As someone who passed their GCSEs through being reasonably clever rather than working hard, found out the hard way that I couldn’t do that with my A-Levels, and then had an absolutely disastrous experience at university for exactly the same reason, it’s perhaps not a surprise to hear that I suffer from the standard exam-based anxiety dream.
You know the one. The one where you’re going into an exam you haven’t prepared for, and don’t know any of the answers. To be fair, this is less an anxiety dream, and more my brain reenacting exactly what I did when I was 18, over and over and over again. 20 years later, I’m still having it on a regular basis. Which, I guess, is my punishment for wasting an opportunity others would have loved to have.
Still, many people have those kind of dreams. I work as a TV channel director, and people in our line of work have a whole raft of standard anxiety dreams specific to our job. I’ve had every single one of the following dreams, and when I’ve told other people in the industry, most replied with: “Oh, so it’s not just me, then?”
In an attempt at some kind of therapy, here is the kind of nonsense our brains decide to inflict on us.
1) It’s ten minutes before the late news is on air. I decide to go to the toilet… and suddenly find myself on a train leaving work. I ring up the playout suite to apologise, and inform them of my situation. Nobody is pleased.
2) Everything is going fine, for once. Ah, right, the live programme’s ending. Time to find the button we press to manually take it off air and go to the next event… what? Where is it? It’s not where it usually is! Help!
Eventually, engineering show up. The button had been moved overnight, and was hidden under all my paperwork. I feebly protest my innocence.
3) For some reason, control of the most important channel in the UK has moved to my childhood home. Time for my shift. I go downstairs into my living room, and the last shift has already left, leaving the room in the dark. They’ve also turned off all the monitors I need in order to run the channel. I spend ages switching them back on, then realise we’re coming up to a live programme. Studio talkback is now controlled through my family PC speakers, and the channel is now controlled through my family PC. I wake up in a sweat, and ponder what Freud would have made of all this.
4) I forget to give the continuity announcer sound, which means their live announcement won’t go to air. When I finally remember, I can’t find the required button because I rapidly start losing my eyesight.
And perhaps the worst:
5) I dream the entire shift, everything goes smoothly… and then wake up and have to do the whole thing again for real. Thanks, brain.
On the plus side, I did once dream of Kathy Burke sitting in a darkened studio, complaining that her weather graphics had crashed. I’m sure you could get a sitcom episode out of that.
It’s 1999, or thereabouts. I’m sitting in a friend’s living room. We’re watching a recording of something from BBC Two. Probably TMWRNJ1 or the like. We’re both huge comedy fans.
Unfortunately, I make an error. Being a comedy fan is fine. But foolishly, I try to have a conversation about the nice BBC Two ident in front of the programme. I like that kind of thing, you see. I mean, at that point, I didn’t even know the phrase “TV presentation”, let alone “TV presentation fan”. This was long before I knew there were other people like me. I just knew it was something I was interested in.
I shortly wished this was not the case.
I can’t even remember the word used towards me. Sad? Boring? Whatever it was, it was negative, and I was an idiot. I mean, I was used to hearing this stuff right through school, but I thought I might escape from it when I went to college. Seemingly not. A swift stab in the heart, job done.
I feebly protest, but can’t get the words out. We get on with watching telly. I brood.
* * *
It’s 2015, or thereabouts. I’m sitting in a certain TV channel’s control room – now on the other side of the television. I’m busy tweaking that evening’s schedule, for imminent transmission over the next few hours. And that involves actually watching a condensed version of that evening’s material.
A ‘2’ in the guise of a toy car glides across the screen. Ah, I know what to do. To make this look good, the 2 figure needs to exit cleanly off the side of the screen before going into the programme. That happens at precisely 15 seconds in. But I’m doing a 10 frame visual mix into the programme, so that means this ident needs to run for 14″15f in order to look good. Hang on…
* * *
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE®! Choose from 2 possible endings:
1) Don’t let anybody ever tell you the silly shit you’re interested in doesn’t matter. You might find it immensely useful years down the line. People might even end up paying you money to be good at it.
“Which brings us to: Screw With Your Sleep. The Wraith of Insomnia will be your co-pilot on the Sea of Sadness. Her mere presence is unpleasant, but she also helps confuse the productive part of your brain which might look to navigate you toward the Islands of Happiness on the horizon. (More on that later.) A regular sleep cycle is a fragile thing and takes at least three days to establish. Be sure then to vary your bedtime, by several hours twice at week – at least. Even better: vary your wake time. Sleep in late, preferably very late, some – but not all – days. And tell yourself you are making up for sleep to feel like you’re doing something healthy, even though you feel terrible when you wake up early, and when you wake up late. Irregular sleep is another of the sea’s accelerating currents.
The more you vary your sleep, the harder regular sleep becomes, which makes your sleep more variable. To never sleep or wake at the same time naturally is the goal.”
Yeah, that does sound bad, and I get your clever reversal. Now, let me take you through my weekend.
In fact, I’ve actually been off work since Monday, which has been lovely. But just at the time when a lot of people are thinking about what to do with their days off, I’m gearing up for four 12-hour shifts at work. 7:30pm – 7:30am: going into work this Friday night, and coming off shift Tuesday morning.
So, what will I be doing? I work as a Playout Director, so when I get in I’ll take over transmitting TV shows for your primetime. I’ll do a bit of sport in the early hours, and then I’ll get to prepping tomorrow’s schedules. If there’s a problem with a programme that’s transmitting tomorrow afternoon, best we find out about it at 3am when there’s a chance of fixing it, instead of discoving the issue half an hour before broadcast.
