Big Centre Television

Reading the Television News

At school I was once part of a project in which we had to divide into groups and ‘report’ on a chosen event. I can’t remember whether it was an actual historical event or some kind of pivotal ‘happening’ within one a book we were reading in our English Literature class. Whatever it was, our little group chose to make a TV News bulletin about it… I may have had a little influence in this approach. Luckily the school – The High Arcal School in Sedgley (nowadays known as The Beacon Hill Academy) – had a full size VHS Camcorder with very basic editing facilities, essentially a couple of VHS video recorders with A/V leads. So we set about building our bulletin.

I managed to wangle myself into the presenter’s chair, ready to link together the various strands of the story, with the other group members playing the characters from the story (including a lad called Sean who chose to play his historical character in the vein of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones). We duly completed our bulletin and I later heard that it had been shown in the Staff Room with a number of the teachers commenting on  how well I’d done and that I ought to think about doing it for real! This was obviously music to my ears, but of course I was still a teenager at school so I would have to wait a while. A couple of years later in the 6th Form (at Dudley College) our form group were put through a careers seminar, during which one of these new-fangled ‘CD-ROM’ machines was put into use in order to measure your interests and abilities. This was 1990 so a computer running software from a CD was incredibly new. As luck would have it, my results came back to suggest that I should look into working in the media with focus on presenting and/or reading the TV News. I didn’t need telling twice!

Fast forward to 2015 and I finally got my chance. I’d obviously worked in Radio for many years by that point, and was increasingly expanding my TV work (with various TV appearances, and also the ‘ATV Land‘ DVD documentaries, under my belt).

Presenting my first Postbag programme

Having joined Big Centre TV at the very beginning, I was gradually getting involved in all sorts of things. Oddly, I didn’t really aspire to present when I started at the station, though I’d be telling fibs if I hadn’t thought that it would be nice to give it a go. So one week, after presenting a couple of the evening Postbag programmes, I was asked if I’d present that weekend’s news programme ‘The Midland’. At that point, the weekend news wasn’t in the form of the magazine that I presented later (Big Magazine / Weekend Magazine etc…), this was the regular Saturday edition of Big Centre’s regular news programme.

So I turned up on the Saturday Afternoon and we went through the process of compiling the programme from the available material and up-to-date headlines, I re-wrote the scripts for my own delivery style (whatever that was), we rehearsed a few times and then recorded the bulletin ‘as live’.

I was getting used to reading scripts from a prompter (aka Autocue) which is where the scripts are projected onto an angled screen hanging in front of the camera’s lens – it works like a mirror where you, the presenter, can see the words but the camera looking at you through the angled glass only see’s you.

A less than glamorous look at what the News studio REALLY looked like. Taken by my wife, Nikki.

This was also the first time I’d seen a ‘virtual studio’ in action. You simply sit in a totally green area (walls and table) and anything that is green is digitally replaced in real-time by something else, in this case a mostly golden set. The equipment used in the News studio was Newtek’s Tricaster control system, loaned to Big Centre by the Walsall Studio School. The chosen virtual studio was ‘World Update’.

You can see from the picture how small the actual area is. I’m sitting on a regular office chair, and at a relatively small classroom desk, but if you think about it none of that matters because of the way it will ultimately be seen on screen.

Directly in front of me – to the right of the photo – is the main presenter camera, with the distinctive cover fixed to it indicating that its housing the prompter. To the left of the picture is a smaller camera. This is used for whenever there is a guest. When processed through the Tricaster this second camera would be used for both a ‘two shot’ (presenter and guest) and also a separate single shot of the guest on their own – this is achieved by digitally zooming in without any loss of quality (the camera is viewing the scene at a much higher resolution than will be broadcast, making such a zoomed-in shot perfectly acceptable).

NewTek’s Tricaster Virtual Studio: “World Update”

The physical real green-screen area looks small and it is but that’s not uncommon. A decent lens helps with this and with careful framing can help to suggest a larger space. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the placing of the cameras, chair, desk, and presenter is crucial within any virtual studio so that they can be digitally composited correctly into the virtual background and as I mentioned above the one chosen for the initial broadcasts of ‘The Midland’ was one of Tricaster‘s own, called “World Update”

In the early days of Big Centre, the ‘full studio’ shot, with the presenter waiting at the desk in the centre would always be seen at the beginning of News programmes, with a sharp digital zoom forward to focus in on the presenter at the correct scale.

As time went on, the notion of zooming in to greet the News presenter was lessened and later abandoned.

But anyway, if you add these two photos together, you end up with me sitting in the golden studio!

A view of how it looks on screen – this TV set was hung on the back wall of the News office, directly opposite the presenter’s position so that they can see exactly how they, and the rest of the programme will look on screen. Taken by my wife, Nikki.

I really enjoyed my first experience of reading the news, and although it wasn’t live, it was recorded completely as if it was going out live which really kept me on the edge of my seat.

