RIP B-rolls?

More TV does not mean more demand for B-rolls. Only creativity will ensure their survival, says Adam Hill

For the past 20 years, TV broadcasters and PROs have relied heavily upon the mainstay of news footage that is the B-roll – that pre-recorded piece of film, normally too expensive or awkward to shoot by the news team itself, that can be cut to suit a TV station's own news reports. Hospital operations, the insides of manufacturing plants and aerial footage – they have all been used.
But news bulletins are changing. Round-the-clock news demands live footage, while technology has made in-the-field interviews much easier – it has become the norm for studio-bound presenters to speak with correspondents at the hospital entrance, school gate, or even in a witness's front room.

These exchanges ('So, tell us what you can see...') leave little room for stock shots of a client's subtly branded warehouse.

So does the bell toll for B-rolls? Howard Kosky, MD of broadcast agency markettiers4dc, says the format has largely become obsolete. 'Small, niche broadcasters may be desperate for content, but big players such as Sky News and BBC News 24 are at war – they want to give viewers a reason for sticking with them,' he says.

'Experienced freelance cameramen with lightweight equipment can now offer TV producers cheap, quality footage from anywhere they want. Take healthcare stories – broadcasters want to interview the patient or the GP involved, so is footage of tablets on a production line really going to secure coverage? I don't think so.'

Be imaginative
According to Kosky, Sky will rarely take pre-filmed footage, while GMTV is increasingly intent on deploying its own crews. He argues that PROs have spent too much time in editing suites, and have lost sight of what generates TV news coverage.

However, others in the industry argue that B-rolls will survive if they are adapted to cater for the modern needs of broadcasters.

Richard Cobourne, director of OnScreen Productions, says PROs must be more imaginative. 'Producers, directors and editors still have to fill programmes with good, strong visual material,' he explains. 'The challenge for PROs is not just to produce talking heads of the chairman. I'm fed up with PROs who ring up and say they want to put the chairman on [a B-roll]. What is he going to add? You've always got to be thinking: "What are we going to give people?"'

Sometimes the answer to this question is obvious. At the BAFTA awards ceremony in London last month, Medialink International was briefed by sponsor Orange to maximise coverage of the mobile phone firm's branding. With  access to the red-carpet arrivals, the agency's footage was used 494 times on 67 TV channels. It carried out a similar exercise for Orange at the opening of Louis Vuitton's flagship Paris store on the Champs Elysees – and its B-roll was used 380 times.

Medialink client development director Jules Heynes says: 'Broadcasters of rolling news want the job done for them.' This opinion is in stark contrast to Kosky's, but it should be noted that Medialink's B-rolls included Hollywood actors, making the footage bankable for celebrity-hungry TV shows.

Beyond entertainment, the B-roll is definitely becoming a more niche affair. Take Tube Lines, the operator of London Underground's Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines – the organisation produces B-roll footage of its maintenance and upgrade work.

Media relations manager Laura Wallace explains: 'We've worked a lot with London TV broadcasters in particular, who welcome the ability to get behind-the-scenes footage more easily. We do much of our work at night, during the few hours when the Tube isn't running, and often in very cramped conditions which mean safety certificates are needed.'

Last Christmas, when the operator added extra carriages to its Jubilee Line trains, it filmed their construction in Barcelona and transportation to the UK. The footage was used by BBC London and London Tonight, proving B-rolls are still attractive if they cover a niche subject, are difficult to film and are well targeted at broadcasters.

More is less
Despite market shocks such as Incepta's closure of Citigate's broadcast arm last year (PRWeek, 22 July 2005), there remains a large number of agencies devoted to B-roll production. It would be easy to assume that this is because of the growth of television. After all, just 20 years ago the vast majority of viewers had access to only four TV channels – now most of us are able to watch hundreds, many of them single-strand affairs devoted to particular pastimes.

But more TV does not mean that more B-rolls are needed. 'There are fewer opportunities for broadcasters to make good use of B-rolls than there were ten years ago,' says Dagmar Mackett, strategic broadcast consultant at World Television.

'Many comms professionals believe that due to the growing amount of TV channels, more B-roll is warranted. Unfortunately, the majority of new channels are not news-related and consist of 100 per cent pre-produced programming. With a UK story, for instance, we still have to largely rely on the same old news outlets as before: BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, Sky, CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg.'

Because the same channels are being used, the rules for making a
successful  B-roll have not changed, and their makers must work hard to achieve cut-through with newsdesks: footage must support a valid news story or upcoming event; and broadcasters must be alerted well in advance. Managing expectation is also important. Mackett says he always makes clients aware that no matter how promising their story, it could be scrapped in favour of bigger news.

Getting on air
Despite the BBC's oft-stated line on  B-rolls ('we never use them'), even Auntie can be persuaded with the right approach. Medialink's Heynes, former news editor at CNBC and ex-producer of BBC World's World Business Report, admits: 'We used B-roll a lot  – footage often ends up in the library and is used for stock shots.'

