No more Right to Reply

Nigel Watson


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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It was announced on 20 April 2001 that the long running Channel 4 series Right to Reply would be axed. It was virtually the only programme to allow viewers to express their criticisms directly to TV producers and directors. The role of the Internet was blamed for its demise, as people can now e-mail their opinions directly to programme makers (so helping to further the ‘digital divide’). Critics think the main reason is that Channel 4 wants to make more ratings friendly productions. 

Reply will be best remembered for the Video Box feature. The box was like a photo booth in which members of the public could enter to express their views. Just like a photo booth the framing and quality of the pictures had much to be desired. Several years ago the box was scrapped in favour of allowing viewers to debate or interview TV makers in person.

Reply will be best remembered for the Video Box feature. The box was like a photo booth in which members of the public could enter to express their views. Just like a photo booth the framing and quality of the pictures had much to be desired. Several years ago the box was scrapped in favour of allowing viewers to debate or interview TV makers in person.

The loss of Reply only serves to confirm that television uses real people, whether in front of the camera or behind it, as cheap, entertaining and patronising fodder. 

Given the massive increase in the availability of camcorders in recent years, you would think that budding Speilbergs would have a better chance on the box. 

The relationship between contributor and viewer is destined to be mediated by professionals who obviously have their own ideas of what makes good television, whether we're talking about the bottom end of entertainment such as Stars in their Eyes to the top end such as Video Diaries. 

Even when more editorial control is given to the contributor, such as in Video Diaries, the diarist is still faced with a format, a structure, and a production hierarchy which does not reflect real life closely, nor offer the diarist sufficient control. 

Even programmes like Right to Reply are a sop to the public. Certainly they tend to retain the structure of TV which regards the public as 'them' and the professionals as 'us'. Complaining about TV programmes after they have been transmitted is like closing the door after the horse has bolted. And what evidence is there that the commissioning editors or producers ever take the criticisms on board? 

Channel Four began as an outlet for representing more minority groups and interests but it has ended up more like BBC2. Indeed, TV serves to represent a powerful minority of producers and programme makers who dictate what the majority see and hear. with a more media conscious and articulate public isn't it time the barricades of TV kingdom are broken down? 

I'd like to see TV allow more creative input from real people both in terms of fictional and factual programmes. To often 'real people' are either patronised or humiliated and abused. Certainly new talents could be showcased in different ways.

One blustery day in June 1994 I was outside the headquarters of Channel 4 television feeling like a complete prat. The reason for my distress was a camera pointing at me and a director with the ambitions of Orson Welles. 

For an inexperienced presenter (e.g. me!) it's very difficult to walk into camera shot, deliver your speech and then walk out of camera range. This job is severely compounded when you are preventing a bunch of desperate looking blokes from unloading their lorry and you are still trying to remember the script. 

Why was I doing this? Well it was all in the interests of camcorder users throughout Britain, I kid you not. One idle Sunday morning I got to thinking that the work of amateur video producers is nearly always misrepresented on television. We either get amusing camcorder cock-ups which show the incompetence of those behind and/or in front of the camera or we get video footage of 'real' events. 

The former type of material is used in You've Been Framed. The 'real' material 
is used in news programmes or documentaries, the best example being the BBC's 'Video Diaries' series. What I think is the real shame is that creative users of camcorders are denied access to broadcast TV outlets in their own right. 

I wrote down these ideas and sent them to Channel 4's Right To Reply programme and within four days I was getting a camera pointed at my cakehole. The producer/director was very helpful and we spent a couple of hours refining an outline and script for my sequence. We got suitable examples of programmes to use as clips and I had two interviews to do. 

The first interview was with, Andy Harries, who is the head of Granada Light Entertainment. He is a jolly chap who eloquently justified the production of that ghastly monstrosity Stars In Their Eyes. Although it's not a camcorder production it does feature amateurs who sing and perform in the style of a famous star. This emphasises the broadcasting medium's patronising attitude to the 'public' as far as I'm concerned. But Harries said that all the participants are volunteers who are carefully groomed to give their best. It's a human equivalent of Croft's, except you get to star in a dog of a programme rather than a dog food commercial! At the bottom line Stars In Their Eyes draws a huge Saturday evening audience and you can't argue with good ratings. (Interestingly, Stars in their Eyes is still broadcast, but a more worthy series Video Diaries has long gone, and now Right to Reply has gone!)

The second interview was with Bob Long who is the series editor of Video Diaries. I noted that his series tended to feature eccentrics or people who had problems. He, not surprisingly, disagreed. He did reveal that people who are chosen to do a Video Diary are given rudimentary training, and a BBC producer guides them through the process of shooting and editing their contributions. In the context of mainstream TV it is obviously wise to have such guidance, even though the programmes are 'sold' as being raw slices of life. 

I reckon the style of camcorder usage, shaky hand-held shots, bad lighting, lack of professional composition, etc., has become indelibly equated with 'real life' by viewers and TV companies alike. Films like Philadelphia show home videos in this style to reveal the happy life of Tom Hanks before he catches AIDS. TV programmes like 999 reveal real-life drama through the lens of video cameras. Amateur video glimpses things that the professionals gloss-over. The problem is that amateurs who work to make their videos as professional as possible, with fictional subject matter, have little chance of getting broadcast. 

This attitude keeps the status quo intact. At Channel 4 several people were sympathetic to my views. One producer suggested that late-night slots could be used for screening camcorder productions. This is a good compromise although it  still relegates camcorder productions to a twilight zone where only insomniacs and shift workers are likely to see them. 

By this time the director, cameraman and myself were fairly tired. We had carted about equipment, taken numerous takes of me until, like a frenzied parrot I was able to repeat the script to camera without repetition or hesitation. 

In one inspired moment of madness there was me with a video camera, talking to a video camera, which in turn was being videoed by another camera, and another camera shot an overview of the whole scene! Here was a few grand's worth of equipment that anyone with directorial ambitions would love to own. 

The final scene was shot in the foyer of Channel 4 where I did my piece to camera and then was escorted out of the building by a security guard. The cameraman thought I should put up a bit more of a struggle but after a few takes I was pleased to be ejected from the building. 

Altogether it took about 8 hours to video a sequence that would last about 5 minutes on screen. After worrying about shooting this production I now had to suffer the impact of it being broadcast to the nation on the following Saturday evening. Being squeamish about this prospect, I set the video and went to work. Hours later I returned home and with trepidation I ran back the video tape. As it was rewinding I played back my telephone answer machine. The message was from a Right To Reply producer, her message was that the programme's studio discussion had ran over-time and that they hadn't been able to include my sequence. Usually they would have broadcast it the following week, but calamity, this was the last in the present series. After all that work the producer "hoped that I hadn't thought it was all a waste of time". Oh no, I love prattling inanely to a camera (and cameras) just so that my contribution to broadcasting is denied to the great British public. 

Nonetheless I did gain a lot of insight into how broadcast television operates, and not many people get the chance to speak to representatives of BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all in one day. Also I got to appreciate how hard it is to walk and talk in front of a camera - my appreciation of actors and presenters has gone up immeasurably. 

Given that I was trying to get camcorder productions on TV it's rather ironic that I didn't get on screen myself. 
 
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson