Mitt Romney wants to fire Big Bird?

Big Bird and fellow cast members

Big Bird and friends, looking pretty good for 42-year-olds

Mitt Romney has taken a lot of flak lately for his comments about ending government funding for public broadcasting. I’m not sure why — except that the public memory is short. Many conservatives have called for pulling the plug on public broadcasting support for, like, ever.

A huge inroad into plug pulling was made in the mid-80s, and a lot of chiseling has gone on since.

I’m not a fan of Romney’s. And I don’t want to see federal funding dry up for some of the programming we associate with public broadcasting.

But I would like to see local government get out of the public broadcasting business. And this is a great time to revisit this topic.

Currently, the federal government makes up 15% of public broadcasting support, and 95¢ of every dollar goes to support local stations and the programs and services they offer.

I can’t speak for independently run public broadcasting affiliates, but I do believe that asking states to be in the media business is a mistake.

Three tenets are at work here:

  1. State-appointed media people are a bad idea.The president of any state-run affiliate is appointed by the governor or by a state board of some sort. Often, these are not people with cultural vision. TV stations, particularly culturally driven ones, must be run by people with vision and energy. Let’s take applications. Let’s hire a task force. Whatever needs to be done to avoid situations such as what happened to Maryland Public Television in the late 80s and even now. (To wit, vision was lost along with federal dollars, and those who rose into management positions were often not qualified for the jobs — even though they’d earned a “state raise” and ended up in management.)
  2. Running a TV station that must adhere to state rules and regulations ham strings that station.
  3. The busier a station is, the more competitive and better trained are its employees. Many public television stations, like MPT’s, look like virtual ghost towns these days. No one wants to work there, and no one is getting the top-notch training and production experiences they need to grow.

I short, I can foresee someone with vision taking over a public television affiliate, stocking it with companies and individuals who understand writing, production, programming, and distribution, and running the operation as a cooperative. A business.

Imagine how a tight-knit group of local service providers could fill the needs of a public television station while simultaneously stimulating their own business. I don’t know how it would work specifically, but I do know it could work, bringing additional work in for the service providers as well as filling the needs of a variety of local nonprofits and other businesses.


Game on, Santa?

Since when is it OK to dis Santa?

In Best Buy’s latest Christmas commercial, the big box store comes off as kind and ever-so-thoughtful, whereas Santa’s tiny gifts won’t even fit into a stocking. In fact, the mom mocks him as he tries! She’s already filled them with Best Buy gifts for under $100.

Oh, Mom does suggest that he can fill her dog’s empty stocking. Message: if you can’t use a Kindle, you don’t deserve anything at all?

Shame on Best Buy for creating a commercial without a heart. May you sell little this year except for “Miracle on 34th Street.”

New blog

I’ve started a new blog for my video, graphics, and web production business.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Basecamp Productions


DeliveranceI recently had drinks with an old friend and camera operator, Steve D. He may not want me to reveal his full name. Not because of the drinks. Let me explain.

Steve had exceptional prowess behind the camera. There wasn’t a tree he wouldn’t climb or ravine he wouldn’t descend to get the shot. He was eager to please … and talented.

One spring day twenty-some years ago, Steve was with me on an Eastern Shore farm. I’m not sure, but I think we were shooting cattle. Why is another story.

Good camera people are great at mimicking dolly and tracking moves with a handheld camera. So on this particular day, Steve was backing up to give me a beauty shot, pan, and pull out all in one move. Beautiful, but not something we’d planned.

Next to us was a huge HarveStore silo containing, well, sludge. I watched Steve back up toward the concrete pad surrounding the silo. Now, normally, I’m behind a camera operator in motion, just in case I need to save him or her or the camera. But I couldn’t get there in time. (Thank God.)

Steve walked backwards toward the concrete pad as the crew and I watched the pad eat him up. The pad was a slick, grey-brown pool of manure. By the time Steve could stop, he was up to his chest in … poop. A pool of poop.

The camera? Quick witted, Steve raised the 30-pound camera (worth nearly $100K) over his head. It was like a vision from the closing sequence of the movie Deliverance. You know, where the hand shoots up out of the water, kind of saying, “I’m still here!”

Somehow, Steve kept his equilibrium. And somehow, even after we hosed him off and gave him some of the farmer’s clothes, the three-hour drive back to our public television station was also memorable.