In my job, I do many different kinds of awkward hours. Depending on my shift, I can end up starting work early in the morning, at lunchtime, mid-afternoon, or in the evening. In fact, the only time I’m never going to arrive at work is bang on 9am. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my job. There are certain health risks associated with it, and planning your life can be fraught at times. But those are just things I have to deal with.
What I find frustrating though, is when people talk about the issues with irregular sleep patterns as though all anybody has to do is just “go to bed at a sensible time, man”. For me, that is just impossible. And let’s not forget: somebody has to do all these jobs, and many of those jobs are rather more important than mine. Somebody needs to make sure you have running water and electricity at all hours. Somebody needs to come and put out fires. And somebody – like my sister, a nurse – has to be around to pump you full of morphine and save your life.1 Regular sleep patterns are literally impossible for a great many people in the service industry. And I’m sick of being scolded and/or patronised for a job which if I didn’t do, somebody else would have to do instead.
Maybe it’s unfair to pin all of this on one seven minute video. This is a cumulation of things, and it just wandered into my life at exactly the wrong time. Still, let’s take another short section from it, and something else designed to cause misery:
“Make your bedroom your allroom. Live and work and play in the smallest radius you can.”
Some people literally have no choice but to live like this. In fact, I was one of those people until very recently. Lack of money is very much a thing these days. And all days. Forever.
The concept of the video is, of course, about turning typical self-help advice on its head in an attempt to get the point across in a more engaging way. But the advice it’s trying to get across is exactly the same as if you’d done the video straight. And the problem with all this advice is that it often assumes that you can create perfect circumstances for yourself. Hey, want to be happier? Live in a bigger house, and work 9-5! That’ll sort you out!
Anybody can paint a picture of a perfect life – or, in this case, a perfectly imperfect life. Advice on how to live better within the constraints society puts on us? That’s worth rather more.
Me and my sister have had many conversations about how similar our jobs are. On the other hand, if my channel falls off-air, nobody dies. ↩
It features a boy who struggles to find something in common with his dead father until he goes to McDonald’s.
A spokeswoman for McDonald’s said the British advert will be removed from all media this week and it will review its creative process to avoid a repeat.”
I don’t really want to get into whether the advert is offensive or not; there are plenty of places elsewhere where you can get into that kind of debate. I want to pull my usual trick and pick out one sentence in the story and talk about something entirely different instead.
Today, that sentence is the following:
“Due to the lead-times required by some broadcasters, the last advert will air on Wednesday 17 May.”
BBC 1, 30th November 1996, 7:50pm, The National Lottery Live. And a 15-year-old John Hoare, already over-excited from Noel’s House Party, watches in wonder as his other very favourite thing in the whole world happens: the telly goes wrong.
Yes, it’s the infamous 107th draw, where the lottery machine failed to act as a lottery machine and draw some damn balls. Like many TV moments I didn’t record on VHS, the memory faded over the years… until some kind soul uploaded it to YouTube back in 2010. Brilliantly, the video includes both the initial failure of the machine, and the hastily-improvised update show which aired after Casualty, where the balls were drawn successfully.
TX. Presentation. Playout. Whatever you call it, they’re the people responsible for taking the programmes, promos, adverts and continuity, packaging it all up, and making sure you have something to watch on your television… with the absolute bare minimum of breakdown captions. Yet oddly enough, despite the interest in the subject on many forums, there’s really very little writing online about what it’s actually like to work in transmission.
Last year, I left Channel 5 TX, having been there for a year and a half – and I thought people might be interested in a few details. What the bloody hell do we actually do all day, apart from sit and watch telly? Here’s your answer.
A few points first, however. Don’t expect any dirt to be dished – much as I’m sure it’d be entertaining to hear me whinge on, it’s not gonna happen. Also, there are certain confidential things which I’d love to be able to talk about, but can’t because… well, they’re confidential. Sorry about that. I can guarantee, however, that none of that affects what I have to say too much. Whilst some of the stuff I’ve had to leave out is really interesting, I think the below still represents the job pretty damn well.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: the below is just my perspective on the job. In no way whatsoever does it represent the views of Channel 5, or any of its partner companies.
Picture the scene. You’re sitting there watching television, and something bad happens. Maybe it’s a voiceover in the wrong place, over the last scene of the programme instead of the end credits. Maybe the channel goes to an ad break in the middle of a scene. Maybe the first part of a programme keeps repeating over and over again. Maybe the aspect ratio has all gone to shit. Maybe it’s a full-blown breakdown, badly-dealt with and with no apology.
And across the internet, the familiar lament goes: “Tch, automation, eh?”
Except: it isn’t. Automation doesn’t really have anything to do with it at all. And I’m going to do my best to convince you. So what does cause complete inanities to go to air?
Well, not really worked in. More worked by. First in a room next door, transferring material from tape to playout server, and then in the other room next door doing scheduling. But it’s the first TV place I went to where I actually got paid money for being there… so it has a special place in my heart. I don’t wish to romanticise too much, but I always got a little thrill as I walked through the room and saw that bank of monitors.
This is the tale of one of the more ridiculous things that happened to me when I worked in Channel 5 TX.
Saturday, 14th December, 2013. I’m sitting at home, preparing for my first day back in work after a short illness. It’s live BAMMA coverage that evening – mixed martial arts, which usually involves the floor being entirely smeared with blood by the end of the night – and I decide to have a look at BAMMA’s Twitter feed to see what’s going on.1
So, I scroll down their feed… and something catches my eye. Something horrible. I reproduce it below – but I’ve had to blur out the relevant bits, I’m afraid. I’m sure you’ll understand when I tell you what they are.
All TX ops should do a little research on the show they’re going to be working on. Not all do. To be fair, I did once find myself in the middle of a live sporting event and suddenly realised I didn’t know the scoring system. Never. Again. ↩