P.O.V. No.22 - On Documentary Film

An Inside View of Danish Television

Rasmus Stampe Hjorth

Working as an editor for Danish TV and in that capacity taking part in the telling of stories, offers some real possibilities but involves many limitations as well. While in the past, one aimed for truth in storytelling, today there are other goals that count more, now that ratings are among the important measures of success.

The present article is a personal reflection about the way in which TV is produced today, and a consideration of some of the factors involved in determining its content.

My own work is as a freelance editor for several production companies in Copenhagen and with making programs for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), TV2, TV3, DR2 and Kanal 4.

The human factor
This is the first challenge one encounters when telling stories. It is a matter of getting participants to act naturally before the camera and then making choices during editing.

The expression "cut to the bone" is often used in this connection and in principal means choosing the emphasis for the story. We choose what will be said and how.

A pause or hesitation is often cut out in order to make the statement clear and precise; the viewer must never be in doubt as to what is meant. In this way, the editor makes choices that affect the viewer's understanding of what is said in a program. This streamlining or tightening up can be misleading since we as viewers interpret movements, hesitations, er's and signs of uncertainty and when these things are removed, the nature of the statement is no longer the same.

Often words are removed in order to make a sentence even clearer and in some types of programs, the tightening up is so extreme that the original meaning is entirely altered. For example in a Danish reality-TV program, "I have heard that there are some people who don't like Camilla" was changed to "I don't like Camilla." Changes of this kind, which tighten up and simplify statements, are not at all uncommon.

Entertainment value
TV today must be entertaining and this is why live TV is something of a rarity, and programs that are meant to seem like live TV are often edited versions.

One of the reasons for which stories are tightened up is that we have to rush along out of fear that viewers will zap to another channel and the ratings will fall. Engaging the viewer in a feeling or state of mind and letting images come to life, is given a low priority since these are the things considered most likely to lose viewers.

This also means that when a program has to be shortened, it is usually the pauses that are cut out and some programs end up being tightened to such a degree that viewers no longer care to watch. The density of information becomes too great and the viewer can no longer keep the story in focus.

Certain TV stations have at any given moment as many new viewers as old ones and that is why the intensity must not decline. This means that summaries and retellings are often used for the sake of viewers who have just tuned in.

Flashbacks and flash forwards are used to remind the viewer of what is going on and what has already occurred and all the best scenes and surprises are placed in the intro in the hope of holding on the audience.

These retellings often have the opposite effect, since we register what we have seen the first time and consider it unnecessary to see things again. At the same time, about 20% or 25% of the program is replaced by intro, teaser, flashbacks, etc. In this way, good material is cut out of the program because of the repetitions and while the precut version could tell its own story, it now becomes necessary to make room for breakers, bumpers and especially speaks since all these things save time and remind us what everything is all about.

About two years ago, this was a tendency people tried to reverse, and TV2 organized a seminar at which the form of their productions was discussed. As a result, the intros or teasers were removed from programs, but just a few months later they were back again. The production supervisors didn't think the stories worked without them.

Bottom line
When a program, is made, a production supervisor is assigned to it by the TV station. This means there is an extra filter involved in tightening up the story. The supervisor drops in a couple of times during the production process and without any particular familiarity with the material, he imposes a particular style and certain guidelines on the program.

The production supervisor has a lot of power, and that power is exercised to a great degree without any regard for the stories since what ultimately counts the most is economy and whether one more production is made for the given channel. This power is out of all proportion and individual production supervisors actually decide who will survive and who will not.

So right from the start, form and framework are based on the station's attitude as expressed in such forms as: "we would like a program about homes that will also appeal to a male audience." They are also very aware of where - in what slots - the various programs will be placed, as well as trailers, to ensure the highest possible ratings. For this reason, there are trailers cut for men and placed just after football games while more emotionally charged trailers are placed, for example, after a household program for women.

Since the form of any given program is set by the production supervisor, it is up to the production company to make the best program it can within that framework and the financial possibilities. An agreement is made as to exactly how many days are to be used for the shoot, for editing, etc., and the best program possible is produced on that basis.

New TV channels are constantly established but the problem is that the amount of money available for the programs remains the same.

The competition between rival production companies also means that work is done by shifts around the clock in order to get productions over with as quickly as possible. This is also why the shoots are carefully planned and the producer has surprises up his sleeve in order to induce some opposition. In other words, opposition is manufactured, because there is often neither time nor money to wait for it to happen. A production's workflow where everything is staged results in an attractive program, but often one lacking any edge and credibility.

It often happens however that the desired opposition is not achieved and I have seen some awful examples where an attempt was made to produce the desired story through the manipulate editing of footage. Staging is one thing and using speaks and cutting to produce a given story is quite another. Speaks in particular are one of the most frequently used methods for manufacturing a story and it is not unusual to find in a 44 minute program around 100 speaks. So one can imagine how little is left of the actual story.

Everything is analyzed and the ratings monitored, in relation to what is shown on the other channels, and a program's success is always measured in terms of ratings. Was the program any good? We'll have to wait until Tuesday to find out when the ratings are in.

Whether it is a need for systems or for measurable facts, I just don't know, but prime-time television is determined by ratings and difficult economic conditions as well as by the fear of failure. This is why the above-mentioned techniques were developed, to maximize the chances of success. It is also why people don't take chances by deviating from the norms.

Both TV2 and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation are currently under a great deal of economic pressure and this can be seen in the degree to which rebroadcasts have become commonplace on these channels. Production companies are hungry for contracts and originality is not the order of the day but rather: "what would you like us to make?" One might hope that economic conditions could result in a willingness to take chances and broadcast some of the more unconventional programs in prime-time. That could give some fresh inspiration to a branch that is bogged down in life-style programs and Friday night entertainment.

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