The Cool Fire (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
Most discussions of television today are likely to describe the medium as a “plug-in drug,” a “boob tube,” a medium whose message is vulgarity and violence. Undaunted by such criticisms, however, Bob Shanks finds television to be an exciting, vigorous medium in which he is proud to participate. His guidebook aims both to introduce the general reader to the varied components of an all-American industry and, as the subtitle “How To Make It in Television” implies, to provide suggestions to the novice of how to break into the world of television, not necessarily as a performer but as a behind-the-scenes producer, director, or writer.
As a performer, producer, director, and writer of television programs for ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, Shanks has the wide experience and inside information needed for such a book. Currently Programming Vice-President at ABC, he has won two Emmys, is a governor of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has taught television production in New York’s New School for Social Research. His teaching experience seems to have provided him with the impetus for writing, since The Cool Fire could easily serve as a general introduction to television in a college course on the media.
Shanks begins by pointing out that the role of producer of a television program is more crucial than is apparent to the viewer. As the coordinator of a program, the producer provides the creative continuum for a project. The performers, or “talent” as they are called in TV jargon, the director, writer, staff, and technical crews are all answerable to the producer. Thus a program may have a different cast or director for each weekly episode, but only one producer. Shanks draws his examples from his own extensive experience; and he reports candidly both his successes—filming Dionne Warwick in the rain when her umbrella suddenly began to turn inside-out—and his failures—hiring a director for the “Merv Griffin Show” who missed deadlines and eventually had to be fired in part because Shanks had neglected to monitor the director’s progress more closely. Exciting though the role of producer is, it is not easy to obtain. The beginner must be willing to accept any job, according to Shanks, whether as a “go-pher” or “assistant,” a euphemism for secretary. Desire to learn, willingness to ask advice, and the grace to admit mistakes are the requisite personality traits for the would-be producer.
The director’s role is dependent to a large extent on the limitations of the medium itself. Since television programs are taped continuously on several cameras, rather than filmed, a process where one camera takes rapid still shots, the director must monitor several cameras simultaneously, sometimes from a control room. Advice to the editor includes the injunction to “maximize closeups” since the television screen is small; to “fill your frame” that is, not to leave empty space around the subject; to move the camera with the subject rather than leave the camera static; to use detail in foreground shots; and to learn the various types of shots—and Shanks explains them all—to add variety and interest to your presentation. Thus the director must learn technique, not simply supply actors with motives.
Often the staff of a typical program includes the writer, a “prophet or a colicky infant” according to the producer’s view, and the associate producer who ideally will complement the producer’s personality—a “nice guy” producer will choose a hatchet-man associate. As a former talent coordinator on the “Jack Paar Tonight Show,” Shanks is particularly...
(The entire section is 1494 words.)
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