We’re all enjoying this new wave of expert-led documentaries, where we see a real-life scientist, historian or psychologist let us into their world, resulting in programming with more depth and substance. Discovering an academic who can communicate well, is telegenic and has a fascinating area of expertise can be a real find. But how do we cultivate that relationship and convince them to open up to television as a medium? And how do you bring together two worlds that are so inherently different?
We are no longer dealing with ‘trained’ presenters who are desperate to get their faces on TV and instead have a pool of talented, knowledgeable and well-respected individuals. But they are not cut from the same cloth, so working together needs to be approached in a different way.
Academics are used to communicating with other academics and a new audience can be an unnerving thing. They have to open up to the possibility of a mass audience poised and ready to listen, but only if the information is accessible to them, which is the key, when it comes to television.
Academics are naturally very protective over their research. Ideas and theories they’ve spent years uncovering are precious to them and they may not want them pulled apart and dissected for a TV treatment. There is still a lot of snobbery in academia and what academics often fear most, is being looked down upon by their contemporaries. They don’t want to sell out to an industry that makes light of their ideas and dumbs down their area of expertise for a wider public. But as we all know, TV can be extremely powerful and can enable them to spread their research to millions of viewers. Many academics do realise this but still need some coercing into the world of TV. Convincing them that everyone’s a winner is vital. It’s often just a case of reminding them you also want this to result in an intelligent and captivating programme.
Working in a collaborative manner is key. A team effort, combining the qualities of your creativity and experience in the TV industry with their research and knowledge can result in a standout treatment. Keep them involved in the process and updated on the results.
The sometimes-fickle world of TV is new to them. Take the time to treat the contributors and presenters with respect. If you are going to use someone’s time filming a taster, working up ideas or writing pitches, have the courtesy to get back to them, even if the response is negative. One thing that academics find extremely frustrating and even baffling is the disappearance of their idea and the production company they pitched it to. If it’s not going to work or if the broadcaster rejected it, tell them. One too many times has a producer shown an over-enthusiastic interest, the academic has spent time writing up the idea to then never hear from them again. It can be dis-heartening and put them off TV for good. Rejection is ok, silence isn’t.
Cultivate relationships with factual broadcasting agents. They are constantly scouting for talent and may have eyes in places you don’t. Most will be enthusiastic about discussing their client list with you. Make sure they know your areas of interest and ask to be their first port of call when they find a client in this area, be it history, science, archeology or art.
This new relationship the media world has formed with the world of academia is wonderful and should be celebrated but we must adapt to the changes this brings about. Building strong relationships and ensuring you’re both on the same page is the key to making great TV. It can be extremely rewarding and create some truly exciting programming.
Mel Hales is Director of Rush Talent rushtalent.co.uk
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