Selling KERA 

6 March 2010

Chase Erwin

It started off innocently enough, when I wrote an email to the local PBS station about how publicly funded television has been part of my life right from the cradle. My motivations were earnest – it was three in the morning and it was a story I probably wouldn’t remember to tell anybody later on. Two days later, I received a reply from the promotions department of KERA in Dallas, asking if they could come to my apartment and let me recount this story for their cameras to be made into a promotional ad for the station. A few emails and a phone call later, we scheduled a taping date for after the New Year.

The plan is very straightforward. My story was considered ‘compelling’ enough to possibly encourage new people to make pledges to the station. As a Stateside public station, KERA relies on public financing for the majority of its operating costs and to pay for production of new programmes as well as the rights to air series from the UK and Canada. Unlike the BBC or CBC, however, the public’s contribution is strictly voluntary. As long as there has been a PBS, there has been the quadrennial plea for money. The ‘hard sell’ approach comes during the frequent pledge drives, where special programming is peppered with ten minute-long breaks for people to call in and pledge; viewers are enticed with premium gifts such as DVDs, discount cards, and the frequently ridiculed coffee mug.

In recent years, a more subtle, ‘soft sell’ approach has been devised for times when pledge drives are not on air. They come in the form of 30, 60, and two-minute long promotional advertisements placed in between breaks in programming. Most are produced nationally by PBS for use by all member stations and look like any other network’s image campaign. Others, like the ad I would be taking part in, are produced locally and feature members of the region talking specifically about why they donate to public television. Mine would be part of a series of interview-style promotions that have been on the air for the last few months.

On the day, the three-person crew came promptly at 1pm as scheduled: Brian the producer, the director of photography, and the sound engineer. The director of photography scoped out my apartment to find the idea location to set up. She ultimately chose my bedroom. After clearing my flatmate out of our shared room, the equipment started to be unloaded as I got hooked up to a microphone. Taped underneath my shirt, the wire wrapped under my side, around my back, to a small radio device hooked over the back of my chair. After about ten minutes, it became standing room only: between my bed, me sitting in the centre of the room, and the five tripods (mostly used to light the room), there was precious little room to breathe, much less move.

A total of forty minutes were spent actually getting the room lit well enough. A high definition camera necessitates a lot of extra lighting, and this was no more evident than the parabolic light mere two feet away from my head, behind the lens. A brown gel, a sheet of plastic to filter colour through light, was tested and rejected. A white gauze-like material was used to brighten the white of the walls. But then there was the problem of there being too much of my white walls in the shot. We moved furniture around to take up more space, but that wasn’t enough. It was decided a background light would wash over the wall to add “interest.” Blue was tried, but it didn’t show up enough. Orange was selected, and for added ‘interest,’ a secondary gel, of zigzag patterns, was placed in front of the orange light, making a nice tiger-style pattern behind me. Another light was aimed just at my shoulders, to help separate me and my dark grey sweater from blending in with the black of my television set and cable box in the background.

KERA's modern logo

A small desk fan that always spins in my room was turned off, so it could be moved to an area of ‘white space’ behind me. It would have to remain off to cut back on background noise during the taping. I was worried that with all the lights now occupying my room, let alone the presence of three extra bodies, I would be sweating worse than Nixon during the Kennedy debates. Surprisingly, though, the lights put out no more heat altogether than a video game console or desktop computer, and I didn’t really sweat more than I usually do during any sort of interview. This didn’t change even when it was decided that yet another light would be necessary just to make the background look suitable on camera. The classic studio light with the black ‘barn door’ style wings was put into place. My apartment corridor was now sufficiently inaccessible by anyone else for the next hour or so, cords splayed out my bedroom door like tentacles from an electronic Colossus.

A quick test of the audio was performed, of me counting up and down from five, and we were all set for “the fun part,” as Brian called it – the actual interview. It was more of a one-sided interview, based off the email I had sent telling the story of sending lunch money I had been given as a child to public television. Brian asked the question, and to be usable in the final video, it was necessary that I work the question into my answer. A few times I missed a word or two, stumbled or drew a blank, and we’d simply go over the question again. I’d answer each question twice, changing my inflection each time, and maybe a third time just for safety’s sake, so the team would have subtle nuances to work with in the final cut. The photographer would look into the lens each time I spoke, and after, turned to look into the monitor – a 5″ TV set up underneath and to the left of the camera, the absolute best way to see how the shot would look as broadcast. She also wore headphones that picked up any noise coming from my microphone. We only had to stop taping for about two minutes when a roommate accidentally knocked over some trash in the kitchen, the only obstructive noise.

My ad involved a costume change, of sorts. I have a t-shirt I bought five years ago that bears the logo of an old PBS show called ZOOM, which was a show meant to show kids how to be creative and spend their spare time, sort of like Blue Peter with a secret language called Ubbi-Dubbi. They had me put on the T-shirt and asked a few questions about it, for some additional cuts and splices in the finished video. This process of interviewing and shirt changing took another 40 minutes. Then came the final part: B-Roll footage.

B-Roll is a term meaning any kind of footage that can be cut into an interview or speech; anytime you see file footage as a newsreader speaks is B-Roll. For our spot, B-Roll would be filmed of me sitting on my bed, typing on my trusty laptop. Even this required special lighting: a blue gel was added onto one of the lights pointing my way to give the illusion of monitor light. It’s possible this B-Roll will go during a speech about my college education, as I take online college classes. Let it be known that I was doing two things during this time on the computer: I was responding to some questions on my college website, but I was mainly doing continuous updates on the commercial-making process on my Twitter account. Another set of B-Roll footage was taken of my looking at KERA’s “Tellyspotting” blog, their new place to talk about any and all things relating to British comedy, particularly those that air or have aired on the station as of late. The camera was moved to behind my shoulder, watching my screen as I scroll through the blog and playing an embedded YouTube video. Even for this, lighting had to be adjusted and added to the area around my computer screen. The cameras rolled on my computer screen, keyboard, and of me tapping along for about two minutes per angle, of which only mere seconds are ever destined for the final product.

After they got sufficient footage of me sitting on my bum, and after I worried long enough about how much of my extra-large frame would fit onto a 16:9 screen, we were done. I signed a release form, giving KERA permission to use my name and likeness for promotional purposes, and within ten minutes the lights were cut, the tripods folded up, and the camera stuffed back into its bag.

And then they were gone. They went to a nearby post office to tape two more bits of B-Roll: a shot of a five dollar bill being handed from person to person, and of a hand putting an envelope into a mailbox, to simulate my story about the lunch money. But my part was done: roughly two and a half hours, mostly setup and takedown time, to get enough material for a minute long spot. As far as commercials or promotional spots go, this was fairly straightforward. A sit-down interview style spot took mere minutes to tape different angles, the only time consuming process was getting the lighting just right each time we moved. I can appreciate now how long an ad with many cuts, sets and actors can be to make.

If you’d like to support public television in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, you can do so online at

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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