P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Television

Radio With Pictures

Nancy Graham Holm

European television news is fundamentally different from North American. Canadians and Americans believe they have a superior model and they look disdainfully upon Europeís old-fashioned style as "radio with pictures." Behind the cosmetic and technical differences, however, lies a significant question. How much consideration should be given to fascination?

The Early Industry
During the years prior to World War Two, television news was invented by a group of Englishmen at the BBC. They came from a broadcasting industry world famous for its free press radio journalism and throughout the 1930ís they expanded and developed their craft by adding pictures. People normally like to do what they do well and since reading aloud was their talent, they now linked pictures together and read over the top, calling the new technique a "voice-over" or VO. The war itself accelerated this new form of popular communication and thousands of British citizens flocked to movie theaters to watch newsreels of distant battles and political negotiations. The same development occurred in America and anyone born before 1950 can well remember "Movietone News." Deep resonant "radio voices" read bulletins while black and white pictures flashed across the screen and dramatic music bridged the segments.

The post war generations continued to develop television news. During Europeís economic recovery, other nations established their own industries and by 1960, most European cultures had some form of TV news. The BBC in England set the standard and until the middle 60ís, most modern industrialized nations simply copied its style. "Rip and read" was common in many newsrooms as wire copy was torn from the machines and handed to the announcers who read over the top of pictures. Eventually, new styles were developed and journalists started producing stories from research. New techniques for shooting pictures were made possible by the replacement of fixed lenses with the variable lens. The development of the film industry influenced editing styles and new ways were invented to cover edits in interviews. Slowly and gradually, television journalism invented itself.

Public Service or Commercial Sponsorship?
Most European nations adopted the public service model of television programming. Production costs were paid by the taxpayer and broadcasting was perceived as a service to the public on behalf of the government. Across the Atlantic, the very word "government" was controversial in a nation that prided itself on rugged individualism, minimal government and laissez-faire capitalism. The majority of Americans didnít want broadcasting to be a public service. They wanted both radio and television programs to be commercially sponsored and independent of government "control." This attitude is the fundamental reason that American TV news is different from European. When programs are commercially sponsored, viewers become consumers and rating points dictate the price of airtime. Pleasing the audience becomes the major consideration. Getting and holding their attention means catering to their tastes. It is not surprising that American broadcasters are continually experimenting with new production ideas to win audiences from their competitors.

As commercialization enters the broadcasting profession throughout Europe, many of the traditional public service practices are changing. English independent broadcasters such as Sky Television, for example, have adopted many of the American practices. In Germany, both commercial stations have adopted American practices and TV news in Germany looks very similar to what you see in the USA.

What Are the Differences?

I. Pictures and Sound
Television is a visual medium and there are two ways that pictures can be used. The most obvious way is to use pictures as an illustration of the same words that are used to tell the story. A second way is to have the pictures themselves tell the story. In Europe, pictures are used to illustrate. In addition, ever since the invention of the variable lens, a majority of the pictures in most European countries are shot in pans and zooms.

American TV journalists, however, often work with pictures that are shot in sequences using cinematic grammar of an establishing shot, a series of medium shots and inter-cuts to close-ups. Before writing the script, the following questions are asked: what do the pictures say? What do the pictures help me to say? What do the pictures force me to say? Pictures give what. Words give why.

Two other differences are obvious. In European news, the pictures used to illustrate words are often without sound. Airplanes, automobiles, heavy machinery and crowds of people in a street are dead silent. Only the visual part is used. Secondly, the "voice-over" narration from the journalist is descriptive, wordy and often redundant. "The general stepped out of the helicopter and was greeted by a cheering crowd." Wordy VOís require time to speak them. Consequently, the reading tempo is usually exceedingly rapid, what Americans call "machine gun" reads. This is especially true of French, Italian and Spanish VOís and also in Slovakia and The Czech Republic. There is no discernible tempo and most words receive equal emphasis.

In American news stories, natural sound is always present. Dogs bark, doors slam, engines roar and lightning crashes. The VO is minimal, written to support the pictures. Pauses of natural sound are used to give texture and emotion. Journalists do not speak rapidly but in a conversational style. Instead of linking pictures first and then talking "over the top," the pictures are edited to the audio track, matching energy on word emphasis and picture change while allowing for pauses of natural sound.

Many European TV news producers are well aware of this style but resist the model as "too American." Traditionally, a nationís educated elite manages public service broadcasting and these policy makers are suspicious of emotions in a news story. Many TV managers come from the print media and they know intuitively that words are intellectual while images and sound are emotional. In spite of the fact that television is a visual medium, they philosophically favor words over sounds and visual impressions. This attitude has prevented European television news from using the mediumís true potential.

II. The Use of the Interview
Another major difference between European and American news styles is in the use of the on-camera interview. Europeans tend to use lengthy segments from interviews, often running from :25 to 1:30. This is another practice from radio journalism and precludes the journalist from telling the story. In contrast, American TV news uses the interview first as research and then as documentation. After an assertive statement, a "sound bite" is used either as support or color, limited to :05-:15. The first documents the statement made by the journalist. The second adds feeling and emotion. Veterans of European TV journalism detest the "sound bite" because it is inherently superficial.

