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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Problem with B-Roll

My shoe suddenly comes loose in the hallway. I leave it – turning back would only slow me down. I swerve right to avoid an oncoming tape cart but trip over my now-exposed loose sock and fall face-first into an opening door. I gather myself and amidst calls of, “Are you okay?” and “Oh my Lord!”, and scramble to pick up the dropped tapes. I hobble like the wind up a metal staircase, round two corners and burst into the “tape pit” (a.k.a control room).

Twenty seconds later those tapes played live on air. I had done my job; I had delivered the b-roll on time, and my work that day was done. I pulled up my sock and picked up my rogue shoe as I made my way back to my edit suite. This was just one episode in one day among many similar days, when I regretted not wearing running shoes. Hush Puppies do not breathe well.

For two months in the summer of 2006 I worked as a tape producer for the now-defunct CBC News: Tonight, which ran on Newsworld as a summer replacement for The Hour.

I will always have affection for my time at Tonight. It was a small show with a small staff and a small budget. It was there that I was introduced to the art of producing b-roll, which I soon learned was more of a physical test of endurance than a skill-craft. Most of my days were spent trolling the hallways between the tape library, the satellite feed room, and my edit suite in search of footage that could be cobbled together as b-roll.

From the time the show’s lineup is more or less finalized and b-roll requests are made to tape producers, to the time when the b-roll finally goes to air, it is a mad dash to find tapes, pick shots, cut together b-roll, output the b-roll to a tape, fill out information in a computer database and deliver the tape to the control room. Each of these steps must be followed for every piece of b-roll that’s produced, whether it is fifteen seconds of visuals for a quick voice-over or multiple tapes worth of b-roll for a long interview that covers many topics.

While many may dismiss the production of b-roll as straightforward busywork, there’s more to it. Production of b-roll and the choices tape producers are forced to make can get dicey when time runs out.

(Full disclosure: my work with CBC Newsworld inspired the argument that I present. However, it should in no way reflect on any of CBC Newsworld’s programs or employees.)

Defining B-Roll

For the uninitiated, b-roll, or cover footage, refers to secondary images that appear onscreen during interviews, voice-over segments, “coming-up” bumpers, and the like. When Larry King interviews Bill Clinton, and footage appears of Clinton playing the saxophone on Asenio Hall in 1992, that is b-roll. When Peter Mansbridge says that “Stephen Harper met with George Bush at the Whitehouse today,” and footage of the event is played over the voice track, that is b-roll. When a news anchor says, “After the break we’ll take a look at Toronto’s new smoking ban,” while smokers appear on your screen – you got it, b-roll.

B-roll is all about making what’s being presented visually interesting.

I like to think that there are two types of b-roll that news networks use for live television: let’s call one “objective b-roll” and the other “subjective b-roll.” The difference between the two boils down to whether the tape producer has a choice over the footage sought.

Objective b-roll is time-sensitive, specific footage. When the story is, “Hugo Chavez visits an ailing Fidel Castro,” the b-roll shows the specific event. No other encounter between the two can be shown. Objective b-roll is often quite critical in telling the story. It isn’t enough to simply say that, “John Mark Carr arrived in Boulder, Colorado today.” News shows have to show him walking down the jetway, escorted by guards and surrounded by photographers.

Objective b-roll is harder to procure. Usually sent in through satellite feeds, it can often only be found on one tape and is highly sought after within a network. This is especially the case at a place like CBC Newsworld, where the network is divided up into separate and distinct “fiefdoms.” When footage for a leading story comes in, it’s first-come-first-served.

Subjective b-roll is different. It isn’t tied to any specific footage, so the tape producer has a choice in what to edit together as b-roll. For example, a story about the oppression of women in Iran could have footage of Iranian women hanging laundry, or being arrested for having her face exposed, or even young girls covered from head-to-toe in black. With this type of b-roll, the tape producer must be subjective and, to an extent, make ethical judgments about how particular images fit within a story.

Objective b-roll isn’t always new footage. In August when former hockey agent David Frost was charged with sexual exploitation, almost every CBC News show scrambled for the one tape with footage of Frost: a mere 15-second clip and a mug shot. But it was a necessary accompaniment to the story.

That August day I ran around the CBC building chasing the tape until I finally tracked it down. As soon as I had it, calls started coming in from people asking whether they could have it once I was done.

This happened a lot when I worked at Newsworld, due in large measure to the fact that three major programs – CBC News: Tonight, CBC News: The National, and CBC News Morning, which produced their b-roll at night – all needed b-roll at about the same time. I suspect that any network that has a stable of news programs faces similar problems.

Poorly produced or poorly chosen b-roll is almost always an indication that the tape producer was rushed.

The Problem with B-Roll

Two types of malfeasance can occur as a result of rushing b-roll, the first done unwittingly due to oversight, and the second done deliberately and ethically irresponsibly.

An example of oversight is misinterpreting a b-roll request or interview question. When discussing “the comeback of nuclear industry” you might run b-roll of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when in fact you should have found stock footage of nuclear power plants. These accidental mistakes are the most noticeable but also the most forgivable.

Because objective b-roll is often tied to lead stories, (1) footage is highly sought after within a network, and (2) it must be finished on time at the risk of ruining, postponing, or worst, dropping, a top story.

It is precisely because subjective b-roll is given a lower priority that it is subject to error. With objective b-roll there’s an iron-clad understanding of what’s needed, so rushing it isn’t much of a concern. Subjective b-roll, on the other hand, requires judgments and reasoning, so logically it shouldn’t be done last or at the last-minute. Rushing subjective b-roll can create problems due to human discretion.

In these situations, viewers may be seeing inaccurate b-roll. Locations, for example, are not often distinguishable. Streets in one city look like other street in other cities. Mountains in one country look like mountains in other countries. When time runs out and there needs to be b-roll for “Summer fun on the West Coast,” a producer might be tempted to use footage of a beach in Toronto, if the tape is handy and there’s little chance he’ll be found out. If he decides to do this, when that tape is archived, it will forever bear the tag “Vancouver beach,” and anyone who uses it to produce b-roll in the future will have no reason to assume it isn’t.

The process of producing b-roll is not amenable to deep, contemplative thought or sober, deliberative reasoning. There are no codes of conduct or principled guidelines to follow, because thinking on your feet means thinking with your gut. The problem with b-roll, as it relates to live news programming, is that it can so easily lead to breaches of ethical conduct and ethical principles of truth-telling, accurate representation and honesty.

In an environment where b-roll is thought to be absolutely essential to a live news broadcast, tape producers must deliver (often literally; a la Joan Cusack in Broadcast News) their orders on time every time. Faced with this pressure, tape producers are often forced to make snap ethical decisions that hedge the line between doing the job “right” and getting the job done. “Getting the job done” is often intimately tied to how one is perceived as a worker or even whether one stays as worker. In the end, it’s much more impressive to look like a miracle worker.

At the time of original publication, JAYSON GO was in the final year of his Masters of Journalism degree at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Cebu City, the Philippines, Go has worked for CBC as an associate producer and has also interned as a researcher for Global National with Kevin Newman. In 2006 he was one of eight student journalists chosen from across Canada for the Joan Donaldson Newsworld Scholarship. He holds a BA in Anthropology and Political Science from UBC. His academic papers have been published in the UBC Journal of Political Studies and the Southern Maine Review.

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