So, in Steve’s honor, I told the story to the other camera folks at the cocktail party with Steve and I that night. I was so proud of Steve. Dennis said, “You don’t have to tell US. Your camera shoot is legend!” And, just like that, a roomful of arms went up in a kind of Deliverance salute.

These days, I would easily have had a digital picture of Steve and his Slumdog Millionaire-like descent into, well, a cesspool. And I could have probably sold it on eBay. Or at least posted it on Facebook. But you know what? I don’t really need one. I got the shot and the memory. And, apparently, dozens of people continuing to give it the airtime it deserves.

How to keep a viewer’s attention

3-D movie audience

3-D movie audience

Suppose I asked you to graph your attention level while viewing a very interesting film. For a good show, people would answer that their attention level is high throughout — a flat line in the upper quadrants of the graph.

Not so. Even while watching the most engaging of stories, your interest typically waxes and wanes — kind of like a roller coaster in shape.


As you watch a video — a good video — the action, words, sounds, and music spark memories and associations that feed into your experience of the video. In a well-done video, that’s a good thing. Hooking a reader’s personal emotions can do a lot of work for you.

Also, most people don’t focus steadily in a passive activity such as watching a video. The mind typically wanders during any presentation, whether it’s a feature film, a play, or a YouTube clip. Full attention returns when you create a new turning point — a plot change or new information, for instance.

So, when you craft a video presentation of any length, you want to be mindful of these “mental breaks” that will occur. And, if you’re good, you learn to manage them by carefully doling out important data in a time-release fashion, building on each “release” to a final climax. It’s really very much like how a feature film is carefully crafted.

For instance, at the beginning of a video you have just a few seconds to keep viewers who aren’t a captive audience. (Some say the attrition begins in the first second). So the beginning needs to be bold, surprising, unique, or otherwise attention getting. After that, you create peaks and valleys to continually reward your viewer for staying with you. Each peak builds on the last, and each valley provides supportive information for its peak, or the next one, if you will.

Plus, everything I’ve just said about keeping someone’s attention is exponentially more challenging every day, as you and everyone you know encounters hundreds of media messages every day. We want our information, and we want it fast.

USA Today hit on a novel idea back in the 70s by releasing bite-sized news, and received a lot of flak for it. But they were right. And today, as other newspapers flag and fail, USA Today still circulating more newsprint than any other newspaper in the United States.

Video is a lot like USA Today. You want to introduce memorable information and keep your audience’s attention throughout. In a well-composed video, you can do just that by thinking through your turning points. More on how to figure those out in another blog!

What is scriptwriting?

Scriptwriting sample

Scriptwriting sample

Scriptwriting and screenwriting are not the same thing. Sure, in Hollywood they are. But not for the rest of the United States.

Screenwriting is writing done for the Big Screen. It makes beaucoup bucks, at least ideally.

Scriptwriting is writing done for just about any venue other than the Big Screen — television, radio, web, corporate, educational, museum, training, industrial. You name it. And there’s a lot of it.

What’s the big deal? Most people aren’t even aware there are scripts for other presentations. They think an editor just makes them.

However, there are far more dollars spent every year on non-broadcast videos than there are dollars spent for Hollywood films. I’d like to give a citation here, but I can’t find it right now. Check back.

And so, for those of us who don’t write a lot of drama, we’d like a place in history! “I am a scriptwriter, and my name is Susan …..”

But when have writers ever been celebrated in their day? And when have behind-the-scenes writers (and I don’t mean the Hollywood kind) ever been singled out at all? It’s a rare trade competition that even recognizes scriptwriters (or writers of any kind for that matter) on a par with producers, directors, and print designers. Even though, without a scriptwriter (and a GOOD scriptwriter) there would be no story to tell.

So today, when you’re out there being bombarded by the 247 audio and video messages you’ll receive from commercials, YouTube videos, and Discovery programming, think of the writer. The person who makes it all make sense, who takes (or thinks up) all of the visuals and words that will make you buy, feel, know, or do something.

Thank a scriptwriter today!

The good and the not-so-good

The Gaylord National Harbor

The Gaylord National Harbor

Every year I have the chance to review dramatic films, documentaries, nonfiction videos, and commercials. Yesterday was one of my big days. (I want to mention that the judging is at the Gaylord National Harbor this year, brand new and amazing.)

