Speed Feed

Television news is never what it appears.

In the writing and political punditry trades, folk like me who have published on some area of expertise (in my case, gun control policy) make ourselves available to the media for brief interviews on news programs. Derisively called “rent-a-quotes”, we are more or less available on-demand to sit in front of television camera to inform or pontificate on matters of the moment.

Allow me to take you on an unglamorous backstage tour of the processes, captured during my recent appearance on Al Jazeera. Such moments of televised madness typically occur with an email, text or phone call asking if the guest is available for interview. Depending on the network and the criticality of the news item, the request can come hours or mere minutes before airing. It pays to be mobile and well dressed at all times.

Since topic experts are far flung, there exist video feed locations in every major metro center, including here in San Francisco (my new favorite is BeyondPix). Though many are at offices of local affiliate stations, numerous networks must to hire on-the-fly production houses with video feeds.

These rooms are suitable for detainment cells at Gitmo.

First, they tend to be tiny. When all you are broadcasting is a face, you don’t need much space. A chair and a camera in a well lit box will suffice. “Well lit” is a key concept because ample wattage is used to eliminate all shadows on newscast mug shots. Between public speaking, performing music and being a rent-a-quote, I have come closest to skin cancer from sitting in front of a camera. Next time I may wear a burka.

Most amusing are the out of focus backdrops. The insincerity of television requires that the appropriate mood be set, and that the interviewee be made to appear in his native environment. In these temporary torture cells, out-of-focus landscape and skyline prints are hung inches behind the speaker’s skull. These tiny anti-artworks are designed to appear off in the distance due to the way camera lens work in real life. Since the pic is very close to the interrogation victim, it has to look out-of-focus because it is actually in-focus.

Detachment is the most difficult part of spontaneous long distances interviews in non-affiliate locations. They typically do not have live network feeds on monitors in the booth, just an ear phone and a mic. When speaking to a news anchor, you have nothing to look at but an eerie glowing red light above the camera lens. It is like looking into the burning eyeball of Satan while discussion presidential politics (which, come to think of it, might be an appropriate metaphor). You have no face to gaze upon, no body language to read, no visual queues on which to pace your talking points. And because a few hundred thousand people may be watching you, you don’t have the option of closing your eyes and pretending there is a person in the room with you (as I occasionally do during radio interviews).

I imagine this is what crazy people feel like all the time. Not sure though. I’ll have to ask my congressman.

Performance is an art, and oddly art is very technical. Get any two working musicians together, and most of the chat is not about music but gear and how to handle microphone proximity effect. The same applies to television, where three minutes of broadcast feed from downtown San Francisco requires technical magic and well honed illusions.


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