August 20, 2007

Bringing the free software message to TV

Author: Bruce Byfield

As a former course designer and academic, I used to be experienced in talking in front of people. However, one thing I hadn't done until now is appear on television. That, more than anything, is why I agreed to appear on the computer show Lab with Leo Laporte in a five-minute spot about the GNU/Linux desktop. The show is scheduled to appear October 11 on G4TechTV in Canada and the How-To Channel in Australia, with my spot being posted to Google Video on the same day. I won't know if I look savvy or imbecilic until I see how the segment is edited, but the experience taught me several points about appearing on TV in general, and evangelizing for GNU/Linux in the studio in particular.

Lab with Leo is a recent rebranding of Laporte's long-running Call for Help show, produced by Greedy Productions in Vancouver, Canada. The show includes call-in questions from viewers, as well as trivia and spots highlighting software ranging from Windows utilities to Facebook extensions. Much of the show focuses on Laporte interacting with guests and cast members. To avoid what might otherwise be nothing but talking heads, different segments are filmed at various tables and workbenches scattered around the set. In some segments, cast members can be seen behind Laporte at workstations, and might be called upon for a comment. The shooting schedule is hectic, with 15 hour-long shows being filmed in four days with brisk but friendly efficiency.

Braving a walk through one of Vancouver's seamier neighborhoods, my new laptop clutched firmly at my side, I arrived in Greedy Productions' offices in a recently renovated low-rise full of tech, marketing, and production companies in time to see via a monitor another guest spot being filmed, and to have lunch with the production team on the set -- which is much bigger than you would expect from seeing the show, because of the need to accommodate camera crews.

A quick hardware check revealed that my new Fedora 7 install was stubbornly refusing to display on the overhead monitor, so I was told that the camera crew would have to film the screen directly. Unfortunately, that left me looking at the screen from an angle, with strict orders not to let my hand on the mouse stray into the shot. I was still adjusting to this unexpected glitch when I was called to makeup and the show began.

I had expected a brief discussion beforehand about the spot, but producer Ryan Yewell explained that Laporte does the show off the cuff, and usually in one take. Considering the tight filming schedule, no other strategy would do, but as a compulsive planner I was a little unnerved as I sat down. In addition, as an interviewer experiencing the role-reversal of being an interviewee, I was curious about how Laporte would handle the situation.

The answer is with an upbeat persona and a strong general knowledge of tech and what his audience might be expected to know. Even handicapped by my inexperience with television and by being blindsided by the technical problems, I found myself taking mental notes as we talked. All too soon, the spot was over, and I retreated to a corner to watch some of the other filming and ask myself how good a job I had done.

Since then, I have developed some rules for the next time I talk about free software on TV:

  • Keep it simple: An analog medium like TV isn't the place for detailed explanations. Nor is your audience likely to know much about GNU/Linux. Try to imagine the reactions of someone who has never used the operating system, and note what needs to be explained.
  • Limit your points: You can only develop a new topic about once every two minutes. In my own case, that mean that I had room for about three points maximum -- not the six or seven I had prepared. Don't forget, too, that, in an interview, you need to leave room for some give and take between you and the interviewer.
  • Focus on the message you want to get across: Make a mental note of what you most want to impress on the audience, and try to say it. If you find yourself running out of time, say something like, "One thought I would like to leave everybody with is ..." then try to slip it in.
  • Do a hardware check as long beforehand as possible: Few technicians working in television are likely to have extensive experience working with GNU/Linux. As a result, they may need time to get your equipment to interface with theirs. If you leave the hardware check to the last moment, as I did, you risk being thrown off by problems and workarounds.
  • Try to avoid nervous mannerisms: In several of the guest segments I saw, much of what people had to say was "Right" in response to a question, and nothing else. In my own spot, I might have stammered a bit, or used my hands too much. Such actions are natural, but they don't make for compelling TV.
  • You are there to talk tech, not politics: If TV is a poor medium for conveying technical details, it is even less suitable for cerebral topics like the definition of free software or the GNU General Public License. If these topics do arise, try to discuss them in terms of how they benefit average users, rather going over them clause by clause. If you show your fervour, what you have to say is likely to come across as fanatical, especially when you only have a few minutes.
  • Expect the unexpected: Producing even a five-minute spot is a complicated business. The fewer preconceptions you have, and the more you are prepared to accept the unplanned, the better you'll perform (and it is a performance -- don't you forget.

I don't know when I'll get the chance to follow my own advice. The Greedy Productions crew has raised the possibility of my appearing semi-regularly because, although only a small minority of the show's audience uses GNU/Linux, the producers would like to give it some coverage. However, that depends on how I look in the final version of the spot. Meanwhile, I hope these suggestions help other free software users who might get a chance to evangelize in front of a camera.

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