How collaborative is the project management process when creating award winning documentaries or live news shows under pressure?
Karen O’Connor is a freelance TV consultant and executive producer and has a TV production career spanning over 30 years – much of that with the BBC.
Entering into the production and journalism field via TV news, field producing reports and then directing films, Karen then began working on current affairs and long form documentaries.
What barriers are there when getting into the TV industry?
“Barriers are over stated, there are so many ways to get into media.
“There are loads of broadcasters - including non traditional ones - emerging, and independent companies.
“I always advise to watch content, read the online commissioning briefs and understand the different audiences that content companies and broadcasters are serving.
“Knowing these things can help you tailor your ideas so you can ask what unique access can you get and who would make a good presenter?”
What is your creative process like?
“It’s hard work involving gaining access, finding characters and new talent who know what they are talking about.
“You also need to think about the channel or platform you are pitching to with fresh ideas.
“It’s exciting to find new technology or a new format to see things that you thought were very familiar in a new light.
“I believe a creative process should be truly collaborative with a mix of skills.
“So someone whose job is in live TV, and someone who is more of a science or history geek, might together develop a format that is exciting because it’s live but also rich in content.”
What are the risk factors and challenges when producing live content such as Newsnight?
“I was brought in to help with Newsnight at a time when there had been issues that are now well documented.
“Opportunities for mistakes are endless with live programmes – a new technology or link could fail, or you might not finish a recorded item in time so there’s a hole in the show – I’m breaking into a sweat remembering it all.
“With a live show things can break late and so the carefully laid plans and prepared content has to be dropped to make way for new stories, or there may not be time to check things properly.
“I’ve had cases of guests not turning up, an exhausted crew and even risks of libel on air.
“But there’s always a skilled and experienced team on a live show so all risks are mitigated by thinking through what could happen, planning, rehearsing and setting ambitious but not foolish aims – after all, one of the biggest risks is being boring isn’t it?”
Louis Theroux documentaries are unique. How do you tackle productions like this compared to less intense shows?
“Each production has a lot of preparation in varying amounts of time depending on genre, when it gets commissioned and when it needs to be delivered for, which can vary from a week to two years or more.
“Imagine the difference between making a glossy, comprehensive landmark series around the world about geology and making a studio show that is live and topical like The One Show.
“Things differ, such as research, access and legal discussions, script preparation, risk assessment, location selection, production team and talent selection, and sometimes training, equipment and logistic support hire.
“The team that make Louis Theroux’s documentaries is quite unique - they understand that there are only certain situations that will provide the kind of genuine access for Louis to work in in order to provide genuine illumination.
“It’s a unique format built around the particular skill of one journalist - the onus is very much on him, and his director – who is filming, to feel they can operate in the world they enter.
“A lot of time is taken gaining genuine access, and that is really just about enormous amounts of research and preparation ahead of the shoot.
“You can’t get the kind of true illumination about subjects like autism, extreme religious views, or mental health issues that Louis Theroux gets without having uncompromised access - and that is not an easy thing to get.
“As a result such a documentary can take years of trust building before a frame is shot.”
How do you project manage talent?
“It varies on the role of the talent.
“Frequently talent in specialist factual production is selected because landmark documentaries in arts, history and science tend to use presenters who know a lot about the subject and bring that expertise to the screen.
“So that relationship will be highly collaborative - talent will be writing scripts and editorially contributing and frequently the direction is built around their skills and personality.
“But in other programmes, where they are using their presenting skills, they get some meetings and scripts in advance and come for the shoot - and the production team do the preparation and post production and the relationship will be more fleeting.
“There are a huge variety of budgets in making TV – some programmes are high volume and low cost – and some single programmes are very expensive.”
To what extent is a production manager like a project manager?
“Production managers are project managers but with a partnership role alongside the editorial lead.
“It’s a genuine partnership and the editorial/creative lead simply can’t execute or plan a show without engaging creatively and then understanding the challenges his or her PM face and vice versa.
“It’s been a clear demarcation of roles in the past but has become more, and needs to continue to be, highly collaborative.
“A good PM will need to understand what the programme’s vision is, and work out a shooting and production schedule that delivers it.
“They’ll work with the editorial team to build a schedule that gets all the talent, team and locations covered, all the contracts signed, all the schedules worked out creatively and safely, all the post production booked and so on.
“It’s a great role and increasingly is becoming more creative and more editorial focused.”
How do you manage stakeholder expectations?
“Prior to any production actually starting there is a contract, and part of that is an Editorial Specification that is agreed with the people paying for the show.
“So that agreement is fairly comprehensive and if you have co production it may vary from partner to partner and require certain different “deliverables” to be made which need to be scheduled.
“A BBC show may have a presenter and be 59 minutes long with no commercials, but a German or American co producer will need a version with no presenter that is 90 minutes long so they can make two 45 minute versions to accommodate their advertising breaks.
“You can’t just wing differences like that – they have to be planned and extra shooting and editing has to happen with a different thought process about the structure.
“These things get decided in advance, but if something changes – which they frequently do with regards to presenters, locations and access - then you need to go back and discuss this with the commissioner and agree a change to that Editorial Specification contract.”
How has technology altered the way TV is produced since you started your career?
“Completely. I started my career in TV news on film that needed to be at the processors by 16:30 to make the six o’clock news cast.
“The biggest change digital technology has brought is changing roles - directors now frequently shoot material themselves.
“Tapeless – using card not film or tape - has revolutionised the whole schedule of production and continues to do so.
“New technology is a constantly exciting creative opportunity but it also comes with a risk.
“If people get cool new stuff, they use it –often to the point of exhaustion.
“The ability for someone to do many roles such as assistant produce, shoot, direct, edit, download and organise and view rushes on location with a laptop, doesn’t necessarily mean they SHOULD do all those roles at once - exhaustion is not an efficient way to make TV or anything else.
“Productions need to be mindful of how the arc of the schedule changes when the technology changes and alter them accordingly, for example something that might have required two weeks viewing after the shoot may now happen simultaneously on location.”
Can you see any big changes technology might bring to the industry in the coming years?
“Technology can also be liberating and bring in different ways of doing things and open the industry to different and more diverse mind sets which is always a good thing.
“Our culture wants it all - we are savvy and want big blockbusters as well as short videos, we want to watch event TV like a talent show when it’s scheduled but also whenever it suits us and the industry is changing its nature in order to provide that.”
What has been the most rewarding project you’ve worked on and why?
“The most rewarding projects have been the international current affairs documentaries made for This World by the BBC.
“It was a privilege to have the money to explore some of the most difficult challenges on the planet – like child slavery or people affected by war, or extremism, or the drug trade.
“The most enjoyable side of non current affairs were when we found a different way of making something, a cool new piece of technology or a really brilliant new idea from a team coming together.
“That’s why development is such a great thing to do and a great place to work – anything is possible.”
What lesson would you tell you 16 year old self?
“Be less scared. Just get on with it without asking for permission. Listen more.”