Turn them on with your what-ifs

March 25, 2005

You're charming, articulate and have a few controversial ideas up your sleeve - perfect TV don material. So find an agent and irritate your colleagues, says Harriet Swain

Dissatisfied with an audience of ignorant students and dull dons? Hungry for fame, fortune and guaranteed book sales? Admit it. You want to get on television.

Well, you can lose the "ignorant students" attitude for a start. The best advice, according to TV historian David Starkey, is to "be a bloody good teacher and be nice to your students". These students have a good chance of becoming TV researchers in the future and, as in his case, may provide a way in to the industry. Your ability to show humour, clarity and vividness in the lecture theatre is the perfect predictor of your ability to perform on camera, he says.

The other thing to abandon is the notion that people in the TV industry read. "This absurd notion that you write the book first and then make the programme isn't the way any of the big series have been done," Starkey says. "So forget the research assessment exercise and concentrate on teaching."

Simon Raikes, a TV producer who works on Time Team , says it is important to understand the nature of TV. "It's a medium that's essentially for a mass market, that's supposed to be entertaining and treats its subjects with a fairly broad brush," he says. "All of these things are quite unacademic."

He stresses the importance of being relaxed about the need to back up every assertion you make with detailed evidence.

Any academic going into TV needs to have a thick skin. Raikes warns that many colleagues and erstwhile friends will be very rude to you for what they see as you cheapening your subject.

As an illustration of the way TV works, he recalls one academic who was promoted from expert to presenter on a particular show. She couldn't understand why she was being paid more for asking dumb questions than for answering them.

Peter Robinson, Starkey's agent at Curtis Brown, says that it is vital to have something to say and to be able to communicate it. But he stresses that you must also realise the extent to which TV is a team effort.

A book you have written may not bear any relationship, in terms of shape or structure, to the programme that is eventually made. TV is a risk-taking environment and you will have to be prepared to take chances with material and to step outside your speciality, he says.

His advice is to get a good agent. You should interview agents and listen out for recommendations to find someone with contacts and an ability to harness your potential and protect your interests.

Felicity Bryan, a literary agent who represents Roy Strong and Karen Armstrong, among others, says that if someone appears to have TV potential, she will put them in touch with a specialist agent, although she will still encourage them to publish the book first. "If the telly series doesn't turn out to be that good, then it can harm the book," she says.

But what identifies someone as having TV potential? She says it is someone who is articulate, can talk on the hoof and has the kind of appealing, distinct personality that comes across well on screen.

"They don't have to be classically good-looking if they have a compelling, charismatic way with them," she says.

Raikes says you have to be interesting or, better still, controversial.

"There is no point in talking about a particular brand of science, for example, if you are saying exactly the same as other people," he says.

"Come at it from a different angle. Be prepared to speculate. TV likes people who think in terms of 'what if?'"

His advice is to find a well-defined voice or character. "Most of the academics who have succeeded on TV have looked into themselves to find something that makes them unique as a character," he says.

It is also worth bearing in mind that there are plenty of ways to get on TV without having a whole series made about your book or ideas. Research-TV, developed by a consortium of UK universities, research councils and a regional development agency, was launched in 2004 with the aim of getting stories on TV. It produces news items about cutting-edge research and promotes them to news organisations at home and abroad.

Tracy Playle, head of the service, advises developing a good relationship with your university press officer, since most programme makers will use press officers as their first port of call. It is also wise to include yourself on any university list of experts and to make sure your details are up to date.

Playle says you have to make yourself available at short notice, 24 hours a day, to increase your chances of being called on by broadcasters in need of an immediate expert opinion.

She also suggests training to become a media star. "Television broadcasters want snappy soundbites and concise information in terms their audiences can understand," she says. "News items are often only a few minutes long, so getting to the point is central to developing a profile for yourself."

If, having acted on all this advice, you're still waiting by the phone, don't despair, advises Robinson. TV is a dirty business that will rip off your ideas or get someone more televisual to talk about them. "Don't be so desperate to get on TV that you will do anything," he says. "Have a certain sense of your own dignity."

Further information:


Be a good teacher

Get a good agent

Be prepared to lose the respect of your friends and peers

Have a strong personality

Make yourself available

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