This meant that I was wearing an earpiece, in order for the guys who were producing and directing that weekend’s programmes, the two Tom’s – Tom Bowen and Tom Wilkinson – could speak to me and tell me to either speed up if we were short of time, or slow down if we had time to spare. We actually had 3 Toms working on News altogether, the third Tom – Tom Russon – was the weekday morning News director.

I’ll let you into a couple of little secrets – the earpiece was connected to a regular walkie-talkie, and its just out of shot under the table top. I’d actually bought my own soon after joining the station as I had to make use of it almost all the time during my day job of Floor/Studio Manager, and so it made sense to buy my own earpiece to go with it as well.

Also, I’m controlling my own script on the prompter screen via a dial-controller also just out of shot under the table. Often other people would be tasked with controlling the speed of the prompter but this could be disconcerting when they didn’t quite go at the speed you needed – it’s a fine art to get it right you know!

This was the Director’s view of the studio, from the small gallery next to the News office/studio. This photo is from Tom Russon, the regular weekday morning News director, and it shows the News being presented by Bob Hall, News Editor and anchor for both the breakfast and lunchtime programmes (top left). You can see he has a guest with him (top middle). Both of those top shots show an in-between version of the camera pictures with the background green removed, before the virtual background is added. The finished transmission shot can be seen top right. Note the director’s walkie-talkie, middle right, ready to speak to Bob in his ear-piece.

As time went on the conclusion was reached that the golden background needed refreshing as it felt more like the News was coming from some kind of golden temple! And so something much more suitable was prepared.

The second, blue, virtual set. This was designed for us in the Summer of 2015 by Mat Cooper who would go on to become Big Centre‘s Manager in early 2016. This background was a moving one, and all of those miniature screens you can see in the background actually had something programmed in to them. On the bottom two screens you can see the two slightly differing backgrounds. Bottom left is the presenter position, bottom right is presenter-plus-guest, which is being used on air in the main shot at the top. Oh, and for the first time, that’s a real white desktop in view. It finally gave Bob somewhere to keep his copious and meticulous notes and background information.

The blue virtual set worked so much better and featured the corporate branding. It lasted from the summer of 2015 all the way through until the station rebranded in the Spring of 2016, by which time I had become one of the regular News programme directors (in addition to my other activities at the station).

Sadly not many of the earliest Big Centre TV News bulletins were kept as it was only really practical to keep the reports as these were the items most likely to be re-used or repeated. That means that my first News programme was not saved once it had been broadcast. From memory I came across as rather nervous and I knew I’d be able to do much better.

And hopefully I did… in fact, I’m planning a second article on this website which will incorporate many of the later News programmes, some of them actually live, plus the time when I was asked to anchor a whole week of ‘Birmingham News’. Watch this space…

As an example of how the virtual studio worked – including getting three distinct views from just two static cameras, here is a section of the breakfast edition of The Midland from Tuesday 15th September 2015 which uses the second blue virtual set with a moving background on each shot. Bob Hall is interviewing me, in the green screen area as shown above, about bringing back Tiswas (which is another story for another page)…

STOP PRESS: I was recently browsing back through an old hard drive, and I discovered that I had indeed kept a copy of a number of my ‘firsts’, including my first programme as Director (ExtraTime), my first Postbag, and my first News bulletin as mentioned above. I was right about how nervous I am, and the programme is *very* loose feeling – later as a Director, I would strive to tighten-up many things during a regular programme like this. I’ll post my first news bulletin on this page eventually…

This article, along with various others in my website are part of the wider story of Big Centre Television as seen from the perspective of the programmes I was making at the time. Most of the articles contain a video gallery of the original shows that I made.

I was with Big Centre Television from the very first day of production in January 2015 until the last of the original team were made redundant in November 2017 when the bulk of production and operations were being moved up to Leeds, the HQ of Made TV with whom Big Centre had merged in October 2016. Big Centre had a wonderful team all the way through, I miss them all and I remain really proud of what we ultimately achieved.

Contents (click an entry to go to that page)

  1. The Beginning
  2. Spring 2015 - An (Early) Day In The Life
  3. July/August 2015: Postbag
  4. Summer 2015 - Reading The Television News
  5. Summer 2015: Crossroads Check-In
  6. Summer 2015: Tiswas Pies Again! (new 8th July 2022)
  7. August 2015: The Story of Children's Television
  8. Bloopers and Behind the Scenes
  9. Autumn 2015: The Big Centre Magazine
  10. Winter 2015: The Midland – Weekend Edition
  11. Continuity - The Bits Between TV Programmes
  12. Spring/Summer 2016: The Big Magazine
  13. Autumn 2016 - Spring 2017: Weekend Magazine (Walsall)
  14. Promotional Trailers
  15. Summer 2017: Weekend Magazine (Birmingham)
  16. Autumn 2017: Community Noticeboard... and The End...

As time goes on, I'll be filling in some of the gaps as well as adding more to these existing parts of the story too. If there's anything missing, or you'd like me to talk about something in particular, send me a message on social media (see the very top or very bottom of this page) or contact me through the website.