Writing for television and the editorial influence
WRITING FOR TELEVISION
The major problem facing any writer coming fresh to television is to
understand what it is. Is it a new art medium or merely a new method of
disseminating information? Is it simply an extension of radio, or is it
just an inferior form of cinema? These are basic questions which require
an answer. Before dealing with them, however, I would like to set down
the three main problems which, in my belief, face any writer, new to
television. They are:
(1) The problem, already mentioned, of understanding the nature of
(2)The problems of time and space encountered in const rusting the
(3)The problem of lay-out of the script.
Now to deal with these in order. Perhaps the best way 1o start on the
first is to compare television with other media and’ to plot its
affinities and contrasts.
Like radio, it is broadcast to a mass-audience grouped in small numbers;
it forms part of a daily service; it may be produced inside the studio,
outside it, or both; and each programme is consumed in one performance,
or a small number of performances. Like the film, it employs cameras and
the action is seen through lens; it is viewed on a screen; it employs
simultaneously sound and vision; it employs grammatical devices such as
the mix and the fade. Like the theatre it is a live medium; its actors
or actualities give a continuous performance.
Now for the points of divergence. Unlike radio, television, must bow to
the exacting demands of vision as well as sound. Unlike the film it is
principally a live, as opposed to a recorded, medium — although this may
change with time; its action has only relative mobility. Unlike the
stage play, its action can move swiftly from set to set; it plays to
small intimate groups of people at short range.
From this brief analysis it should be apparent that, although television
draws characteristics from these media, it can by no means be identified
with any one of them. It has too many affinities with the film merely to
be an extension of sound radio; it has too much of radio and the theatre
merely to be an inferior form of cinema. It is a new and exciting medium
in its own right. It is not even an alternative to the theatre or the
cinema; it is rather a window on the world, a magic window through which
can be seen passing all the sights and sounds and people of the day.
Maurice Wiggin, the television critic, once called television «a
periscope through which we can see how the world wags». This seems to me
a definition it would be hard to better.
When I said that television was a live medium I was, of course, quite
aware that it does employ both recorded sound. (on disc or tape) and
recorded vision (on film). Most plays and documentaries use linking
filmed sequences and some types of programme use a high proportion of
film. When this happens television takes on temporarily the
characteristics of a recorded medium, though its real nature remains the
same. Being a living medium is the principal cause of what I have called
the problems of time and space. These keep cropping up in various forms
in every script and any writer who is determined to master television
must develop a technique for dealing with them.
Let me give a simple example. In one scene a character called John Smith
is drinking in a night club, dressed in a dinner jacket. In the next
scene he is at his office next mornings .dressed in a lounge suit. In a
film, this would be quite straightforward. The •action would be recorded
shot by shot and edited together. In television, however, the position
is quite different because shot follows shot and scene follows scene in
real time. If John Smith has to change his costume, the script must be
constructed so as to give him enough time. Even if no change of costume
is necessary, he must still be given time to walk from set to set,
collecting any necessary «props» en route.
Occasionally the problem may be eased by the insertion of a linking film
sequence but by no means every time. Within a scene the time factor
still holds; if an actor has to lace up his boots, tie his tie, or even
put on a car wheel, the actual time must be allowed. These actions
cannot be telescoped, as in a film.
Closely allied with the problems of time are the problems of space and,
indeed, they are often aspects of the same prob!em. Every set in the
script has to be built and erected in the studio. Some sets can be
managed by back-projection and other devices but, in general, all the
sets demanded in the script must be erected side by side. From this it
follows that their number will be limited by the available studio space;
it is no use a writer asking for twenty-three sets, because he will
never get them. He may get twelve; he is lucky to get more than eight.
This, considering the size of the larger studios, may seem an
unnecessary curb on the writer, but there is a very good reason: the
studio lay-out must take into account not only the disposition of the
sets but the necessity of movement from set to set. The needs of the
actors have already been touched on, but also there are the camera crews
and their dollies, the microphone booms, the lighting men and a whole
army of technicians. Unless they can keep up with the actors, the
programme as a piece of television ceases to exist. The general rule
is, therefore, that the more room there is for maneuver, the faster, the
actors and technicians can move.
At its best, television has only relative mobility and its action moves
from set to set, or from set via film sequence to set. Within each set
the aciton is usually pegged to a room, an office, a shop, or some other
unit until it moves on to the next scene and is pegged there. It cannot
(as in the film) move down corridors, along roads, and up hills or down
precipices. .For this reason the television scene is similar to the
stage scene and the television script tends to consist of thirty to
sixty such scenes, grouped into sequences and linked in the mounting I
rhythm of the action. I should add that this technique of writing » was
not invented by television writers nor borrowed direct from the cinema;
it was developed by William Shakespeare
The number of sets and scenes employed in Hamlet or Richard III is very
much the same as in a television script. If Shakespeare were alive today
he would be our leading television writer. Certainly the present fashion
for one-set plays would have driven him from the theatre.
How can these problems of time and space be reduced to a minimum?
