Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dying Without Oxygen 

I have written before that I serve as a host on a local community television program dedicated to books and reading. Hosting is a way to maintain TV skills, which, in my case, are rusty. Last night, I learned how professional a host must be to survive a half-hour under hot lights in a studio without air conditioning and without enough material.

I was a fish on land gasping for oxygen.

My three guests were pleasant and tried hard, but there just wasn't much to say about a literacy event being sponsored by a company. We were sitting there with sweat trickling down our cheeks and a look of panic. They were hoping I would find good questions to ask: I was silently praying they would talk on and on.

Sure enough, discussion about the event ended nine minutes into the taping. All questions were used up, and there was no avenue for escape. But we had five minutes to go in the first segment and another 14 in the second segment. We couldn't stop taping, and there was no second chance. In the control room, the director knew exactly what was happening. According to my daughter who was there, he commented to no one in particular that "we have 19 minutes to go." Nineteen minutes can seem an eternity.

I flailed with off-target questions and limped through the end of the first segment. During the break, the guest from the company suggested that she could talk more about the company's work in literacy. I could have kissed her. We started the second segment with her reeling off everything the company does to support reading. It was pure publicity, but I didn't care. I had 10 minutes to go.

I asked the other two guests to comment on points the company spokesperson had made. They chimed in with short responses for another minute. I had nine minutes to go. Fortunately, one of the guests made a passing comment that sparked an idea. Is literacy gender-based? That carried us for another four minutes. Five minutes to go. The conversation wasn't desperate at this point but there wasn't a clear path either. Another couple of questions. Three minutes to go. One more question. Another minute. I spotted the floor director's sign for two minutes, and I knew what I had to do. The wrap-up question. "Let's go over again what the event is about before the show ends." We retreaded the opening material. I thanked the guests for their participation and stopped -- 30 seconds early. We froze in place for another three minutes while the director scrambled to get us out of the credits. It was done.

I was exhausted. Normally, a program like this takes off with its own energy and sails along with short gaps to fill. This one was a cliffhanger from start to finish. But it was a good PR lesson. Always provide a TV host with plenty of material. Always. There can never be too much.

I think back on guests I have trained for TV interviews, and I know I haven't paid much attention to this rule. Most interview segments are five minutes, not 28. I spend most of my time helping guests edit remarks to fit small time slots. But, a long show is different. One has to depend on a guest carrying the conversation, and guests who are not talkative make a host work overtime. That's an uncomfortable feeling -- like suffocation.


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