Historically, European newspapers represented different political parties. When broadcast news was developed, European TV journalists became neutral "information facilitators," presenting one side and then the other through lengthy interviews. Like postmen delivering letters, they merely delivered the story. Americans want their journalists to take responsibility for the story by synthesizing and interpreting the information accumulated through research interviews. "Interpretation" is not acceptable for many European TV journalists.

III. News Formats
Television newscasts are produced with a variety of formats. (1) a "reader" is a story that exists simply as a script without pictures that the newscaster reads live from the television studio. (2) a VO SOT is a news report composed of a voice-over narration with visuals followed by a pre-recorded interview and then more videotaped scenes. (SOT is an abbreviation for "sound on tape.") (3) A "package" is an edited, self-contained report with pictures, a voice-over narration, edited sound bites and natural sounds. (4) an "intro to a live shot" is similar to a "reader" and is used to link the studio to a reporter who is at a remote location.

In Europe, newscasts are composed of readers, VO SOTís and intros to live shots using satellite technology that link the studio anchor to the field journalist. There are also ENG (electronic news gathering) stories that are field produced but they are, by American standards, incomplete. With the two exceptions of Germany and Great Britain, the concept of "the package" is not known in Europe. On the contrary, European newscasts often use the studio anchor to tell 15-25% of a story before the field report is even introduced. The taped story abruptly ends and it is the studio anchor who finishes the report. Americans invented the "package" to maximize the use of pictures and natural sound. They believe that using a studio anchor to tell a "television story" is a wasted opportunity to use visuals; another form of "radio with pictures."

The "package" is a used for both hard news stories and soft features and is usually 1:30-3:00. Hard news is the standard who, what, when, where, and why? A feature is a "soft" story of human interest, designed to entertain viewers and distract them momentarily from the serious facts of hard news. As a format, "the package" is a demanding piece of work requiring production time and teamwork between the journalist, photographer and editor. It also requires "information handling" by the assignment editor and newscast producers who must decide which story deserves a "package" and which ones do not.

The whole story is presented as a self-contained "package" from which it gets its name and it has a distinctive form with four parts. It starts with natural sound as a "hook," following with a presentation of the "context" and then an "unfolding" in which the facts of the story are revealed. It finishes with a "wrap" or recapitulation of the main points and the consequences of the problem. The journalist frequently gives the "wrap" in a "stand-up" to camera. The studio anchor does not tell the story but gives a provocative introduction and perhaps one or two new facts at the end of the story, if an update is necessary. Americaís regional TV organizations usually have 4-6 newscasts a day. Each newscast is designed to meet a particular audience based on marketing research. Early evening newscasts are often 50-60% packages with a minimum of VO SOTs and an increasing number of "live" remotes. Later news programs between 21:00 and 23:00, have fewer packages and more VO SOTS.

The "package" is used extensively in Great Britain and Germany but not universally. German television news is produced on both commercial and public service channels. The commercial stations have adopted many of Americaís formats and some observers say they are now "more American than America."

IV. Other Formats
A. The Narrative. Hard news and soft features are only one type of TV journalism. Within the last fifteen years, a new form has developed in America called "the narrative" story. Championed by the National Press Photographers Association and taught every March in Norman, Oklahoma, this type of TV journalism follows the structure of a screenplay instead of the traditional basic news model developed by the BBC. The narrative story uses character, plot and motivation allowing the viewer to experience the story. For example, the story "fog at the airport detains travelers" is told through impatient unruly children, tired adults and bored passengers who try to find ways to pass the time. The narrative model is used effectively in a newscast as a follow-up story and it is not intended to be a substitute for hard news. Compared to a news story, it runs long: 4:00-6:00. This narrative form is virtually unknown in Europe with the exception of Denmark where it was adopted in the mid 90ís. It requires skill, however, and early attempts have been clumsy, often resulting in a confusing blend of two forms. The Danish School of Journalism teaches the narrative model and eventually it will become standard practice in news magazine programs.

B. TV Editorial. This is an opinion piece and the TV counterpart to the leaders that appear on the opinion page of a newspaper. It is the opinion of the broadcast management of the station and usually given by the General Manager or the Editorial Director. It is produced like a "package" and invites rebuttals of alternative points of view. Many regional American TV stations produce editorials but it is an endangered species. Editorials are never sponsored and sales departments lust after the 1:00 spots, feeling that it is lost revenue to the station. The TV editorial is never done in Europe and is sometimes criticized by European journalists as "propaganda."

C. The TV documentary. Originally produced on 16mm film and now on videotape, this is the long format of TV journalism and the highest expression of information programming. Filmmaker, Haskell Wexler is, perhaps, one of Americaís most famous documentary makers and his 1969 Medium Cool is an American classic. Today, Wexler and others are appreciated more in Europe than in America where the documentary is not just an endangered species but a dead one.

