at.  And if they stay in the industry they are being put upon something rotten.  No pay increases for them, long hours too.  These craft skills are being severly eroded, and once they’re gone thats it.

Let me put this into a different perspective which, perhaps, non TV people who may read this might understand.  If you employed a professional painter to decorate your living room, you would really expect the room to look pretty good when he had finished.  The alternative would be to employ the 12 year old kid next door to do the painting for you because thats all you could afford.  Now theres no doubt that the kid next door would do his best, but really it wouldn’t be the same as the work done by a professional painter.  You’d probably have to redecorate again immediately to improve what the 12 year old had done, or maybe you’d redecorate in a couple of years, when you discover the gloss peeling off the skirting boards.  The professional painters work may still be sound 30 years from now, and then may only require a fresh coat of paint at that!

So if you do the same thing in TV, you pay a low fee to someone who isn’t a cameraman, and then you spend a bucket load more money paying someone (usually an editor) to salvage something useable out of the chaos laid before him (or her).  You probably also then have to employ a cameraman to go and shoot a load more material to stitch the whole thing together with some semblance of quality.  This all costs lots of money!  Perhaps if the TV company had, in the first place, done their project in the old fashioned way, using a professional crew, then this wouldn’t have happened.

I watched a programme about John Lewis on the TV the other day.  It was interesting, it was a bit like the old “Modern Times” programme.  It was reasonably well done, but it could have been so much better!  There was one point when the camera suddenly tilted up towards the ceiling, the lens going all over the place, and then they cut to a different shot!  What was that all about?  Thats not good camerawork, in fact it should never have been transmitted.

Then there was somethin else I was watching, I know, it was A Place In The Sun, on last night.  What was going on with sound there?  There were obviously sound recordists there(they were credited) – the pieces to camera looked and sounded OK, but then there were these little vox-poppy interviews with the couple who were looking to buy a property, in Lanzarotte.  Boy!  The sound was appalling – huge amounts of background noise from the sea (so it wasn’t, anyway the most sensible location to shoot this piece), and the voices fighting over the background noise.  When they paused talking the background sound increased because the levels had been setb to automatic, thus causing the background noise to increase in level!  I’m sorry, but thats just not good enough!  The crew had probably gone out for just a day or two to get the good stuff, then someone had done the rest of the filming on their own with a handy cam (because the crew would have been too expensive to have out there for the duration)

There used to be a standard, and there still is, it’s called “broadcast quality”.  That means that pictures and sound should fall within specified limits of acceptability.  But these days these “standards” are being routinely ignored – not only by the people making the programmes but by the broadcasters.

If you agree with my sentiments then please leave comments, it would be interesting to know what you think!  Maybe you think I’m just being a boring old fart, but what do really think of televison in the UK today?  And I’m not talking about content because that whole other ball game, but in terms of quality – what do YOU think?

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~ by Stephen Foote on March 20, 2010.

One Response to “The state of technical standards in British Television”

  1. I agree with all of that – it’s one of the reasons I stopped making films fifteen years ago; and just think how grotty the Mary Rose films would have been if I had shot it myself without Tim, you and all the others to capture what was going on to a high technical standard while I concentrated on being there on the right dates and understanding what was going on. I think television has been sorely impoverished by (sadly) the expansion of choice. Now we have, just like America, hundreds of television channels a few of which occasionally show very good material. But the bad has swamped the good and there is no doubt that technical and production standards have dropped enormously since I started with the BBC (in 1969). All the best, J.

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