Potpourri stories

18 05 2014

It should be pretty clear by now that I am a fan of shows that explore a single theme.

I like shows to be about something, rather than a collection of unrelated demos- a potpourri.

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A potpourri: In English, “potpourri” is often used to refer to any collection of miscellaneous or diverse items. WIKI

Potpourri shows are often performed by novice presenters. I think novices feel they can make up for their lack of presenting skills by stringing together their most spectacular demos.

The problem is that all but the very best examples of potpourri shows are rarely more than satisfactory and I’d argue the good ones aren’t actually potpourri. The good ones will have a theme. They give the impression of being ‘just a random selection of demos’ but in reality they are shows that have been carefully thought out.

If your show is just a random collection of demos I suggest you have a rethink.

Go to BBC iPlayer and search out Factual/Science & Nature and you’ll find a handy list of science programmes. Every one of them has an overarching theme. (I looked on 19/5/14).

Some shows are one-offs like this one:
The Comet’s Tale (BBC4 60 mins): Documentary about comets. Many ancient civilisations believed comets were gods. Now, space missions can show what comets are actually made of and where they come from.

Some shows form part of a series, like Horizon, But every episode of a show like Horizon has an overarching theme:
Horizon (BBC4 60 mins) Episode 4 The Core: For centuries people have dreamt about reaching the centre of the earth. Now scientists are discovering a bizarre and alien world that lies 4000 miles below our feet.

Even ‘magazine shows’ like Bang Goes the Theory have a theme and most magazine shows would never examine more than 3 or 4 stories in each 30 min episode. They certainly wouldn’t try to cover 10, 15 or even 20 unrelated items as some science presenters do in potpourri shows. As an example this show only has two:
Click (BBC News 30 mins): Click visits the European space agency to find more about ‘pocket’ satellites. And Andy Gibbs goes to Malawi to launch a weather balloon.

Why do all of these shows have a theme? And more importantly why do some science presenters write shows that don’t have a theme?

I’d suggest it’s because the TV shows realise the value of a theme and those science presenters haven’t yet.

Shows that are just a random collection of demos will almost always suffer the following faults:

1. There will be too much talking and not enough demonstrating. If you’re going to bring in a totally new subject and do it justice there’s lots see you have to say.

2. They will be difficult to follow and confusing for the audience. Just when the audience has got their head around one concept you jump off and deal with a totally new one.

3. They will be stressful to present. It is really difficult to keep an audience’s attention or to maintain your own focus if you’re having to jump between unrelated random concepts and demonstrations.

4. People won’t remember most of your show. Psychology research shows that given a list of unrelated terms people tend to struggle to remember more than the first or the last term. Too often informal exit polls of audiences watching potpourri shows reveal this effect (“How was the show?” “Great” “What was it about?” “Ummm…”)

My advice to anyone would be to look at your demos and find a theme. Take the time to write a story that holds your demos together. Better still, find a compelling story and then search out the demos that will help you tell it.

And if you are just going to present a random collection of demos try to find a way to group the demos into subjects and make a story for each subject that you tackle. I’d suggest limiting each 60 min show to a maximum of 4 or 5 unrelated subjects of at least 10 minutes with 4 or 5 demos for each.

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