The First HD Television Star

The First HD Television Star
-by Dan Oliver, WRAL-TV Producer

“Producing the HDTV infomercials was as fun as watching your favorite show. I learned some good tips for acting. Sometimes we had to do a take over and over. We worked long and hard. And it shows on the good commercials. Therefore, it was worth it all.” That’s how my 9-year-old son described his experience as a spokesperson for HDTV.

HDTV Quicktime Spots:

HDTV Lesson 1
HDTV Lesson 2
HDTV Lesson 3
HDTV Lesson 4

I’m a producer in the Local Production department at WRAL-TV. Several months ago Susan Dahlin contacted me about producing a series of :60 infomercials explaining High Definition Television to the general public. Susan and John Greene, who both work for WRAL-HD, wanted to present some basic information about HD in a non-technical, non-threatening way. The idea was to pose some of the most frequently asked questions about the new technology and answer them simply and clearly. Being entertaining and funny wouldn’t hurt, either.

Susan e-mailed me a great deal of background information, as well as a list of questions she and John wanted to cover and suggestions for comic bits to incorporate into the scripts. NOW! AudioVideo was interested in sponsoring the ads, in conjunction with Sony, so I began organizing the material into :60 scripts that could be tagged by NOW! and Sony. From the beginning I wanted to use a spokesperson. The idea was to “personalize” HDTV, to take something that seems abstract and high-tech to most people and make it comfortable and familiar to them. I don’t know any better way to do that than to have a friendly person on-camera talking directly to the viewer.

My original concept, approved by Susan and John, was to create a character who was a quirky but folksy television engineer, someone who could be a link between the technology and you or me. We were very close to shooting the infomercials when NOW! decided they just didn’t like the character; he didn’t fit their image of their business or their customers. So at the last minute I had to come up with something else. That’s where my son came in.

Even as I had been writing for the other character I had been toying with the idea of using a child as the spokesperson. At first I stumbled over finding a way of explaining why this kid would be telling us about HDTV. Why would he know so much about it? But then I realized that you didn’t have to explain anything. Kids are the future. Kids instinctively adapt to new technologies. Who better than a child to explain HDTV? And who better than a child to make this new technology seem comfortable, familiar and non-threatening? Once that was clear to me, writing the news scripts was easy. Casting was easy, too, since I wrote them specifically for my son, Ted. Growing up with a producer for a dad he has been on-camera literally since he was a baby. He delivered a paragraph or two of memorized lines in a video when he was five. And last summer he had the leading role in a promo for FOX50. I believed he could do it and do it well. But even so, it was four :60 spots. And he was on-camera most of the time. As one of the guys at NOW! said, it all depended on the kid; if he was good, the spots were good, but if he was bad…

Fortunately Ted came through for me. We shot all day on a Saturday and he hung in there and worked hard the whole day. As his dad, I know I’m not objective, but I’ve worked with a lot of young kids over the years, and most children his age start to fade after about two hours. Ted shot for nearly six and never questioned why he had to repeat a line. If he said three sentences just right but slurred the word “digital,” for example, I’d say, “Ted, that was great but I couldn’t quite understand ‘digital,'” and he’d do it again and make sure I heard all three syllables. He was a trooper.

After four full days of post-production the infomercials were done. John and Susan both checked on them as they were being edited and told me they were pleased. Next Jim Goodmon gave them his thumbs up. And finally the folks at NOW! and Sony looked at them, and they were pleased, too. The four spots have just begun airing on WRAL-TV, and a generic version – minus the WRAL-HD logo and the NOW!/Sony sponsorship – is being made available to stations around the country who want to promote HD to their viewers. “But don’t take my word for it,” as Ted says in each one. Check them out on the web-page and judge for yourself.

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