Television: problem to be managed or instrument to be played?

Alan EchenbergLong-time television producer and broadcast journalist-turned-j-school professor Alan Echenberg on how to inspire great TV journalism.

As someone who has worked in TV journalism for most of my adult life, I’ve always liked this quote by Moses Znaimer:

“Television is not a problem to be managed, but an instrument to be played.”

I like the quote despite not being 100 per cent sure what it means. Recently, I posted it on Facebook, and got mixed reactions from a couple of fellow media professionals:

“Moses is such a pretentious git,” wrote one. “That badly mixed metaphor makes no sense whatsoever.”

“Znaimer may be pretentious, but he does make sense,” wrote another.

Here’s what I like about the quote, however pretentious the wording and however mixed the metaphor:

It speaks well to the tension in the industry between the creative types – who produce the content that makes it to your television screens – and the media managers – who… well… manage that content, and decide which of it makes it to air and in what form.

In the context of broadcast journalism, the best managers I’ve come across are those who foster a climate of creative innovation – those who provide producers, reporters, camera operators, editors and other employees with the instruments they need to make beautiful music… I mean content… and then stand back and watch them play.

This is equally true, I think, whether we’re talking about a ten-part documentary series or a 45-second item at the tail end of a local newscast.

I was fortunate to begin my career in TV journalism in an organization run by Peter Herrndorf, one of the most visionary media / cultural executives in Canada. (He currently heads up the National Arts Centre in Ottawa).

Herrndorf may not have put it the same way as Znaimer, but he certainly saw TV as an instrument to be played… and played well. He hired managers who were capable of implementing that vision, and they in turn empowered their employees to take creative chances and push the envelope in different ways.

Soon enough, I found myself – in my mid-20s and less than two years out of journalism school – producing half-hour documentaries, among other challenging and rewarding content, and working with creative professionals who were tremendous colleagues and inspiring teachers.

Spend enough time in the TV journalism biz and you will almost certainly run into managers of the other kind, those with little experience in – or appreciation for – journalism, or blinkered by some political ideology or another, or lacking a real sense of what makes TV journalism that sings: Telling stories with pictures and sound; Conveying emotional, along with factual, truths; Creating a sense of “you-are-there”ness that TV does better than any other media.

As it is out there in the real world, so it goes within the nurturing confines of journalism school, one of which I attended almost two decades back. My decision to pursue a career in broadcast journalism – a choice that altered the course of my adult working life so far – can be traced back to a small handful of persuasive and talented profs, all of them firmly in the “instrument-to-be-played” school of thought.

I recently returned to the very same journalism school from which I graduated, this time as a contract instructor, conscripted to teach an introduction to television journalism class to third-year undergrads.

At the beginning of the first class, I read my students the Moses Znaimer quote. After explaining who Znaimer was (not the first time, I expect, that teaching undergrads will make me feel very, very old), I told them I hoped they would take to heart his pretentiously worded, mixed metaphor of a message about the craft of television.

I hope each of my students walks away from the course with an appreciation for the vast possibilities of the instrument, a good ability to play it, and a great ambition to do so.

Alan Echenberg is a long-time television producer, who served as the Ottawa bureau chief for TVO for many years and now works for CPAC. He graduated with an MJ from Carleton in the early nineties and has returned to Carleton to teach for the first time this fall.