Creative bigwigs teach academics how to shine on TV screen

After political scientists pitched to commissioning editors, the TV professionals passed on some advice

February 11, 2016
Broken television sinking underwater
Source: Alamy montage

Academic experts on obesity or Egyptology seem to pop up presenting television programmes all the time. Things can be rather more difficult for political scientists, not least because there are so many journalists who feel that they know just as much about current affairs. To try to increase the scholars’ chances, the Political Studies Association organised a recent “pitching” day under the title “Total Exposure: Achieve impact by reaching new audiences”.

There were more than 50 initial applications, from which 14 individuals or teams (including a group of PhD students) were selected to present their proposals to five established TV commissioning editors. Each was given three minutes to describe their programme, with PSA chair Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, ready with the yellow and then the red card. This led into 10 minutes’ further discussion to clarify the ideas and explore alternative approaches.

“What’s it like to stop being an MP?” was the subject offered up in the pitch by Dennis Grube, principal research fellow at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for the Study of Social Change, who had travelled to London to take part in the event. One defeated Australian parliamentarian, he said, had described it as “like falling off the back of an ocean liner. Your friends at the stern hear a muffled splash, but they can’t see or hear you, and gradually the ship of state recedes into the distance. You’re left there in the ocean, waving – but hopefully not drowning.” Professor Grube’s proposed documentary series was designed to “rehumanise the fallen politician”.

Angelia Wilson, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, describes herself as “a lesbian preacher’s daughter from Texas” who has now spent “25 years as an expat living in the UK”. A question she is often asked, she told the panel, is: “Why is American politics so ‘crazy’?” Since much of her recent research has involved “participant observations, interviews and discourse analysis of the American Right”, she argued that she was ideally placed to present a documentary about why US politics seems so confusing, the central role of religion – and why British citizens should care about all this.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, is fascinated by how representations of politicians in films and television dramas have changed since the 1980s to focus more on individual selfishness and venality, despite very little evidence that real-life politicians have become less dedicated or more corrupt. His programme would address head-on the question of “Where did all the good politicians go?”

Three separate pitches set out to demystify the European Union, whether through satire, a bus tour of some of the EU’s main institutions or a series of five-minute radio “chunks” responding to the changing news cycle. The last of these was suggested by Nick Startin, senior lecturer in European politics at the University of Bath, and Simon Usherwood, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Surrey. The latter has already recorded 160 podcasts on the referendum and so receives lots of feedback on the sometimes unexpected issues that are causing concern, such as the possible impact of a Brexit on football.

Other academics tried to convince the commissioners of the potential for programmes about corruption, the longer-term impact of the Falklands War, the way that drones will shape the future of world politics, and the links between “the ascent of man” and “the descent of animals”.

Performance review

So what did the media professionals make of what they had heard? The commissioning editor panellists are submitting written comments, which will be boiled down by the PSA into a page of feedback for each pitcher. Yet several also offered some general thoughts to Times Higher Education, which may be of interest for any academics keen to attract the interest of TV producers.

Jonathan Brunert, who commissions both television and radio programmes for the BBC, was impressed by “the passion and depth of knowledge”, but noted that “everybody is talking a lot about the subject but perhaps not quite as much about the actual proposition as a piece of TV or radio”. He added: “It’s about understanding the marketplace a bit better. When you come in to pitch to broadcasters, we’re judging you on the performance as much as on the information.”

He continued: “Think less about the subject and a bit more about the human communication you’re involved with when you come in to pitch. How am I going to make you really interested in what I’m going to say next? All commissioners are thinking is: I’m the audience; does [your proposal] entertain, inform, fascinate, stimulate me? If it doesn’t do that for me, how is it going to do that for everybody else?”

Siobhan Mulholland, a commissioning editor at Sky, had just worked on “a programme for Sky Arts on using algorithms to create a musical”. She said that she had been very impressed by how the mathematicians and computer scientists had managed “to make very complex ideas simple”. Convinced that “we love an expert on screen”, she had also been impressed by many of those pitching in the “Total Exposure” sessions, but thought that some needed to sell themselves more and better emphasise their “USP”, or unique selling point. If they had a personal involvement or access to people or material that professional presenters would never be able to replicate, that should be stressed prominently, Ms Mulholland argued.

Tom Garton, who has developed and secured commissions for both the BBC and ITV, said: “Because we all watch television and are passive observers, we sometimes don’t realise that it’s all built around scenes and images and specific details.” Academics putting in proposals would be well advised to remember that “it’s actually the specific details which bring things to life”, he added.

Television is often seen as a ruthlessly competitive medium, and at least one academic was clearly a natural. When Dr Startin and Dr Usherwood were asked by a panellist whether they came as a team, the latter instantly replied with a smile, “We could drop one another at a moment’s notice!”

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