Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Sky Larking: Don't Adjust Your TV

My humble little blog doesn’t attract much attention. I like to think of it as appealing to a small but select readership, a readership that, to be honest with you, typically numbers in the low three digits—the very low three digits. Still, every writer dreams of a larger audience so when a producer from SkyNews asked me to appear on one of their programs, I had to say yes. She’d seen my Guardian essay and, given that she has the unenviable task of finding a new blogger to appear nearly every night, she’d asked me if I was game.

I was to appear on a segment that looks at stories that are “moving up the web.” I don’t know what particular criteria they use to select the stories—is the web vertical, up which things may move?—but I didn’t have to. They would provide me with five links, I’d look at them long enough to have a rough grasp of the topic, then I’d sit across from a presenter and blurb the sites while graphics played across TV screens around Britain. They’d also run my blog’s address, thus increasing the chances that some shut-ins might wash up here at Voxford.

I’ve been on American TV before (mostly the rarely-seen NewsChannel 8 but also, very early in my career, the CBS Evening News) but British TV was new territory. I spent 40 bucks of my own money and splurged on the fast train to Paddington, where a silver Mercedes sedan was waiting to whisk me to SkyNews’s west London headquarters.

The driver was from Iran. He was 15 when he left that country, traveling with a forged Yugoslavian passport and hoping to end up in the most Iranian of American cities, Los Angeles. (“Tehrangeles,” he called it.) But he was caught in Britain and this is where he’s been for the last 20 years. He said he’s never gotten used to the rain.

We had a lot of time to talk. Traffic was awful and it took us nearly an hour to navigate the drizzly back roads of London and arrive at Sky. A runner met me in the lobby and took me to the makeup room.

NewsChannel 8 doesn’t do makeup, so this was a first. Well, a first since my acclaimed performance in “You Can’t Take It With You” in 12th grade. “How long are you going to be on for?” asked the makeup lady. "Not long," I answered. "About three minutes." It turns out they don’t use the good airbrush-applied makeup if you’re only going to be on for three minutes. She used a camel’s hair brush, dabbing powder on my macrocephalic forehead until it had stopped shining like a signal mirror. She did my whole face—ears too.

“What’re you talking about?” she asked.

“Um, the web,” I answered.

“The world wide web? Oh, of course,” she said. “Today’s the 15th anniversary of when it was invented.”

Really? Somehow I’d missed that. Maybe that’d be good to work in, I thought. “Can I ask where you heard that?” I said, suddenly worrying that a SkyNews makeup lady might not be the best source.

“I saw it on TV somewhere,” she said.

I looked better with makeup on—not so shiny, little blemishes gone, my red and vaguely disturbing complexion obscured—but I’m not sure I approve of it. All the TV newsreaders in England—the white ones, anyway—look the same, with a sort of matte plastic appearance. I guess the viewing public would be horrified by a zit or the riverine sprawl of a varicose vein, but the makeup looks so fake that I have to wonder why they don’t just wear a kabuki mask.

Or use an avatar. See, the first story moving up the web was something about avatars. It was also the toughest one for me to explain, since I don’t really know from avatars and the story was based on some research at Stanford University, research described in a dense journal article I’d read on the train.

I went to the Green Room and re-read the notes—the script, really—that I’d written. How much detail should I go into? What if host Martin Stanford asked about the research methodology of the Stanford experiment? There was also an item on a huge pig balloon lost during an outdoor Roger Waters concert in California. I’d be okay if he asked what song had been playing when the balloon became untethered (“Pigs”) but I’d be sunk if he asked me to sing it or hum the melody. And no way could I pronounce “lysergic acid diethylamide”—aka LSD—the discoverer of which had just died.

The floor manager wired me with a microphone and escorted me to the set. I've learned a lot of things about TV and the most important one is that it's impossible for a newspaper person to look good on it. TV people sit with an erect carriage, they know how to hold their head and not to cross their legs. It's actually hard to do it right, which is why newspaper people look so awful. I am resigned to this and so I tried to get comfortable.

The other thing about TV--at least the sort I've been asked to do--is that it moves quickly. I'd barely gotten into the avatar item when it was time to move on to the dead LSD inventor. Oops, I'd forgotten to mention that the Stanford researchers call their theory the "Proteus Effect." Oh well. After LSD came Roger Waters's pig. I got my Obama joke in, but just barely. Barely time to address the Texas bonehead who tried to cash a $36 billion check or the Wisconsin paper that has migrated to the web.

One of the problems of going on TV is that TV people never seem to be paying attention to what you're saying. The same thing applies to radio. When I used to be on David Burd's WTWP program on Saturdays he was forever twisting dials, cueing up sound effects, seeing which callers were on hold--all while I was talking. Was he even listening? Yes, as it turns out. Martin was too, able to extemporize even though it seemed like he didn't even know I was there. This kind of multitasking is as vital to a TV person as knowing how to sit up straight.

And then it was over. The same Iranian driver whisked me back to Paddington and I boarded the 20:51 to Oxford. I arrived back home at 10 p.m., five hours after I'd left for my three minutes of television.

How did I do? See for yourself. The video isn't up yet, but it should be soon. And in the unlikely event that you've come to my blog because you saw me on SkyNews, thanks for making the trip.


Sarah Laurence Blog said...

The Sky TV clip isn’t loading yet but congratulations! I laughed out loud reading your Guardian essay on funny search strings. The oddest one that led to my blog was “pink hippos making pudding.” I’ve written about grey hippos in Tanzania and about making English pudding but not in the same blog post. My kids loved it. Isn’t it like monkeys writing the complete works of Shakespeare given enough time?

It’s not just TV and newspapers that are noticing your engaging posts. Bloggers are too! I just blogged about your Voxford after running into you at May Day morning. Did you get any sleep? You looked fine, but maybe it was the make-up!

Candadai Tirumalai said...

"Avatar" is the Sanskrit word for "incarnation". The web obviously likes to maintain continuity between the old and the new.
I remember May mornings in Oxford: when I turned up at my coffe-shop as usual at 10-30 in the morning, the mood of the place was often that of a wedding-party, with so many sitting over full breakfasts--that is, those who could hold it down.

mark from alexandria said...

Wow, you really were much less shiny on TV. I see big possibilities here for you as the US new media and pig balloon correspondent for Sky when you return home. Thanks for the makeup insight on NewChannel 8. I'll see if I can tell any difference in the appearance of the staff they share with Channel 7when they appear on both networks in relatively short time.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

CT, interesting semantics. Don't know about your day, but those Oxford students sure weren't drinking coffee. I've never seen such a spectacle - both good and bad.

John, thanks for uploading your Sky TV segment (next post) -I've yet to learn how to do that. I should probably ask my kids.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

SL: I was too "old" for the customary May Day during my years in Oxford. I certainly met many students wandering around Oxford with their drinking glasses still in hand at 10 in the morning but some of them did manage to make it to breakfast.

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