Whether you are, hoping to be or simply plan to be working with a television presenter it’s worth knowing what makes a good one. If you are an aspiring producer you will one day be looking for a presenter for one of your shows. If you want to be on the screen you need to know what producers are looking for.
We will take it as read that a good presenter needs to lucid, appealing (not so much in looks as in personality), able to deliver a piece to camera and conduct an interview at the very least. But how do we define that something more – the difference between a mediocre presenter and one that really works on-screen?
Choosing a presenter for a programme is the part of the process that just about everyone wants to get involved in when developing and launching a new show. It’s a big part of the fun of creating a ‘look’ and a ‘feel’ for a new production. The problem sometimes is that everyone has their own views on who they like and who they don’t like and it can be quite a personal point of view. If a commissioning editor has a particular dislike of an on-screen talent you’ll be hard pressed to change their mind. They may have had a bad experience with them in the past and even if the talent has upped their game since then that impression will be fixed in the mind of the commissioner. In this business the old adage “you’re only as good as your last job” can ring all too true – for production as well as presenters.
To avoid this damning indictment a presenter should be careful about the shows they get involved in. If you end up fronting a turkey of a show in the early stages of your budding television career you could find it that much more difficult to get another on screen role.
The Presenter v The Production:
Forgive me if I’ve said this before but in my view a television programme is only as good as the presenter you put at the front of it, and a presenter is only as good as the format and production put behind him/her. The presenter is the front person is more ways than one. If a programme bombs it is likely their face that will accompany the negative press. You’d have to be a miracle-worker to make a really bad idea look like a good one purely through your presenting skills! A presenter can’t afford to think the only thing they need do is turn up and speak the lines someone puts in front of them. They need to understand their role and the aim of the programme itself. There needs to be effective communication and professional trust between producer and presenter.
A good presenter therefore understands the process of television production. They should be interested and involved in the subject they are presenting and they should have a good understanding of the audience – who is watching and why – because a good presenter is able to engage with the viewers.
I’ve viewed any number of showreels in my time and there are hordes of competent and pleasant presenters and reporters. Their reels prove that they can walk and talk at the same time, that they look presentable if not downright gorgeous, that they can read autocue whilst jumping on a trampoline or that they have a great sense of humour. But how can they demonstrate their ability to connect with an audience?
The ‘Real’ Presenter:
This is much harder – sometimes you can view a showreel and see a sense of personal ‘warmth’ from the presenter or reporter. This counts for a lot in my book. That indefinable ‘warmth’ suggests a real person with real empathy for others, an ability to communicate with other people whether they are directly in front of them (as in during an interview) or miles away watching on their television screen (ie the viewer). For a viewer to feel a presenter has empathy with them they need to believe the presenter. And in my view viewers can usually tell if a presenter is ‘putting it on’ – acting a part. This is why someone who is presentable, intelligent and can deliver a script with a smile is not enough if they are simply playing a part and not putting something of themselves into the role. How to explain that better?
Take some of the really good presenters I have had the privilege of working with: Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan; Fern Britton; Angela Griffin. All these people were ‘real’ – what you saw on screen is what they are like in ‘real’ life. They are good journalists; they understand the process of television and they really care about people. Angela Griffin is an actress rather than a trained journalist but she has a genuine interest in people so she conducts a good interview. Of course there is support from the production in terms of what questions get asked in an interview but a good interview is directed as much by the presenter. No point moving on to the next question a producer has suggested if the interviewee has just opened up a whole new avenue of interest in their last answer. A good interviewer is asking the questions that the viewers would like to hear answers to. But these kinds of presenters are offering more than good interviewing skills. They are giving something of themselves.
Think about how you make friends. They reveal things about themselves to you and you reveal things about yourself to them. The more you know, like and trust someone the more you tell them about yourself. This process is also happening with certain presenters in certain shows. I am thinking more of the kind of daytime and lifestyle shows where getting to heart of other people is a key part of the format. Presenting a prime time entertainment show or a quiz show is slightly different but more of that later.