One of the most promising documentaries began with credits over a blue sky, with a calm, tranquil landscape beneath. The picture nearly perfectly followed the “golden rule” of thirds as it pertains to filmmaking – the landscape took up about a third of the frame. (This theory of pleasing composition probably goes back to Da Vinci, and is much more complex than I’m describing it.)

Suddenly, an oil tanker screams out of the sky and explodes on the ground before us. We all sat up. Certainly something New and Different is a great way to attract and keep attention.

But what happened next? A convoluted and one-sided political attack on those who have squandered our nation’s resources. Only there were no facts. Maybe they were saved for later in the 2-hour doc?

I must disclaim that I am not allowed to name this film until the competition is over and results announced, sometime in November. So I will not give away any identifying characteristics. And I do want to say that there were those who disagreed with me. For a while.

One thing I’ve noticed about documentaries. Over time, it actually has become more likely that a scriptwriter isn’t actively involved in the production, unless that production is done by National Geographic or another proven documentary machine. Why does this happen? Because most people believe they can write. Whether they’ve ever written or even read a script for any kind of production, people generally believe that their choice of words and sentences will work. Increasingly, directors believe they can write. But, as talented as they may be, generally they don’t understand the turning points of a successful story. Maybe it’s because they’re so concerned about the topic that they can’t be that objective observer that’s required in a writer in order to give an audience what IT needs.

I can say, practically without reservation, that non-writers writing is never successful. It’s like someone who wants to run a marathon. You’re not going to do that on the first day out, or perhaps even in the first year. It takes a lot of practice and discipline. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.) In the case of scriptwriting, it also takes a lot of watching – all kinds of things: television, movies, nonfiction, documentaries, museum shorts, and so forth. I don’t want to discourage any fledgling writers, or those who keep journals, from working on their writing. But if you haven’t written professionally, likely it will take you a while to become superlative at your craft.

Naturally, scriptwriting, like any other writing, takes a lot of, well, writing. You must keep up with the culture and speak its language. Not stiff, formal language. Colloquial language. Scriptwriting may not be rocket science, but it is the careful distillation of complex information, and the magical gelling of a constellation of idea, picture, word, and audio that makes a moving picture a success.

So, the story I watched yesterday cost at least $300,000-$500,000 to produce. The person who submitted this piece did not reveal the budget, but based on the lush aerial shooting and the number of locations … not to mention narration by A Famous Actor whom most of us cannot afford … this was not a cheap story to make. Plus, it involved a famous senator’s son.

What happened? We all agreed that something funky had happened with the script. The scriptwriter went away, or there wasn’t one. Or there wasn’t a trained scriptwriter. The story just wasn’t there. We disagreed on how good the result was, but I stuck to my guns and eventually prevailed.

The film was a cut above that abomination by Al Gore that was called a documentary, but was really a glorified PowerPoint. But a cut above in visual only. It tried to be a successful Michael Moore film (and I do not think that most MM films are successful), but fell on its face, like the oil tanker that blew up within the first minute (we never did find out what the point of that was).

After watching 10 minutes of the piece, none of us had any idea where the story was going. Sure, we knew it was about the environment. And quite possibly a steppingstone for the famous senator’s son (as Al Gore’s “film,” An Inconvenient Truth, was for that politcian). But there were no building blocks leading to a greater truth, inconvenient or not.

I did some digging and discovered that I may be one of a handful of people who have even seen this film, because it’s caught up in a maelstrom of egos and personalities. And the costly piece may forever escape the Big Screen.

Turns out the personalities involve, as mentioned, a famous senator’s son, the filmmaker who grew up with him (and who is also the stepson of a household name of a TV journalist), a newspaper heiress, and a wealthy Republican producer who bankrolled most of the picture. Some or all of them are not getting along.

The problem? The filmmaker took the heiress’s script and threw it out, coming up with his own. The producer and the senator’s son don’t like the result. The heiress hasn’t seen it, but she also coughed up a lot of the money to make the picture.

The filmmaker says he owns the film, even though he didn’t put up any of the money to make it. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Was there a contract? Hello?

But, again, my point (and I do have one) is this: a really good script is necessary to make a successful story. A good script must be done by a good or even a great writer. All of the fancy shooting and editing in the world can’t create Story. And every successful feature film and documentary, not to mention corporate and museum videos, has a Successful Story.

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