Television has become a pervasive form of communication in our world and
its encompassing nature ensures that any political leader unable or unwilling
to use it as a means of communication will be at a distinct disadvantage
in getting their message across. In Canada, most politicians will still
experience the majority of their public speaking in parliament or other
live venues. But, as more parliaments across Canada broadcast their proceedings,
and television increasingly becomes the primary medium for receiving information,
the ability to communicate on camera takes on added importance. When a
politician is unsuccessful at communicating in the television medium, it
is common to blame the media for shallow or biased representation, but
the reality is far more complex.
The television media cannot be dismissed as simply a means of communication.
It is not a benign force transmitting information. It plays an active role
in the political process on many levels. In order to best communicate with
the audience the politician must have as much knowledge as possible about
the practical and cultural aspects of television performance. Yet despite
the participation of communications directors, press secretaries and media
consultants, relatively little attention is paid to the specific requirements
of a televised public performance. In this regard, politicians could learn
from professional television actors fellow performers who have studied
the requirements of the television medium.
For a politician, understanding performance from the perspective of a professional
television actor makes sense because that is also how the audience will
understand television performance. Since television has been primarily
a medium of entertainment, it has created a society familiar with and possibly
expectant of a similar style of information delivery. The audiences ability
to interpret or judge a politicians performance on television will come,
in part, from their experiences in watching professional performers in
that same medium. Members of the public, of all socio-economic classes,
now have access to performance of all kinds on a scale that is historically
unprecedented. This has had a tremendous effect on the very cognitive skills
of our society. Exposure to regular mediated performance has given the
audience a basis for understanding and interpreting what they see. It is
rare, however, for the audience to consciously question how they came by
this awareness, or what role it plays in their decisions regarding a performer.
The television audience learns to look for and assign meaning to the significance
of camera movements, editing and other visual effects of television just
as they interpret the actions and behaviours of those characters that fill
television screens. The audience watching a political performance is interpreting
it with those tools of analysis learned from television, but without any
adaptation for the nature of the political performance. They are still
drawing upon their knowledge of the format; a format largely comprised
of entertainment-oriented performances.
There are, however, things to be learned from these performers. Actors
and entertainment producers know that there are several distinct differences
between communicating on television and communicating in a live performance.
Actors manuals for television performance often describe the difference
between live oratory and televised communication as a difference in proximity.
When speaking in parliament, a town hall or other live performance space,
the audience is at some distance from the performer, and it is anticipated
that the performer will accommodate those furthest from the stage. Therefore
even those in the front row will anticipate a heightened level of performance.
The voice will need to be louder, the gestures bigger, and diction clearer.
The performers primary emphasis is not on the subtleties of eye movement
or small gestures as they would be imperceptible to all but the closest
On television the audience is only as distant as the camera, which in most
instances is at a close proximity to the performer. In this case, the same
subtleties used in one on one communication are highly visible and often
magnified. A journalist or editor can focus the audiences attention on
a specific gesture or expression, thereby giving it particular significance.
A common mistake made by politicians uncomfortable with the television
camera is to increase their physical expressiveness. With the camera in
such close proximity, it is often necessary to tone down action, and keep
eye movements at the level one would use during a close one-on-one conversation.
The cameras gaze brings the audience members so close that added movement
can have the same impact of screaming in someones face. The seasoned performer
will respond to the camera as they would respond to a colleague standing
next to them on an elevator.
The issue of proximity is also an issue of intimacy and formality. When
the audience is at a physical distance, there is a naturally assumed formality
to even the most uneventful communication. The physical separation between
audience and performer will encourage a more structured presentation. The
camera eliminates that distance and therefore encourages a more intimate
approach to communication.
Professional actors and television producers also know that on television,
images have as much meaning as words. Once the performer enters the performance
area, all of his or her actions, however unconscious or unintentional,
are interpreted as some sort of sign. Whether this sign is directly related
to the content of the presentation, or is interpreted as a spontaneous
act, it nonetheless assumes a far greater significance because the politician
has been framed as a performer.
The audience is directed in their gaze by the camera. They do not have
the option of looking at the whole picture, or taking their time to interpret
the details of what is being said. The average news clip lasts only 30
seconds, making it imperative that the message is given as succinctly as
possible. That means that messages have to be communicated visually as
well as verbally. When a politician speaks to television media, their non-verbal
communication must match their verbal message. Otherwise, the story will
be about the presentation, and not about the information. That means that
their actions, their clothing, their tone of voice, and even their physical
environment must support their message. Everything included in the communication
has to be part of the communication.
Actors know that there is no such thing as unbiased television. Television
does not reflect reality; it recreates it. Just as language provides a
means of interpreting our reality, and of forming our understanding of
it, so does television interpret and alter our perception of the world.
Even when images of a parliamentary debate are broadcast without interpretation
or comment by a host, there are still plenty of factors that could influence
the images that the audience will see. Lighting, room colour and room design
will likely be altered to accommodate television cameras. Decisions must
be made on what proceedings will receive coverage, as well as what shots
and angles will be used. Where will the camera be positioned? Will empty
seats be shown on camera? Will the gallery be shown? Will it focus on the
person who is speaking or the reaction of those listening? Will the shots
be cut to show both, and if so, at what point? These and many other questions
must be answered by those in charge of producing this supposedly unaltered
documentation of public affairs, and yet it is clear that the answer to
any one of those could impact the audiences perception of events. Taking
this into consideration, as well as the very fact of the politicians awareness
of a potentially increased audience, and the concept of the unobtrusive
fly-on-the-wall coverage is no longer a simplistic possibility. In other
words, the old axiom that the camera does not lie is not entirely correct.
Although the images caught on camera may be irrefutable, the context of
the footage can seriously alter interpretation. Television coverage can
be, by its very nature, confusing, as it provides images that have been
taken out of context. The belief that television has created a world of
instant information and irrefutable truth is far from accurate. It is this
very pretence of absolute honesty that generates such confusion. It ensures
that the audience does not go to any great lengths to evaluate the context
of the images they see. They accept the images of television as factual
It is not because of the media that performance is inherent in political
communication, but it has certainly played a crucial role in increasing
awareness of performance in political communication, and demanding additional
skills on the part of the politician. Yet the proliferation of television
has many potential benefits to the public and the politician. Television
offers a much broader audience base than any live rally or gathering could
hope to achieve and has the added advantage of being broadcast to those
who would perhaps not readily attend such a gathering. Television, through
news programs, political specials, parliamentary broadcasts and other coverage,
has the ability to introduce a more diverse information base to a more
Yet political performers remain at a disadvantage in this area. This is due in
part to a continued cultural reluctance to acknowledge that performance skills
are needed by the politician. It is also due to the television audience’s
misunderstanding of the nature of political performance in many contexts.
Without proper understanding of political performance, the very nature of the
media can give false impressions, create unrealistic expectations, and change
how information is processed and discussed. It is essential that the political
performer understand the significance and the requirements of communication
through media. It is equally important that the audience receiving that
communication be aware of those same factors. A good first step is to
acknowledge the necessity of performance in television communication. And, just
as professional actors would, take the time to really know what it takes to
communicate your message.