VNRs: Diary of a shoot

Counting down the hours to transmission, PRWeek sends Adam Hill behind the scenes of a VNR shoot

On Sunday 28 March, the 150th annual boat race between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge will take place along four miles of the Thames.

Broadcast PR specialist TVC has filmed the boat race and its build-up for the past six years. Its client in 2004 is PR agency WSM, sports branding specialist, which is acting on behalf of the race's sponsor Aberdeen Asset Management (AAM). Adam Hill attended the filming of the press conference on 1 March.

9.15TVC director Nicky Minter-Green and producer Peter O'Sullivan arrive in the grand upstairs room at Winchester House on Putney Embankment, near to where the race will finish in three weeks' time.

Rows of chairs are set out for the press conference due to begin in a couple of hours. O'Sullivan immediately takes one on the far side of the room and begins to make contact on his mobile with the newsrooms into which he has sold today's footage. Minter-Green explains: 'We've already spoken to the planners but he's just asking who's going to be there to pick up a tape, have you booked the line feed, that sort of thing. We didn't start selling in the story until a couple of weeks ago because we didn't know who was in the crews.'

This knowledge is vital. Although national broadcasters will run the crew announcement as part of their build-up to this well-established annual sports event, it is the geographical origins of the crews that gives TVC a hook for regional broadcasters to latch onto.

9.40TVC's two-man freelance crew arrives to set up camera and sound equipment on a low podium at the back of the room, while Minter-Green explains the way today will work: 'A shoot is all about speed and turning it round quickly. We want to ensure it's to the highest broadcast standard, but we're making cut rushes that the broadcasters will make pretty. Our job is to represent people who aren't here.' O'Sullivan takes a short break from his phone. 'I want to be in the edit suite at 1pm, finish that by 3pm and be sending tapes out by 3.30-4pm so they're sitting at newsrooms.' TVC is using APTN's office in Camden to cut the footage.

While the b-roll will only have currency today, neither man is worried about a bigger news story elbowing it from the bulletins. Minter-Green says: 'If it was a consumer launch and a big story breaks, there is only a certain amount of time in the schedule. But sports stories are safer in terms of being pulled since they are generally ringfenced. If Gordon Brown announces something today, it won't affect this.'

10.35 For most of the last hour, little has happened in the room but now seats are beginning to be filled. On site, there is a PR presence but WSM is more concerned with meeting and greeting than liaising with TVC. 'WSM pretty much trusts us to get on with it,' says Minter-Green.

'It has loads to worry about, with the press and the mechanics of the launch. Our job is to ensure that Aberdeen Asset Management gets branded coverage.'

Sponsor visibility in the footage is unlikely to be a problem today since all the action will take place in front of AAM signs that are chequer-boarded in a display eight feet high at one end of the room. But that's not always so, says Minter-Green. 'Sometimes it's quite a difficult conversation and we have to fight quite hard on the client's behalf when the event manager's priority is just getting the event done and dusted.'

He adds that there's got to be a balance on the b-roll between branded and non-branded footage, to make sure that the editors aren't scared off.

'But we need the killer shots to be branded, the ones where you can't cut the package without them,' he says.

While everyone gets the same footage, O'Sullivan says that the section relevant to them will be carefully flagged: 'They'll know where their soundbite is on the tape. I'll give them a call so they can write scripts before they receive it.'

10.55 The room is now full of print journalists, cameramen, sponsors and several men who look like past boat race competitors enjoying the buzz second-hand.

11.03 As TV screens finish replaying 2003's race and its paper-thin winning margin in favour of Oxford, BBC commentator Barry Davies starts the press conference. The two rowing club presidents go through the ritual challenge and acceptance routine with a manly handshake.

As the Cambridge president introduces his crew, Minter-Green whispers: 'The one problem is the foreigners.' This is not xenophobia, just a recognition that the involvement of non-British rowers narrows down TVC's options for sell-in. Since AAM is not looking to promote its products abroad, the presence in the Cambridge boat of an Australian, a German and three Americans is meaningless to the client. The Oxford team, with just two Americans, offers more options for regional UK broadcasters.

11.25 The TVC crew moves off the back podium through the crowd to get some close shots as things break up. Half of the room decants outside to the garden and there is a lull before the controlled chaos of the photocall begins. TVC must get all its interviewees otherwise the footage will be worthless to regional news bulletins and, in turn, worthless to WSM and its client. 'We're servicing so many broadcasters. If you don't get the Scottish rower, then Scottish TV isn't going to be interested,' Minter-Green says.

The garden is more or less open on its north side to the Thames - a good backdrop for team interviews if the camera angles cut out the parking meters above the low wall. O'Sullivan is on his mobile again.

11.40 TVC films the knot of newspaper snappers getting the ultra-formal team shots, which go on and on as the rowers are moved inches to their left or right and decorative oars are crossed and uncrossed.

12.02 O'Sullivan wastes no time in starting his interviews with various crew members. Minter-Green stands guard behind the Eurosport interview team, ensuring that the Cambridge president comes over to O'Sullivan when he's finished.

12.15 Four out of the nine interviews are done. Minter-Green eventually cajoles the Cambridge president from the wall where he is being photographed.

'But you're still in Bristol?'. O'Sullivan is asking his next interviewee, suddenly concerned. He is reassured. 'Some of them won't give us very much, so Peter will be leading them to a good local point,' says Minter-Green.

12.20 The rowers are demonstrating a stoic lack of resistance to being gently manoeuvred from one set-up to another. Minter-Green breaks off and says quickly in response to O'Sullivan: 'You've got Henry, you've seen Chris, you need Foster.' He goes inside again, coming out almost immediately. 'The Cambridge coach is doing a live interview in there so you have to take a back seat. But we've got ten minutes, we'll be okay.'

12.32With time starting to slip in the schedule, an extra interviewee - who TVC does not want - has been mistakenly pointed their way. Saying no would be rude. 'But to be honest, it's the last thing we need,' admits Minter-Green.

12.35 O'Sullivan starts his final interview, only a few minutes behind schedule.

12.38 The crew packs up. Minter-Green and O'Sullivan head for APTN's office, agreeing to a request from the Eurosport team for some footage from the TVC b-roll.

Following the shoot, the editing process went smoothly. By 3pm, edited tapes were being biked to London-based broadcasters and at 4pm the footage feeds to the rest of the targeted stations started. O'Sullivan spent the next two hours phoning newsdesks to make sure that everything had arrived.

In addition to the regional stations, Sky Sports, BBC News 24, ITV News Channel and British Eurosport all used TVC's b-roll.

A VNR shoot is conducted at anything but a leisurely pace. Turnaround is tight, and co-operation from interviewees, the PR consultancy and the client is needed if deadlines are to be met.

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