Others say B-rolls have greater salability if they contain footage that is difficult to obtain. Keren Haynes, co-director of Shout! Communications and an ex-BBC Business producer, worked on Mickey Mouse's 75th anniversary in December 2003. Shout!'s B-roll on behalf of Disney included footage from the first-ever Mickey Mouse animation – not impossible for broadcasters to source themselves, but convenient for them nonetheless. The result was inclusion on news bulletins throughout the day.

Other examples of successful B-rolls include Medialink securing exclusive access with Formula 1 racing driver Michael Schumacher for watchmaker Omega last October. Media opportunities with the five-times world champion are rare, and the five-minute interview was used globally by broadcasters including CNN and Transworld International. The agency also handled events for Omega on
the back of the Schumacher tie-in.

Journalists will accept good and relevant B-roll footage as a useful
resource. But Virginia Eastman, consumer affairs correspondent for BBC2's Working Lunch, warns. 'We would never use a company's
[in-house] interview in a million years. B-rolls can be a blessing, but we would use one only in an emergency.'

However, these stage-managed interviews do have their place if they are supported by additional 'expert' commentary. For instance, to promote Seven Seas Haliborange tonic, OnScreen – as well as sourcing a 1950s public information film on the benefits of drinking orange juice – hired a specialist to discuss regional variations in research on child learning, tailoring resultant B-rolls for specific regions.

TV coverage was strong, with Seven Seas reporting sales increases of a third in some retailers – success that can be attributed to the agency's creative approach to B-rolls.

Five reporter Mark Webster, who has spent two decades at ITN,  reveals how interview B-rolls should not be done. One B-roll he received included an interview with a company MD, its finance director and random members of the senior management team talking about how great they were.  'Did they think we were so desperate and lazy that we would use it?' he asks, incredulously.

Perhaps it is the more structured video news release (VNR) – complete with voiceover about the client's work – that is dead, rather than the B-roll.

'Ten years ago the VNR business got out of control and I was bombarded with the stuff,' says Webster. 'But properly focused, well-shot B-roll with a purpose has a place.' This is an important point: it is not enough simply to shoot footage in a 'news' style.

Giving broadcasters enough leeway to edit shots as they see fit is also vital. Cheap editing techniques, such as dissolves and fades, are no good, and graphics will render a B-roll virtually unusable. By the same token, the more scrupulous broadcasters will usually refuse to show company logos plastered over everything.

'Don't make it slick, with soft focus and masses of branding, because no one will use it,' confirms Medialink's Heynes. He adds that while American broadcasters are more accepting of polished corporate videos, such material would make a UK editor 'puke into a bucket and throw the B-roll away'.

Digital age
The means of supplying B-roll material to broadcasters also needs careful consideration. OnScreen's Cobourne recalls: 'One PR agency said it wanted a B-roll produced on CD-Rom. But no broadcaster is going to play footage off a CD-Rom.'

Journalists are increasingly being directed to multimedia news releases (MNR), which comprise downloadable footage, press releases, soundbites, TV ads, webcasts, graphics, data and stills. 'Downloads of B-roll can be tracked, and that provides vital feedback for PROs,' says Mackett.

Indeed, the digital revolution is putting an end to the analogue distribution of video content via satellite and tape, says Shoba Purushothaman, CEO and co-founder of The NewsMarket. The company provides online broadcasts for clients such as AOL, Nissan, Volvo and pharma firm Pfizer. Purushothaman reveals that in 2005, broadcasters such as CNN, CNBC, the BBC and Bloomberg requested 128,000 items of digital material from her firm – a 95 per cent rise on the previous year.

Purushothaman says that she expects digital video distribution to grow even further in 2006. 'About 70 per cent of content is delivered digitally, with the rest on tape,' she says. 'But demand for video has never been higher. The Sun has video on its website, and in the US the top 20 newspapers all have it [online].' 

Broadband boost
The rise of MNR is largely attributable to broadband, which has made it possible to stream quality video over the internet. Web TV, video podcasts and syndication through RSS feeds offer clients a cheap, straightforward way of reaching new audiences.

Meanwhile, the so-called satellite media tour – in which spokespeople gather in a studio to be interviewed live by different radio stations – is just one of the new applications that can can either complement (or be used instead of) the traditional B-roll.

The opportunities created by such technological advances mean that instead of jumping on analogue's coffin, B-roll makers should doff their cap to new media.

But regardless of technology, the fundamentals of good B-roll-making remain. 'It doesn't cost any more to do a  good B-roll than it does to do a bad one,' says Cobourne. Indeed – it is the thought that counts.

Is the sun setting on b-rolls?
According to Richard Cobourne, producer and director at OnScreen Productions, B-roll makers must be prepared to spend more to achieve coverage. 'You have to give TV producers pictures they cannot get or afford otherwise,' he says. For a recent project with Harrison Cowley for M&N Wind Power, OnScreen used a camera gyro mount on a helicopter to achieve cinematic shots of the building of a wind farm in the Upper Mojave Desert, California. It achieved worldwide coverage and is  regularly reused as stock film.  

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