Show it, explain it. How to give generic video meaning.

With so many resources to acquire and watch video nowadays, I am shocked at the amount of generic video on television news programs.  Recently, I asked journos to define what generic video is.  The answers were interesting and included:  “stock footage”, “any file video”, and “any video that was not referenced.”  So, let’s begin by defining generic video.  Generic video is video that is shown but not referenced.  Stock footage often fits the bill.  Take, for example, holiday stories about shopping.  You see the same shots of headless people carrying bags in a random mall each time a shopping story is mentioned.  Stories about beach conditions get the same treatment.  You see the same shots of the same beach and same women in bikinis.  Many editors have this video ready to call up at a moment’s notice. It includes:  people getting vaccinations, standing in line to vote, various food items, houses for real estate stories and millage rate stories, and school video of headless students in hallways. Catch my drift?

Generic video doesn’t have to be stock footage though.  I recently watched a vo about a shooting at a house.  In the video, there were tight shots of a window, shots of two different houses next to each other, and then suddenly a shot of an older woman in a hat walking with a younger person.  What did this mean?  Who was the woman?  Who was the younger person?  I’m still not sure which house the shooting happened in!  The video was shot that day, but it didn’t help tell the story in any way.

Now let’s talk about file video.  It is only generic if you don’t explain why you are showing it.  If you are talking about an anniversary of the disappearance of a woman for example, you can say, “you may remember this is the last place where so and so was seen.  Family and friends held up these signs for weeks at busy intersections neardy hoping to find her.”  The file video is not generic.  It has to do with how the writer references the images.  You have to explain why you are showing the video.

In “Can You Picture It” I spell out ways to talk about video and give it meaning.  Recently, I was talking with a producer about this issue and he said, “You get around generic video with see it say it, right?”  No.  “See it say it” is another trap.  The only time you use that rule, is when you are listing a specific phone number, or an address and times for a specific event.  (Think weekend calendars, and crime lines.)  Make sure the phone number or address you are referencing is on the screen, so people can actually take down the information.  Otherwise, think “show it, explain it” rather than “see it say it.”  Think about it, when you watch an entertainment show with a narrator, the narrator does not simply list off every image and throw in a fact here and there.  The narrator tells a story, and the video helps you follow along.  TV writing should do the same.  The anchor or reporter is telling a story, the pictures help you follow along.  You have to reference the video, but that is not the same as “take a look at this, these people are shopping.”  You can reference something like, “we saw plenty of people carrying shopping bags at stores today, that’s good news for retailers and our economy.”  That makes the viewer look at the video to see who is carrying bags and who isn’t.  You are adding a dimension to the video to give it meaning.  This is very crucial when using stock video.  If you are showing someone getting a shot, give perspective.  “If you are getting a flu shot like these people, ask about whether it is the intradermal vaccine.  New research shows it is less effective than the larger needle.”  You can show a person getting a flu shot, a close up of a needle, and it doesn’t feel generic.  Make sure you throw in references that provide perspective here and there.  If you show a shooting scene, where there is police tape and a street sign and no cars, throw in some loose references.  “Police blocked off this area, along Colonial Drive at the intersection of Smith Avenue.  But you can expect a busier scene in a few hours when the road reopens to traffic.”  Is the video exciting? No.  It takes only a few words, to show the viewer why you are bothering with the images.  Showing the taped off area, the road sign and the empty street helps viewers understand where this happened, and how it impacted the area during the investigation. It’s a simple but effective technique.

When you use show it, explain it you are forced to really understand the story you are talking about.  You have to know where the shooting happened, why an older lady was walking down the street, which house the shooting happened in, and whether shoppers were carrying packages or empty handed.  Bottom line, video doesn’t have to be action packed to have meaning.  Reference it.  Let viewers understand why you are bothering to show images at all.