Americaís Public Broadcasting System (PBS) gives airtime to various documentaries but they are not seen by more than a minuscule of the viewing audience. Americans are just not interested in this long format, claiming that they are categorically boring. In contrast, Europeans still like the documentary and it is not unusual for them to be scheduled during prime time on major stations. One possible explanation for this is that American documentary makers tend to be intellectuals, disdainful of techniques that are used to make TV "popular." Often their production techniques are "old fashioned" and information intensive, the very opposite of that which makes American TV news different from European.

V. The Role of the Journalist
There are four ways a TV journalist can appear on-camera. (1) in a "stand-up," i.e., talking directly to the viewer. (2) as a listening shot to cover a jump-cut in an interview. (3) as a participant in the interview by asking a question that is then edited into the story. (4) in a set-up shot, walking with the interview subject on camera.

Americaís on-camera reporters frequently appear inside TV packages: in "stand-ups," in walking nítalking set-up shots, asking on-camera questions and in cut-way listening shots. If the stand-up comes at the end of the package, the journalist signs off with his or her name. Focus groups and other marketing research confirms that Americans like to have favorite reporters and loyalty to certain programs are determined by the ability of these performers to form relationships with the viewers. The celebrated news and public affairs program "60 Minutes" uses the journalist extensively and Europeans often criticize this practice, calling it excessive, unnecessary and even "absurd."

While itís possible to generalize about visuals and interviews in European TV news, generalizations are not possible about the role of the TV journalist. How much and how often a journalist appears on camera are culturally determined and Europeís nations have different cultural values. Until recently, for example, modest Danes wanted their TV journalists to be invisible. In Denmark only the studio anchor appeared on the screen and field journalists were considered egotistical if they appeared in stories. Today, you can see the reporter in a Danish news story but only if he or she is reporting from a foreign country.

In nations where modesty is not a cultural value, the situation is entirely different. In Italy, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Spain, for example, TV reporters frequently appear in stories. This is also true in Central European cultures such as Slovakia or The Czech Republic where reporters are always seen, sometimes more than once. In England, the "stand-up" is called "piece to camera" and it is used either to finish a story or as a bridge between story segments. Likewise, the cut-away shot of the journalist listening has been widely used and the British call it a "noddy" because the personís head usually nods while listening. In addition, it is not unusual to see a British journalist walking to establish location or asking an on-camera question. Englandís reporters always sign off with their names. On Germanyís commercial channels, TV reporters appear in stand-ups, reverse listening shots, on-camera questions and sign off with their names. On the older, more conservative public service channels, however, German on-camera reporters appear only in stand-ups and the never "sign off" using their names.

The cosmetic appearance of European TV journalists is also culturally determined. In Holland, for example, it is not particularly important for on-camera reporters to be well groomed. The Dutch enjoy "casual appearances," feeling that journalists should look like "real people." This is also true in Denmark. On-camera performers often look haggard and excessively casual. Inside the studio, technicians light space not people and women and men who are handsome in person can look surprisingly unattractive on-camera and older than they are. In the Mediterranean cultures, however, bella figura is important. Both men and women must be well dressed with stylish hairstyles, attractive accessories and television makeup. Italians love beauty and it violates their cultural sensibilities to look unkempt and sloppy casual. Inside the studio, technicians light for faces and anchors are "beautiful people."

In America, the TV journalist is a magnet for viewers. On camera presence, style and behavior are an essential part of a TV journalistsís training and no one is allowed to appear on camera without performance skills. Commercially sponsored news programs rely on these individuals to attract viewers and they are often carefully promoted through advertising and public service campaigns. Web-sites for different TV stations include profiles of their reporters and their extraordinary salaries reflect their status and contribution to the stationís ratings. In this way, Americaís TV journalists are "media stars" and their on-camera presence is often more important than their journalism skills. In the 1987 film, Broadcast News, Holly Hunter played a smart behind-the-news field producer to the cosmetically appealing but not so smart William Hurt. Many broadcasting stations use these intelligent and competent field producers behind the scenes when they lack camera presence.

Information, Identification and Fascination
Traditional European TV journalism focused primarily on information. The old guard at the BBC were information masters and they believed that they knew best what people needed to know. Today, modern Western societies are more democratic and people need to identify with the information that is given to them. News is no longer elitist but popular. What the Americans did was add a third element: fascination. Sometime in the 1960ís they learned that ordinary people respond to sight, sound and movement and when TV stories are fascinating, they watch and they remember.

Fascination developed through a more cinematic use of pictures and natural sound; by shortening interviews; by developing new formats that allowed for flexibility and creativity; and by using on-camera personalities to attract viewers. As a result, American journalism today is often confused with infortainment. Europeans are skeptical and rightly so. The issue is not fascination, however, but the types of stories that are told.

The decisions start at "the morning meeting" and the assignment desk. When important stories are not produced because theyíre boring issues, citizens are cheated out of information they need to know. On the other hand, when "boring but important" stories are included in the newscast but not told with fascination, people do not pay attention and even when they do, they donít remember what they learned. The challenge is to learn how to produce TV reports with as much fascination as possible while retaining a high content of information. It can be done. European TV news doesnít have to be "radio with pictures."

to the top of the page