From the moment the Firstline team arrive at 4am until Nightline brings the day’s news to a close around 17 hours later, the machine that puts TV3’s news shows together never switches off.
One night last month, the Weekly was given a rare look behind the scenes at TV3 to see how the shows are created. The atmosphere on 3 News and Campbell Live couldn’t be more different from the chaos and shouting you see in fictional newsrooms.
Instead, there is an air of efficient calm. You get the impression that a combined volcanic eruption, tsunami and alien invasion wouldn’t disrupt this experienced team.
“Even on a high-adrenaline day it’s reasonably calm,” says news presenter Mike McRoberts. Scripts are approved during the day, with some not finalised until the presenters are on air. Everything seems to happen at the last minute on 3 News.
The control room, from which the producer oversees every aspect of the show as it goes to air, is empty until around 10 minutes before 6pm. Throughout the broadcast there is a constant stream of instructions to maintain the show’s rhythm: presenters are counted in, shots cued. As one item is going to air, presenters rehearse their next link aloud.
Each part of the show is timed to the second, and that can depend on something as simple as the speed at which Mike and co-presenter Hilary Barry read. Everything the presenters need to say is on Autocue, with the Autocue operator’s job often filled by students working their way through university, such as Campbell Live’s Sasha Bassett.
For tonight’s news, Georgia Johnstone is training newcomer Alice Wilkins. Scrolling through words at the right speed doesn’t sound complicated, but if not done properly the results can be disastrous for the presenter.
“At this point we throw away used scripts,” explains Hilary at the end of one segment. “It’s a polished glass table and you’ve got to get it as far to the edge as you can without it falling over.”
Tonight, as the pair send their scripts skidding, Hilary wins easily. The presenters have a variety of information feeding into their computers while they are on air.
“We have Twitter, Facebook, maybe a couple of news sites, including our own,” says Hilary. “I quite like that on Twitter they can give us instant feedback. It’s not always positive. It’s not nasty but they might have something constructive to say.”
John Campbell also checks his tweets on air. “The feedback is a way of instantly monitoring what people make of your performance,” he says. “Sometimes it’s stabbing and vicious. You’re sitting there still doing the job with people telling you where to go.”
Between items, both presenters ask for “vanity checks”. Using a monitor instead of a mirror, they adjust hair and makeup if necessary. It’s no indulgence – viewers notice if someone’s appearance changes slightly during a show.
There are three cameras in the studio, run tonight by floor manager Penny Ashley – “Pen-Pen” to John – and camera operators James Ferguson and Patrick Cole. John tends to patrol the studio floor when he’s not on camera and Penny must summon him back to his seat in time for his next piece.
The communication between control room and studio is two-way, not just a director telling the presenters what to do. In one break John reads a tweet and brings it to the attention of executive producer Pip Keane, running things in the control room. A couple of minutes later, he’s reading it on air.
Campbell Live is nearly eight years old, and John read the TV3 news for seven years before
that. “So I don’t get nervous,” he says. “Though I still get nervous when I do interviews, especially interviews when I have to be tough on someone – too tough and the audience hates me for it, not tough enough and the audience thinks I’m a total wimp.”
On a night like this, when there are no studio interviews, the famously amicable host leaves his seat during the pre-recorded items to wander around the studio. He chats to crew and a group of visitors from the Crown Law Office who have also been granted a behind-the-scenes look. It’s not for nothing that he’s known as one of the most courteous people in the business.
The activity doesn’t stop when Campbell Live is over. Within moments Sacha McNeil is in, sitting in Mike McRoberts’ chair to record a promo for Nightline, reading from a script that’s been left for her during Campbell Live, and the news cycle continues.