television encounters

By: Thomas M. Ciesla
Originally published in the Writers Journal; April/May, 1999. Article has been reformatted for online publishing


"T en seconds to go live,” the crackling voice said into our earphones, “nine, eight, seven.” “Is there anything specific you want to be asked about your book?” A second voice said simultaneously. There was no time to answer, much less consider the question. “Three, two,one,” the first voice continued, “we’re live!” “Good morning!” Said the voice of the show’s host. “We’re live and remote with the authors of Touring Texas Wineries, in the barrel room of Slaughter-Leftwich Winery north of Austin.”

My wife and I stared at the red eye of the television camera with that ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look on our faces, trying to answer questions as best we could while completely forgetting everything we wanted to say about our book. So went our first experience with a television interview -- a ‘talk-back’ as it is know in the business. It left us disappointed, disoriented and dreadful of the next interview, but it didn’t have to be that way. A little preparation on our part would have allowed us to get our point across and enjoy the experience.

What To Expect

For outsiders the world of television may appear confusing and chaotic. Television is a ‘banana-now’ world, where input and response are immediate and everything is coordinated with split-second timing. On a major channel (i.e., ABC, CBS, NBC affiliated), your interview will last rought 3-4 minutes, while a local or public broadcast station will give you around 6 minutes. For a first time interview, 3 minutes may seem frightening, but it will seem like the blink of an eye when it’s over.

We were surprised that each television station has a unique caharcter. Some things remained constant, such as split-second timing and helpful staffs, yet each station differed in how operations and logistics were done. For example, at one station we set up on a stage reserved for local interest spots and the weather segment. While it offered a generous amount of time to set up our book and wine bottle display, it required us to stand during the interview and figure out what to do with our hands. At another station we were interviewed on a stage set dedicated for an afternoon show. With comfortable overstuffed furniture and decorations, the set seemed like a room at home, offering a seated, relaxed environment. However, since the set was used during the entire show, set up time was only 90 seconds!

Other factors that vary between stations include contact with the producer, makeup, security, scripting and ‘the visit’ which we wil talk more about later. In our experience, 75% of the producers contacted us ahead of time to verify the time and directions or just chat in general about our book. Makeup services varied from none, to a ‘poof’ in the face with a powder puff, to a full-blown 5-10 minute session wiith a makeup artist. If you do have a session with the station’s makeup artist, resist telling the artist what to do, remember this is television. The lights and cameras alter coloration and appearance in a way us outsiders just don’t understand.

Security also has its extremes. Arriving for a weekend show at a major affiliates was like trying to break into Fort Knox. We experienced the complete opposite during a visit to a weekday show at a local station where we simply waltzed through the front door. It’s a good idea to get specific directions for entering the grounds and buildings in each situation.

‘The visit’ is when the host of the show (and perhaps the producer) stops by to introduce themselves and associate your face with a name. The depth of the visit will range from a simple “Hello!” to a preliminary interview that will add color to the on-screen segment. If you have had no contact with the shows producer or staff beforehand, use this opportunity to mention key point you would like addressed.

What Can You Do

You are likely to be appearing on an early morning or mid-afternoon local interest show. While each staff we worked with was professional and helpful, there are some facts to keep in mind. The station is doing you and your publisher a favor by exposing your book to a large audience for free. You must remember, however, that television is a high-energy, highly competitive industry. The show’s host may interview anywhere from 50 to 500 authors each year. With that schedule a host probably has enough time to only browse through your book. Elizabeth Spiva, a producer with ABC affiliate KVUE in Austin, Texas told us, “We interview about 10 authors a week on our show. It’s important that we receive a copy of the book ahead of time. We’ll review the book and use information from the publishers Press Kit to develop our interview.”

Usually a script has been prepared for the show’s host. The host is able to check the script content on the teleprompter to control the flow of the interview and the timing. If the host has had time to review your book, however, the script may merely be a guide. As Melissa Block, a producer at NBC affiliate KPRC-TV in Houston, Texas explained, “I prepare a list of questions to cover things I would like to be discussed in the interview. The host always has the right to take the questions in another direction based on what they have pulled from the book.”

Experience has shown us that the biggest impact you can have on the success of the interview is communication with the show’s producer. Unless you booked the television appearance personally, call the producer a week before your appearance to explain what key points to include and what issues you don’t want to discuss. This will help you avoid on-the-air surprises and allow you to be well prepared. Ask the producer if you can be prompted by the show’s host on important points you may forget, such as the name of your publisher.

This is also the perfect opportunity to ask what time you should be there, approximately when your segment will be on, the name of who will interview you, and how the interview will be done: in the studio or remote, live or tape-delayed? If the interview is at the television studio get directions that include what gate to enter, how to contact the guard, etc. If you will be remote, get detailed directions and buy a map if you are unfamiliar with the area. Unless the remote location is out-of-town,consider a practice run a few days before handto learn the route and judge traffic congestion.

Bottom Line
Okay, you’ve talked to the producer, practiced the drive, prepared for the questions, bought new clothes and got a haircut. What else can you do for your first television appearance? Just relax, right? It’s alright to be a little nervous, even pro’s like Jay Leno of the Tonigh Show admit to being just a little nervous each time he goes on the show. A little nervousness will keep you alert and help project a good image on-screen.

The worst thing you can do is to arrive late for your interview. “I stress to our author’s to arrive on-time,” says Elizabeth Spiva, “and to come with all the items to be discussed. If we have writen the discussion of props into our scripts and the author forgets to bring everything, it throws the timing of the show off and requires last minute re-writes.”

During your interview, focus carefully on the questions being asked of you, even though you may have discussed the issues with the host before hand. As Melissa Block advised us, “Adapt your message to the medium. Keep your aswers to the point and avoid rambling.” Some authors ramble out of nervousness, while others fear ‘dead time’ -- moments of silence in the interview. Believe it or not, some seconds of silence are preferred. As a camerman told us on our first interview, “Don’t be a chatterbox, the host knows when to jump in and pick up the conversation.”

In the strange and exciting world of televisions, it is impossible to predict your comfort level until you have done that first apperance. Surprisingly even introverted people find themselves very comfortable on a television sound stage. Their secret? Ignore the camera and focus on the person conducting the interview. The interview then becomes a one-on-one conversation with a new friend -- with more lights than normal!



Ten Important Interview Tips

1. Dress nicely
Wear comfortable clothing
Keep color muted

2. Show up on time. Allow sufficient time for the commute. Arrive at least 30 minutes before the show begins

3. Be familiar with the show
If possible, watch the show before your appearance to know the hosts by sight and learn the flow of the program.

4. Bring a copy of your book. Have the book on display during the interview or hold it while talking.

5. Use props. If your subject matter allows, props make an interview more dynamic and interesting. A prop could be a simple as as a graphic or chart flashed on-screen while you are talking.

6. Forget the cameras. Focus your attention on the host of the show, unless you are remote and the host is in the studio.

7. Ignore the monitors. Don’t watch yourself on the monitors around the set, it distracts you and looks unprofessional.

8. Know the interviewer. Many shows have dual hosts, try to find out who will be interviewing you, but don’t bother them ahead of time.

9. Standing versus Sitting. If you are given the choice, sitting is usually better; most people don’t know what to do with their hands.

10. Smile! Close the interview by thanking the host while still on-the-air.

Copyright 2002 - Thomas M. Ciesla