The only way, in my experience, is to work out a detailed construction
of the script before a line of dialogue is written. In this should be
included a synopsis of each scene and characters involved in it, and the
details of each set. If this is done systematically a good many snags
will be apparent, and so may be dealt with, before it is too late. In
fact, the construction should be worked out until it is near perfect
because any faults that remain will show up larger still in the
The third great problem encountered by the television writer is the
lay-out of the script. The difficulty is that, besides, reading well as
a piece of narrative, the script has to convey a good deal of technical
information to the producer, the actors, the designer, the lighting
supervisor, the studio manager and several other people. These two
qualities are not necessarily complementary and a script may, for
example, convey technical information quite adequately but read so badly
as a narrative that it loses all chance of production. The best lay-put
achieved so far, to my knowledge, was evolved by Robert Barr, the
writer-producer of television documentaries until recently with the
B.B.C. For simple reference I will call it the single column layout. The
main points are as follows:
(1) At the beginning of each scene the following information is given:
The number of the scene.
Whether it is live in the studio or filmed.
Whether it is interior or exterior.
Whether it is at night or by day.
The set (if live); the location (if filmed).
At the end of each scene there is a direction showing how it is to be
linked to the next. If the scene ends a sequence the fact is stated. (A
sequence is a group of scenes comparable to a chapter in a book or a
movement in a symphony. It covers a complete stage in the development of
Stage and camera directions are set right across the page; dialogue is
…One of the advantages of this lay-out is that there is no doubt as to
where a scence or sequence ends and where the next one begins. Nor can
there be any doubt as to how the writer intends the scenes to be linked.
That deals, as far as it is possible to do so here, with the three main
problems of the writer, but there are naturally others which vary with
each programme. One difficulty however crops up so often that it should
be given special mention: it is the difficulty of giving the appearance
of continuous action or movement where actually there is a break.
…I do not think anyone imagines that writing for television is an easy
business; even for the writer who has succeeded in the theatre, the
cinema, radio or elsewhere, there is a new technique to acquire and the
difficult process of adapting a personal style to the needs of a complex
medium. But it is my belief that the attempt is worth-while, not only
for the rewards of success, should they come, but also because it will
introduce the writer to a new and exciting field of experience. Finally,
it should be realized that television needs the writer even more than he
needs television. Without him it can never grow to maturity, never
deploy its latent power; and it can never be a wide, open and shining
window on the world.
(From Television in the Making, ed. by Paul Rotha)
THE EDITORIAL INFLUENCE
What is a good television assignment and what is not? There are many
variables involved; the editorial values of a story; your resources, in
terms of personnel and equipment to do the job; and the cost, in terms
of money, time and effort. Also much depends on what you are trying to
do, in your overall approach to the responsibility of covering news for
You may not completely control this over all approach. Much depends on
the basic attitudes and policies of the station management, and it is
necessary to work within that framework. If your operating budget is
small and your staff is limited, your coverage necessarily reflects such
…There are several basic points to keep in mind about assignments. The
most important one is: People are more interesting to people than
inanimate things. A building may be impressive but when a person comes
into the frame, your attention shifts to that person. We should exploit
this natural curiosity about other people because, whether we realize it
or not, all of us are constantly seeking to understand one another
But an interest in people doesn’t mean that all interviews
will be interesting. All too frequently interviewing somebody in the
news is used as the easy way out. We are not covering a story if we get
somebody to say on camera what has already been published in the press
and broadcast on radio. Unless the interview carries the story further,
provides new information or sheds new light on development, there’s
little reason to use it. Of course, one cannot always know whether a
film interview will carry the story one step further, so we often have
to try it, and see what happens. But just because it has been shot
doesn’t mean it must be used.
Not is interest in people justification for indiscriminate interviewing
of the so-called man in the street. You are not providing news or
information when you ask somebody to be an expert on something they
cannot possibly be qualified to discuss. Man in the street assignments
are really not valid unless you are asking people questions they are
qualified to answer.
What makes a good television film story? I believe it is writing of the
story. Good writing can make a striking piece out of routine visual
elements. And the fact is, most of what one can film is quite
commonplace and routine. And though an imaginative approach by a good
cameraman can make something interesting out of a Rotary Club luncheon,
there’s a limit to what he can do visually.
One picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words. It depends on the
words, how they are put together, and most important, the idea behind
Another important aspect of assignments: know your staff and use them to
the best advantage. Certain men can do better with a certain kind of
story than others, because of their own individual make-up. The special
talents of a reporter or cameraman should be taken into consideration in
making an assignment.
Too frequenty we are content to settle for what is really talking
coverage of an important story instead of doing the kind of job
television can do. The city, state or federal government passes
legislation or undertakes some project. So we interview the man who
sponsored the bill or heads the project. In doing so we are being dull.
We are quality of not taking advantage of the very special capability of
this medium. Newspapers are limited to doing this — but we are not.
Instead of having somebody talk about it, we can show it. Why settle for
an interview with the city councilman or a state representative when
there’s a wealth of meaningful stories to be had by digging a little.
When we assign a story, we don’t try to spell out in detail how it
should be done. We expect that the team doing the story will know what
to try to include in the piece. If there’s a special angle in which we
are interested , we tell them what it is. But on the whole, we leave it
up to the men in the field to figure out what is the best way to do it.
By being on the scene, they know what the local conditions are and what
…So it is up to the correspondent on the assignment to come up with an
angle that will be interesting informative and will put the story in
Again and again, this is done with adequate but less than extraordinary
visual elements coupled with good writing.
A good assignment should both involve a good idea and good men to
execute it. But the fact is that even when the idea isn’t so good, if
the men who handle it are skilled and imaginative, chances are you will
come up with something worthwhile.