How to meet someone on TV

There’s an awkward moment after you start a new job but before you really start doing that job. You look around and take a quick inventory: Am I all here? What is my actual daily work? Can I do this? OK, I can do this, but how?

Well, welcome to my awkward moment, my transition. Fusion hired me to build a bureau out here in San Francisco (well, Oakland) that would cover technology and the future. I’ve hired this killer team of journalists and artists who are going to write stories, make events, and create a television show. You’ll meet them soon: Expect deep reporting, groundbreaking storytelling, hard-won insight, and wildly creative events.

However, for the time being, I’m all alone here in Oakland, California.

And I am watching lots of television.

I understand how to write stories for the web—that’s what I did at The Atlantic and before that at Wired—and I have a really clear idea of what our events might look like: just imagine the opposite of the nearly all-male New Establishment Summit.”

TV, though, TV is hard. To make something that fulfills our mission to be an R&D lab for media—that does something new—we have to learn everything we can about TV and then start making stuff up.

We need to learn so much about TV. And we want you to come along as we create this show. We want to do as much of the development of this as-yet-unnamed project out here in the open, where you can contribute to it and be a part of it. You can even just email me your ideas or what you want to see on TV: I’m at This isn’t really a crowdsourcing project—we have a vision for what we want to do—but I do think the more input we get from you—the people we’re working for—the better.

So, let me show you the first thing that I’ve learned. It has to do with how you meet someone on TV, almost every damn time.

Meeting a personality

Let’s say a segment’s host is going to talk with a source out in the world. Before they do, they will show that person pretending to type, or shopping for something, or walking around an office. Usually there’s a voiceover describing why we are meeting this person. That audio keeps the segment moving along while the footage establishes the character and setting.

Then, the person sits in a chair—usually in an office—and on the bottom of the screen (“lower third” is the jargon), a name and affiliation appear. Here, take a look at how The Daily Show, which is lampooning the classic format, does it:


This kind of introductory snippet solves the problem of a new person appearing in the frame. It gets the job done. That’s why it is a convention. But what if you wanted to do something more interesting?

A reader of my newsletter, Jenny Mackintosh, suggested that I take a look at the NatGeoTV show Going Deep, by David Rees, which is now available on Hulu. The premise of the show is that he takes some seemingly silly action, like shaking hands, and makes an entire half hour of TV out of it. And I think it works brilliantly!

For example, when he learns how to shake hands, he visits all kinds of people: a hand model, two hand/arm scientists, a guy who can track his vision, and a woman who helped President Obama with the intricate formalities of political office. Right before we meet each of these people, we get little moments when they gaze into the camera and their name (only the first name, no title) appears beneath them. Take a look.

Here’s the hand model:


And the eye-tracking guy:


And the formalities expert:


Then we have the scientists. This one is my favorite. For one, they are shooting in the worst possible location—a crummy hallway at a university in Utah—so the degree of difficulty is very high. But they found this one crazy detail—the punching bag—and they put it into play. They left it swaying ever so slightly, which makes the setting seem more three-dimensional and alive (not unlike the ticker behind Capricia above).

What else is there to love here? The men’s smiles and poses are precisely aligned, but their styles are so different. Noah’s short-sleeve shirt is untucked, his grin toothy. Mike’s shirt is tucked-in and his smile is less easy. Instantly, we can see characters here, and grasp a relationship and a setting. It’s remarkable what 3.2 seconds can do.


Cara Rose DeFabio, our incoming experience designer for events, pointed out that this introduction style is actually quoted from a movie you may have seen if you are within our target demographic: The Royal Tennenbaums.

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Outside of Wes Anderson’s stylized movies, the technique feels more interesting to me. This isn’t Luke Wilson smoldering away in character. This is dudes at the University of Utah going through the process of being on television.

We’ll have a whole professional team for the real show, but in the meantime, I want to demo things, prototype things. I’ve got a Canon 5D and a couple of decent lenses and a lack of good sense. So I just riffed a little in my house to see if I could recreate the shot. I think I did OK.


Creating this little snippet, I learned three things about how the Rees intro approach works. One, it sure is hard to stay still and move slowly in front of a camera. I really gotta work on that; I need some more Ellen in my movements. Two, I could only get the look of the camera they used to shoot Matt, not the other people. You don’t really notice it, but these shots feel very tight and I couldn’t manage to really recreate them. (I assume this is a lens thing, and I want our future production company to have that lens.) Third, typography! It’s a small thing, but the bold, clean, fun font that Going Deep uses does a lot of work.

So, hello. Well met. Stay in touch. And speaking of which, if you do want to learn along with us about television and the future, sign up for this here newsletter to stay up with the latest from our team.