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How to Write a Television Brief & More

Barney Newman worked his way from television  researcher to producer in entertainment and factual entertainment programming. He is ideally placed to talk about the responsibilities and duties that researchers and assistant producers are required to perform. His last post explained the difference between the two roles (you can read that here: http://wanttoworkintelevision/from-tv-researcher-to-assistant-producer/),

Now Barney gets into the detail of the jobs:

Compiling Celebrity and Production Item Briefs

“These are basically documents detailing everything necessary for an item on a show. They are essential to pretty much every show on television as they document the show’s content:

 

Loose Women, ITV

 

Celebrity/Guest Briefs (‘Guests’ being non-celebrity people): These are primarily the Researchers job. Depending on the Producer or show I have known briefs to span from one page to 19 pages! They are for presenters so they know every detail of the person they are about to meet. They have to be clearly laid out detailing who, why, what, where and when, what they are on to promote, stories from childhood, first jobs, worst jobs, life led and there always has to be exclusives. If a celeb is doing the rounds, The Loose Women don’t want to be repeating them same garb as Titchmarsh! A good way of getting an exclusive is to have a phone chat beforehand. It’s the norm to speak to celebrities on the phone to pre-interview them before their appearance. A-listers are a little trickier because they’ll be in mid-flight or having a power nap etc – so you might have to wait until the day to talk to them (more on that on the studio section below).

In all briefs, typos, repetition, bad grammar and worse of all incorrect information (triple check your ‘facts’), is all frowned upon by some and are ‘first warnings’ by others, seriously!  Write creatively so it isn’t boring for the reader and if you’re going to copy and paste, at least make sure all the fonts match and are the same size and colour (use Wikipedia at your peril!).

The guest will probably be promoting something. Part of the research is to read, listen, watch or attend (lovely perk if it’s something fun) and summarise it in the brief.  You’ll probably have to choose a clip that encapsulates as much as possible of what it is they are promoting or if it’s a book/CD have a copy for the set/location shoot.

Also, ‘extra value’ is always worth thinking about when planning a celebrity/guest item, whether it’s a nice little game to play or some archive pictures/footage  – great if you’ve had some of the legendary dinosaurs I’ve had, namely Engelbert Humperdinck, Roger Moore and not forgetting the double whammy of Robert Wagner and Jill St John! A bit of thought through ‘extra value’ can really make a difference to an interview.

Production Item Briefs: They have to contain all the background information, whose involved, what’s involved, the reason why it’s worthy of being on telly, exactly how the item is going to work in the studio for the director, gallery, floor manager and of course your editorial hierarchy.  They have to be spelt out like an idiots guide because if something goes wrong you know who’s to blame, you! Flag up anything that you are evenly slightly worried about and if you have questions – ask them, no matter how stupid! Some personal highlights include an Indiana Jones stunt show special, snow leopards, a water death chamber stunt, a Generation Game item with the original Generation Game conveyor belt, calling in the Back to the Future DeLorean and choreographing Bernie Clifton’s Ostrich. You name it; it will probably feature on a TV show and therefore needs a document detailing it.

Also for Production Items, five times out of ten you’ll probably have to go and recce contributors, acts, events and shoot them on a camcorder to make sure they’re right for the show. You’ll then take back your footage and show your Producer, Series Producer for approval. These are good ways to learn how to direct VTs.

 

Sultan Kosen, A Very Tall Man

Contributor Finding (Casting): Whether it’s just one cute child you need to make fish popcorn on a cookery item or the most hidden away, unassuming and deserving hero in the whole of the country to be celebrated – contributor finding is a big job, but standard stuff for Researchers and APs. Quite simply you will be given a specific brief of who you’re looking for – whether it’s an X Factor hopeful, an antique gadget collector or the tallest man in Britain to have vertigo (okay I made him up), in a Producer’s opinion – everyone is out there and you’re not going home till you find them. Within game shows, documentaries and reality shows, casting is a much larger and very different process!

Idea Generating: A wise man who is very high up within ITV once told me something that I always remember – “Every idea comes from a good place, whether it has to go back to that place is a matter of opinion.” All ideas are subjective and if the person you are selling your idea to doesn’t like it then don’t be precious. Learn to give in (90% of ideas don’t make it), but saying that be passionate about your ideas when pitching them, you have to believe what you are selling. Think ideas through thoroughly – they have to work in your head, on paper and be fool proof.

Blagging: This can take minutes or months and is expected of Researchers and APs when getting people, products or pretty much anything in for shows as there is hardly ever any budget. From hammers and spanners for makeover shows, booze for Big Brother housemates to business class flights and 7* holidays to Dubai, TV Producers expect the world and aren’t willing to pay for it – although they may pay for a bike to collect ‘the world’ you’ve blagged, but that’s it!

Every blag is different so speak to your Producer/Production Manager who will in turn speak to Lawyers/Compliance as to what can be offered in exchange for the freebie(s) supplied – TV legal and compliance is a whole new blog!”

Studio Days

In the Studio

 

Studio Documents: The Producer looks after the script and running order but it is the job of the Researcher and AP to make sure the sound effects, music, stills, VTs (clips), props and any other content are documented (oh, you have to physically get them in as well). It is also the job of the Researcher/AP to brief the sound department, graphics operators, VTR (where they input the clips), floor managers and gallery as to what goes where and why so everyone’s singing from the same hymn sheets, or in this case, studio sheets!

Briefing Guests: Sometimes it’s hard to get past PR persons, managers, agents, bodyguards, and hair and make up artists, as they are busy bee’ing around their honey pot. There have been many times when I have talked to hands because faces ain’t listenin’. But it is essential that as a Researcher or AP, you meet and speak to guests before they go on a show. Undoubtedly, the majority of times you brief a guest you will be hot and sweaty from running around a studio, but don’t worry, I have greeted many a celebrity with a clammy hand. Whatever happens, you need to speak to them to:

A) Brief them on the show and everything they can expect (they sometimes don’t even know who the presenter is)
B) To triple-check your facts (the worst thing is a guest saying “who did your research?” live on a show)
C) For legal and editorial reasons
D) To gee, pump, fluff them up!

I always treat non-celebrity guests extra well (something I learnt from a very good exec) as it’s an experience for them, a day to remember. You are representing the show you work for so need to be smart, polite and professional. More so than celebrities, you’ll need to run through everything expected of them on the show as for many of them it will be their first time on telly.

Finally: Never Underestimate Anyone!

If they are above you, they are there for a reason. If you are put on a team with someone you think is a loon, a toff, a brown nose, a flapper, a mini-Hitler, a creative genius but a bad manager…they have earned their position and at the end of the day it’s them that doesn’t have to like you! I have learnt lessons, most good, some bad, from each and every one of them.

The above really is just the basics, there is so much more to say but it’s late and I have work tomorrow. I strongly recommend the Runner, Researcher, AP route – it’s different every day, exciting and you meet so many different and wonderful people”.

Thank you again, Barney. Now get back to work!!

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