photo of the front of a BFI screening room with empty chairs set up for speakers on the right

Event Highlights: “Spoiler Alert! How to Write about Television” at BFI Southbank

This event took place on Saturday as part of the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival. It laid out the television critic’s job, as described by a panel of Radio Times journalists with 70 years of collective experience. The speakers were TV Editor Alison Graham, her deputy David Butcher, and writers Jane Rackham and David Brown. My notes are below, organised thematically.

 The Process of Reviewing TV

  • The Radio Times is no longer just a TV listings magazine. In the age of Netflix and iPlayer, its role is to “tell (us) what’s good so we don’t waste time on rubbish” (in Butcher’s words).
  • The main job of these four writers is to produce television “Choices”- the TV picks
    An example of a provisional list of Radio Times
    An example of a provisional list of Radio Times “Choices”.

    that make up the two-page spread published in the magazine every week. The process begins every Friday, when they receive a list of Choices from their Planning Department. The critics then set to watch the programmes and write about them, up until the magazine goes to press the following Thursday.

  • The writers access the programmes in advance on password-protected preview websites provided by the broadcasters. The shows are not always finished by the time they’re available to watch, and might be uploaded in low resolution. For this reason, Butcher described preview sites as offering the worst possible viewing experience, even worse than pirate sites.
BBC preview site
The BBC preview site.
  • The list of Choices is provisional until the last minute. This is because broadcasters might not communicate their listings until late, and because programmes get shot very close to their airdate and might not be finished on time. Graham described this situation as a nightmare.

Spoilers

  • Some spoilers are hidden even from TV journalists. Broadcasters might chop the
    An example of guidance notes for the show EastEnders projected on a screen with embargoed information highlighted in red
    An example of guidance notes with “embargoed” information.

    ending off the previews they supply, or not supply previews at all, replacing them with written descriptions. In some cases, these guidance notes do include spoilers, but in the form of clearly marked out “embargoed” information that the critics must not mention. For Entertainment shows, this might include something as basic as the name of contestants.

  • The broadcasters’ tendency to withhold information has earned Rackham the nickname “Queen of the Unseen”. As the Entertainment specialist, she works off previews that have no ending, and therefore had to learn the art of writing about something that no one has yet seen.
  • The reviewers sometimes have to sign non-disclosure agreements (Brown, who specialises in soap operas, has to sign them every week). They are not legally binding, but journalists follow them so as to preserve their relationships with broadcasters.
  • Graham’s rule of thumb regarding spoilers is that they’re fair game as long as the programme has already been “on proper telly” (ie, broadcasted).

 Writing about TV

  • The critics will have to write about bad or uninteresting programming at some point, if only because that double page of Choices must be filled every week. The panellists recommended a few approaches to this problem: finding a redeeming feature to focus on; hiding a negative opinion between the lines; or comparing (“if you liked Programme X, you will like this”). It is part of the reviewer’s job to say it when a programme is bad, but that doesn’t mean they can just dismiss it, out of respect for the people who made it.
  • When Rackham has to write a piece without much information to go on, she finds a “peg to hang things from”- an alternative element the piece can rest on, such as a person or idea.
  • Similarly, when Brown is bound by non-disclosure agreements, he bases his writing on what he knows will be talking points among the viewers. He finds this approach helps him produce opinion pieces, as well.
  • Someone in the audience asked whether the panellists sought outside input when writing about different cultures. There was a bit of a scramble for an answer. Butcher said he only did it once, when writing about a Welsh programme. He admitted that Radio Times was not a diverse place. “You just do your best”, Graham concluded.

The Life and Work of a TV Critic

  • The panellists repeatedly described their job as “sitting in a dark room with headphones on”. Butcher estimates that he’s watched over 10,000 programmes since he started his job, and Graham says she watches 3-4 hours of TV a day.
  • They still watch TV at home, even shows they’ve already reviewed. They all recognise TV’s communal function within a family, and its potential to bring Britain together.
Photo of Alison Graham, David Butcher, Jane Rackham and David Brown giving the talk
The panel from left to right: Alison Graham, David Butcher, Jane Rackham and David Brown.
  • TV journalists are not jaded when it comes to television. They have their favourites and their pet hates like everyone else, and like to discuss what they watch when they can. Butcher says TV still makes him sob, and Brown still gets a kick out of visiting studios and sets.
  • Radio Times critics do not feel pressure to write positively about programmes to preserve their relationships with broadcasters, but Graham recognized that things might be different for small publications.
  • There is not set path to get into TV criticism. All the speakers fell into it from various areas of journalism.

You can find out more about the BFI and Radio Times Television Festival on the BFI website.

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