So Judy Finnegan told her viewers on ‘This Morning’ all about her hysterectomy and her post natal depression; Richard Madeley told the viewers all about his shoplifting charge and how it impacted on his family; they both revealed much about themselves, their families and their lives. This way they made ‘friends’ with the viewers who came to trust them as a result. Fern Britton talked frankly about her periods of depression, told anecdotes about the silly things she did at home; viewers identified with her because she didn’t appear to have all the answers, she struggled with her weight, with juggling children and work and she wasn’t afraid to admit it. And why did the gastric band episode upset so many people?
Fern has a gastric band fitted when her doctor advises her to do something about her weight for medical reasons. She keeps it a secret as so many women would. Being a celebrity that attracts many column inches and weight being such an intense area of interest to the press and the public (why? Answers on a postcard please, or in comments below – of all the issues to be obsessed with why does a celebrity and their weight always come out top?) her secret was eventually revealed. Imagine how you would feel if your best friend, the person you confine all your innermost fears and secrets to, turns out to have done something like that without telling you? Would you feel aggrieved, let down? Quite probably. Fern’s viewers felt the same way because they see her as their ‘friend’ and felt she should have let them in on this secret. (And of course good friends eventually forgive each other as indeed Fern’s fans did!).
Therein lies the dilemma of the presenter who wants/needs to connect fully with their viewers in such shows. How much are you prepared to give away of your personal life in the full glare of the public? It’s a fine line to tread. Give something of yourself so that viewers know you are like them, that you are able to empathise whilst also entertaining (let’s not forget that part of the job!), but think carefully about how far you want to let them in.
But what of entertainment shows? What kind of presenter do they need? They ideally need a ‘star’.
The ‘Star’ Presenter:
A real star is the sort of person who walks in a room and immediately connects with those in it. They have that wonderful way of making you feel you are the centre of their attention. They have a certain sense of ‘presence’, ‘charisma’ – call it what you will. The chances are if they can do that without a camera they can also do it on camera. These people have charm in spades. When I’m trying to work out if a presenter is capable of fronting a big studio show, I visualise them walking down a grand set of stairs on stage, in front of a large studio audience accompanied by a dramatic theme tune and welcoming both live audience and viewers at home to the show. That takes a big and confident personality. Can you see them doing that with aplomb? Can you see them holding that audience, grabbing their attention and looking like they really belong there? If so chances are they are the right candidate.
Some people can be really good reporters or presenters of makeover shows, documentaries, news programmes or daytime chat shows but fail to capture an audience in a big prime time setting. Ant and Dec don’t really need to tell their viewers anything about their personal lives to engage their viewers. They engage on the basis of their entertainment skills, their interaction with each other and with the audience and their on-screen presence. They’ve got ‘it’. The formats they front are entertainment. They rarely need to draw out the intimate details from an interviewee – even in the jungle (ITV’s popular prime time series, ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’). The format of that show ensures the most intimate details are revealed voluntarily by the contestants themselves. Ant and Dec are not only entertaining to watch but they also know how to engage with their viewers. The looks to camera, the asides, the gentle ribbing of contributors – they could be down the pub gossiping with you. No need to share secrets here – we’re just having fun. But the important thing is that Ant and Dec are allowing the viewers to join in with them. That’s how they engage them, draw them in.
A producer needs to be clear about what sort of show they are making and what sort of presenter they need for it. Do they need to engage on a daily basis on personal issues or draw viewers in with their ability to be entertaining and engaging at the same time? Do they need to be sharp journalists able to catch out a slippery interviewee or the friendly face that is able to explain the complicated in simple terms?
So it’s different strokes for different folks; different skills for different shows; and the choice of a presenter may end up being subject to personal whims. One commissioner’s pet hate of a presenter is another’s pet love but if you are aiming to be on screen you need to develop a thick skin and don’t take it too personally. Easier said than done. It’s hard being a presenter when you are rejected without apparent good cause. Often people can’t articulate why they don’t think you’re right for a show – you don’t ‘look’ right or ‘feel’ right. A producer may be going on some kind of instinct they can’t verbalise. You may not be right for one show but you could well be perfect for another.
Producers – choose your presenter with care.
Presenters – choose your programme with care. Yes I know, you’re lucky to even get an offer never mind question that rare job you’ve been offered but remember to ask the questions, voice any concerns, get fully involved, make sure you know what the programme is aiming for and who your audience is.