Written by Media, TV

TV Programme Making By Rote

Word magazine’s website has a great list of things that people find annoying – or the dumbest things in entertainment. It’s a great list, and you can’t help but nod as contributors add more and more.
Someone halfway down the list mentions half-hour TV programmes that throw-forward to the second 15 minutes just before the ad-break, then re-cap the first 15 minutes when they return from the break before summarising what’s going to happen next.
This doesn’t happen on just commercial TV either. BBC programmes have annoying habit of doing precisely the same thing, even though there’s not really a break in the programme except to trail the next section. Perhaps they do it because at some point the show will appear on UKTV Homes Style + 1, and then it’ll need it because the average viewer of that channel only watches 6 minutes a year, so needs to understand what’s happening in that 6 minutes.
Anyway, it’s become obvious that these things are terribly easy and formulaic to make. Let’s use Highland Emergency as an example. This is a Granada produced programme for Five. I’ve seen several episodes because I have a bizarre fascination for all things set in the Highlands of Scotland.
The show basically follows Scottish emergency services to various accidents and emergencies. In particular, they especially love helicopter emergencies.
The show opens with a brisk run-through of the exciting accidents and emergencies we’re going to see in this week’s episode as a teaser. Then we get the well produced opening credits with lots of helicopters and dangling winchmen.
Next we’re introduced to the crew of a particular helicopter – let’s say it’s a Royal Navy crew. They’re called to Ben Nevis or somewhere where a climber has been injured. The voiceover tells us that the person almost certainly needs immediate medical care, and that it’s a thirty minute flight to Ben Nevis. We see a graphic of a map indicating where on the Ben the injured party is lying. The crew search for and find the missing person. But it’s too dangerous to land, so someone will be winched down, although crosswinds make this treachourous…
CUT TO: A quick graphic that has a helicopter and the word emergency.
VOICEOVER: Meanwhile in Lossiemouth…
The action could just stay with the injured party on Ben Nevis, but no. In case we get bored, it instead shows us a different crew, somewhere else, who have to rescue someone who’s torn a ligament on a remote Scottish island.
The injured person is on a beach. We’re anxiously told that the crew refer to tide times. The tide’s coming in. It really is urgent!
Then we arrive on the beach, and there’s no sign of the incoming tide. Not only that, but local doctors/paramedics are on the scene. There was little danger of anyone being washed out to sea. The tide’s still so far out that the helicopter can happily land on the beach, but before they load up…
We get a preview of what happens next. We see clips we’ve already seen of the helicopter over Ben Nevis, swiftly followed by clips we’ve just seen of a helicopter landing on a beach. And because there’s no hope of stretching these two cases out through another 15 minute (well 10 minutes once you remove ads) segment, we’re told of a third case in Aviemore of someone who’s, er, twisted an ankle on a ski-run.
After the break, we get more generic graphics of helicopters and the word “emergency.” Then we return to Ben Nevis, with another resumé of the previous action, before we see that, yes, the climber was successfully hauled into the chopper. This is intercut with a few interviews of the crew basically telling us what we’ve just seen with our own eyes, and what a voiceover person has just told us.
The now familiar graphic of helicopter alongside the word emergency allows us to cut to the new story featuring a doctor who looks after injuries on a ski-run. Who’d have thought? A teenager has twisted an ankle. It hurts, and she’s cold. She’s brought back to some kind of hut where she looks sulky like any teenager – albeit one in pain. But before anything else happens…
We cut back to the person on the beach who’s very unlikely to drown. They’re loaded aboard the helicopter and returned to Aberdeen hospital where they’re treated.
One more look at the graphic and we’re back to Aviemore, where stroppy (but in pain) teenager is loaded into another ambulance and sent off to hospital.
A final graphical interlude and we see clips from all the incidents we’ve just seen, this time with some kind of special effect applied to the footage – perhaps they’re now in black and white. The voiceover tells us that each person went to hospital and what they were treated for. They all lived.
Finally we get a sneak look at next week’s programme in which some climbers are in trouble on a mountain, someone’s hurt at a ski-resort and someone has a threatening condition on a remote Scottish island.
Repeat times 13.
Of course there’s a little more to it than that. The producers tie together stories that happen at night with others than take place around the same time. The implication is always that these things are happening simultaneously, when you know perfectly well that they were probably months apart, that’s why it looks like summer in once case, but another takes place in snow covered peaks (Yes – I know that snow covers some peaks pretty much all year round). The same goes for episodes set in poor weather and so on.
Now I’m not knocking these series too much, but they really don’t add much to the sum of human knowledge, and the A to B to C editing-by-rote is just a bit sad. There’s a really good series to be made with these emergency services, but a Five budget for the 7.30pm slot (up against the soaps), is never going to be enough.