The principle of creating an emotional experience in an audience is critical in all types of television—from lectures to dramatic productions.


The Quintessential Element

It would be nice if a TV audience could be captivated solely by the depth, profundity, and worthiness of our program content.

Unfortunately, quality (however that's defined) is not often related to popularity.  (We know how that's defined: by ratings).

Put simply: nothing much matters in television if we are not able to capture and hold viewer attention.

Some people bemoan the lack of "substance'' on U.S. television programming; in particular, the lack of the "classical influence.'' The name Shakespeare is even invoked upon occasion. At first Shakespeare might seem light-years away from what we commonly see on commercial television.

Not really.

Shakespeare probably understood the necessity of engaging an audience better than anyone. Fact is, he used all manner of devices to capture and hold his audiences:

  • murder
  • sex
  • mystery
  • duels
  • wrestling matches
  • suicides
  • ghosts
  • witches
  • romance
  • clowns
  • music
  • parades
  • thunder, lighting and storms
  • costumes
  • and even eye gouging

Shakespeare knew something else: the key to good drama is to create an emotional experience in an audience.

Even though some things have changed in major ways throughout the history of film and television, this has not. The principle of creating an emotional experience in an audience is important for all types of television — from lectures to dramatic productions.

So, how do we create an emotional experience?

First, the good television writer, producer, director and editor have to understand human nature; they must to some degree be psychologists.

There are, of course, the vicarious emotional experiences we get from programming: danger, sex, action, destruction, intrigue, etc.

Some of these, such as the hackneyed theme of "damsel in distress,'' could be considered base and exploitative. Constant car chases (which replaced the horse chases of an earlier era) and gratuitous violence and sex are other examples.

But, beyond these there are other, more substantive possibilities.


Audience-Engaging Principles 

As we've suggested, the principles that attract and hold an audience are as old as the human race. Probably shortly after the first cave men and women learned to speak they discovered that the best storytellers drew upon these principles.Bull Fight

First, and foremost, we (and our audiences) have an interest in experiencing the experiences of other people.

We are particularly interested in people who lead interesting (i.e., dangerous, romantic, fast-paced, prestigious, wretched, highly-sexual or engrossingly-spiritual) lives.

Part of this involves gaining new insights and being exposed to new points of view. This includes learning new things.

In this context education can be made interesting and, upon occasion, even exciting. (Maybe there is a Darwinian "survival of the species'' element in all this. Those who are quick to pick up on new ways of coping with their environment are more apt to survive.) Whatever the reason, these are the things that attract and hold an audience.


Form, Content, Vision, and Goals

A good script has two dimensions: form and content.

Since form and content are, when you get right down to it, the quintessential aspects of production, we need to analyze them.

The form of a production refers to its basic design, genre and logical construction. A production can take the form of a lecture, panel discussion, drama, variety show, news program, demonstration, or an animated sequence.

In a production our goal relates to what we want the audience to experience, feel or gain.

Our vision relates to how we personally use the tools of the trade to translate the goal into an audio and visual experience for the viewer (according to the dictates of our own unique personal perspective and viewpoints).

Content, which includes goals and visions, includes the production's emotional attributes.

It's primarily within the realm of content (goals and visions) that engrossing and effective productions are separated from those that are mediocre and dull.

And it is primarily within the ream of content that videographers can make their own personal, creative contributions.

Although there may be some definite rules for the successful operation of production equipment, there are no rules for program content; maybe guidelines, but no hard-and-fast rules.

The bottom line for content is simply, does it do what it's supposed to do; or, more specifically, does it work?

Sometimes we put great emphasis on razzle-dazzle visual effects at the expense of content. This amounts to "eye candy"; a fleeting experience that quickly evaporates.

In contrast, a noteworthy production, challenges us, informs us, makes us think, and affects us emotionally—even sticks with us.

By Ron Whittaker with major thanks to
film and television director Richard Kola.

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