Getting the pace right on TV – The Big Bang Theory and Spicks and Specks

Can the new Spicks and Specks team match their predecessors when it comes to pacing? ABC Publicity

Popular television series rely on a great many factors for their success. Among these is the not-often-celebrated task of integrating screen pace and performance. When that works the story flows effortlessly into our consciousness.

When it doesn’t, we feel a little edgy, ever so slightly jarred by the flow of the narrative. That could, of course, be the intention of the director. On neither occasion are audiences likely to give these subtle elements much thought – but program makers do. Two series currently screening on Australian TV – The Big Bang Theory and Spicks and Specks – provide a useful case study in the potential and pitfalls of pacing.

Every successful television program taps into certain social, political and cultural sensitivities of its audience. All adopt similar qualities of mise en scène in their on-screen presentations, and should adopt certain visual and aural rhythms that match their content.

What keeps The Big Bang Theory moving?

For the popular US series The Big Bang Theory, the witty and fast-paced dialogue, diversity of characters and the routine of relationship dilemmas, have won it a faithful audience. So faithful is the audience that its members enjoys repeat after repeat of episodes, though they are already familiar with the storylines.

Those qualities of wit, pace, character and dilemmas in The Big Bang Theory (and also Two and a Half Men) have pulled the Nine Network through a difficult few years in the ratings.

The Big Bang Theory bloopers.

We can see these same qualities on display in MASH, a series that’s been repeatedly rebroadcast in Australia and all around the world.

Unlike many programs, The Big Bang Theory has a pace that is largely due to performance – but editing and camerawork are still important to achieving the final effect. The series is shot with multiple cameras. This means that even though scenes may be shot out of order, individual scenes play out sequentially, just as they might on stage.

The actors and the performances they bring to the scripts are the mainstay of a series such as this. It has long been so. Look back at Gilbert and Sullivan’s 14 Victorian comic operas. They’re full of incredibly snappy and witty dialogue – and not an editor or a camera in sight.

That’s not to underrate the crew behind the cameras or the often forgotten writers. This show is the creation of very witty writers, especially Chuck Lorre (who also wrote Roseanne and Dharma and Greg) and Bill Prady – but another 24 writers also contributed to the success of the series as well as science consultants.

That said, camerawork, direction and editing do influence the pace of the on-screen presentation. Finally the dialogue and the visual pace have to mesh to make a successful and popular program.

Editing also has to deliver a program of a certain length, but with scripted material that is not too hard to achieve. For The Big Bang Theory, that’s between 18 and 22 minutes, depending on the broadcaster, with commercials making up the rest of the time needed to fill a 30-minute scheduled slot.

Can Spicks and Specks keep up the pace?

Another example of matching the pace of presentation to the pace of performance is Spicks and Specks, now in its eighth season on the ABC.

The series has won a large and faithful Wednesday night audience for the national broadcaster. The new season, which kicked off in February, seems to have had tuning problems to match the pace of the performers, especially new host Josh Earl, to the overall pace of the show.

The program evolved around original regulars, host Adam Hills and team leaders Myf Warhurst and Alan Brough. Brough’s paces was similar to his replacement, Adam Richard, but both Warhurst and Hills were much more laidback than their replacements Ella Hooper and Josh Earl.

Since Earl captures more screen time, the pace mismatch is more noted for him. Viewing later episodes of the new series suggest Hooper and Earl’s performances are slowing ever so slightly, easing the mismatch.

Spicks and Specks is a quite heavily edited program.

Deleted scene from Spicks and Specks.

That’s because the somewhat unpredictable nature of live performance, with limited scripting, must be disciplined to begin, entertain and end within 27 minutes of screen time. But this editing has limited impact on the pace of the on-screen presentation. It is done as much for timing, though it does keep the pace up for those bits where people move about the set to perform.

Successful and popular television series bring many elements together in making them successful. Audiences might not always notice the efforts of editors and camera crews in integrating screen pace and performance – but as Spicks and Specks shows, when the pace changes, some audiences do notice.

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