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by Peter Moskos

August 20, 2009

So You're Going to be on TV?

Today was my third time on TV. I love radio interviews. TV? I'm still not comfortable with it. Radio is kind of like real life. TV is a bizarre and totally different creature.

In case you're going on TV, here are a few things I wish somebody had told me before my first time.

1) Make sure you're going to be introduced in the way you want to be introduced. If you have a bio online, make sure there's a concise correct version. Often they'll take your info straight from your website, if you have one. Make sure they say the name of your school. That's important to your school. Author of [your book] is also good. (But do not expect any notable increase in book sales no matter how much media attention you get.)

2) Make sure you have a contact name. And there's a good chance it won't be the person who contacted you. Make sure you have a photo ID. Once you get past the front desk (today this was at 30 Rock, which is kind of cool because there really are little tour groups being led around just like you see in... 30 Rock!), you enter the TV studios and it's never obvious where to go. You're likely to pass at least a few people walking around. But they'll all avoid eye contact because they don't want to get stuck helping you. It's nice to be able to actually ask for somebody by name.

3) While you don't want to be late, there's no advantage to being early. There's a "green room" to sit in while you wait. Bringing something to read is a good idea. In a big building you probably won't get phone reception or public wifi. Of course it's a good idea to watch the show if you never have before so you know what style of host it has. But don't worry if you don't know. For what it's worth, they haven't read your book, either.

Makeup takes about 5 minutes. And right before you go on you'll get mic'd and given an earbud, with batteries clipped on the back of your pants. The audio person will come over your earbud and do a quick sound check. If you need water, make sure you have it. Don't be afraid to demand water, even on set. If you start yelling for water, it will appear. Bright lights and nerves will cause dry mouth.

4) It's always best to see your interlocutor. But there's a good chance you'll be sitting at a table, staring at a not-in-use teleprompeter with an ear bud in your ear. You don't see the host.

Today they put me at the kids' table when the host was standing all but 10 feet away from me. I have no idea why. But it makes for worse TV. It's hard to have a "natural" conversation when you're on camera but only have the verbal cues of a phone conversation. And think about it, who wants to be filmed when they're on the phone?

5) You can't see the host... except there is a little monitor in view. You can look at the monitor... but don't. Because if you do look at the monitor, you look all shifty eyed on camera. And then people think you're a lying bastard.

But it's hard not to look at a monitor with your picture on it. And when I look at the monitor, all I can think of is how fat and squinty eyed I look. I mean, my eyes are kind of squinty. But I'm not *that* fat. So if you're not next to the person you're talking to, ask one of the tech guys (like the guy who mic'd you) to point out exactly where the camera is. (It's at the top of the teleprompter box.) Look at the camera, even if you can't see it. And don't be afraid to ask the same guy to turn off the monitor, if it's distracting. Ironically, on TV, the odds are slim that there will be anything on that screen you actually need to see.

6) Once your segment is on. Always assume you're on camera. Because you might be. In a big studio the "on" camera will have a lit-up red light. In a remote studio, you'll have no clue. I would say act natural... but when I act act naturally I roll my eyes, pick my nose, avoid eye contact, and get easily distracted. You can't do any of that on TV. Or pace. Or lie on a bed. The last time I did a studio radio interview I had paper towels stuffed in my wet jeans, homeless-guy style. But nobody could see that over WGN radio!

You don't have to be perfect. And it doesn't matter if you're nervous (you never look as nervous as you feel). My own thinking is not to obsess with being as "polished" as a professional newscaster. It's futile. They got that job because they're good at looking polished. You'll look like yourself when you're comfortable. So I think not caring too much is a better strategy than, say, trying not to blink too much. So what if my jacket is bunched a bit? (Though guys could remember the pro-tip of sitting on your coat tails).

So sit there and try to look, if not exactly natural, comfortable. Keep staring forward, even though there's nothing to stare at. And smile a little as you're introduced. It will make your image on screen look less like the mug shot of a serial killer.

7) Unlike longer radio interviews, you don't actually have a conversation on TV. It's a strange medium. Roger Ebert said, "When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it." Unfortunately, that's true. There are some exceptions, of course. But generally you'll be "on" for about 5 minutes and in that time you'll get one or two or at most three bursts of speech. That's it.

There's no point to those notes and things you were planning on saying. Make sure you've got something to say right off the bat. And while it would be ideal to answer the question asked, it's better to answer the one you wanted them to ask than get pulled to place you don't want to be. While their show isn't about you, your presentation is. If there's something you don't feel comfortable talking about: don't. You don't owe them anything. It's not like they're paying you.

But keep in mind that the show is generally on your side. The show wants you to do well. So be energetic without being hyper. You are there because you're supposed to be the expert. Be confident. You're there because you know more than your host. But don't talk down to the viewers. But in the end the show isn't about you; the show is about the show.

8) When you're done, you may get a handshake from somebody who will probably tell you that you did great, whether or not it's true. The mic person will un-mic you. And that's it. And don't let the door hit you on the way out. Nobody will see you out. Go back to the make-up room and grap a wetnap to wipe off your makeup. Take a snack from the Green Room, if there are any. Go to the bathroom.

9) And then as you leave you'll wonder how you did. Sure, you could have done better. But you did good enough. Hopefully somebody who watched you will call or text and say something nice. And then hopefully you can find whichever black car is supposed to take you home. And then, days or weeks later, don't be afraid to watch yourself. Learn from it. You may not want to. But remember, what you're watching has already happened. It's history. It is what it is. Learn from it. Of course you'll look fat. (TV really does add pounds. People who look skinny on TV look bulimic in real life... and probably are). Yes, your voice really does sound that funny (and probably always has).

In the end only two things matter: A) Did you manage to not look a fool? And B) did you get to say some of what you wanted to say? And hopefully you had some fun.

As silly as TV can be, you may never have another chance to say so little to so many.

[updated in 2015, based on a bit more experience]


AMac said...

Sounds like you were on NBC's "Today" infotainment morning show, which I sometimes catch, thanks to my wife. At least you weren't (1) ambushed or (2) prodded with "And how does that make you feeeel?"

I think you'd be a much better guest for public TV's Charlie Rose, who my partner loves for his intelligence and leftish views (I like his show too, albeit despite).

Call your agent!

PCM said...

I was on "Conversation with Carlos Watson." Much better than the morning show. For the latter, I stick to Onion parodies.