Why I Do TV

Last week, a few colleagues of mine blogged about why they blogged. The slightly defensive tone to the blogs or even their titles speaks to the fact that in the Academy as a whole, academics who blog don’t get a whole lot of respect. There is a widespread perception that academics who blog are somehow pandering to non-academics, or wasting their time that ought to be spent working on articles that only a handful of other academics will read. But mostly it’s the “pandering to the general public” charge that becomes the whispered accusation, accompanied by much eye-rolling.

I don’t blog much. I don’t hold in contempt my colleagues who do — in fact I’m grateful for their work — but I do try to use my writing time for articles that only a handful of other academics will read. But I do use my “free time” (hah!) doing other sorts of things. For example, Easter/Passover weekend I was on television, I thought, rather a lot. For a few days, I was on US television screens for more collective minutes than, I think, any other scholar of Christianity on this continent, just edging out Candida Moss and Robert Cargill. The large part of this was my involvement in CNN’s 6-part “Finding Jesus” documentary drama, in which I appeared on-screen in five of the six episodes that had been airing since the beginning of March. The sixth episode, the series “finale” aired on Easter Sunday, happened to be the one in which I was featured, speaking about Mary Magdalene. CNN rallied their significant resources such that commercials and clips aired frequently (some featuring bits of me: my finger scrolling across a text, my voice, my image); they played earlier episodes in the lead-up to the new; and they promoted Easter Sunday’s episode by having me appear on live news shows twice — once on the morning of Good Friday on CNN’s morning show New Day with anchors Mikaela Pereira and Chris Cuomo, and once Saturday afternoon in an interview with Fredericka Whitfield. After that glut of CNN appearances, NBC called me the next day and asked me to do a segment on the Nightly News, which was bumped and edited into a sound byte of me on NBC’s Today Show the next day.

Since CNN promoted us and Finding Jesus pretty hard, let’s just say I have heard a fair bit from my colleagues-who-are-not-on-TV, and while they have all been extremely kind and supportive to my face, I’m also aware of my colleagues who are critical or contemptuous of colleagues-who-are-on-TV. One thread on Facebook particularly interested me. One colleague wondered why any academic would do such a thing. Someone responded something to the effect of: “MONEY, first reason. The second reason probably has to do with showing your family that you’ve ‘made it.'”

I found this actually really interesting. Let me quickly say that MONEY is not the first, or last, motivation. I have appeared in shows for the History Channel, National Geographic, Channel 4 (UK), CNN, and NBC. Amount of money I have received for any and all these appearances: ZERO. Documentaries take advantage of the fact that we have paying jobs already, and part of those jobs means at least some public teaching, so they do not pay us; it’s part of an academic’s “public service.” In the case of CNN or NBC, news channels do not pay contributors; there are too many, to begin with, and contributors are not paid employees of a network, for obvious reasons. I’m sure there is TV that pays, and I assume that some of my colleagues-who-do-TV do get paid, but to say that we do this for money is just incorrect.

So what about the second reason: to show our families that we’ve “made it”? I actually thought a lot about this. I think there have been many moments where my family have thought this about me: when I received the Ph.D., for instance. My first teaching position. My first book. Holding a teaching position at Harvard. When my family sees me on TV, they are excited; they also, you know, criticize the way I did my hair, or wander off to do the laundry, or change the channel to watch something more exciting. So I’m not sure that I “do TV” to impress them. I should add as a sort of sidebar that my children are almost entirely uninterested in me being on TV, given that we don’t own one and they were both a) raised in a TV-less environment and b) with the assumption that mom does a lot of talking about boring things for a living. Which brings to mind one occasion years ago when I took my older daughter with me to Harvard to hear me lecture (no babysitter available short-notice). She was, I think, eight. I gave, if I do say so myself, a rather kick-ass lecture on crucifixion. The audience of assembled students listened; they laughed; they wept. At the end there was this silence, broken only by one student uttering “wowwwwww.” And then the applause. Best lecture I have given in my life. My daughter DID NOT LOOK UP FROM HER HARRY POTTER ONCE.

So, then, why do I do TV? Here are five reasons that have come to mind over the past few weeks. They may be surprising.

1. To Be Counter-Phobic

Those who know me well, or for a long time, will know that I’m actually an introvert and quite shy. Talking in front of people was, for many years, one of my biggest phobias. Those who were in graduate school with me can attest that for a full two years of coursework, I curled up in a ball (literally) on my chair in seminars and uttered not a word. It was absolutely amazing that I was not kicked out. The lead-up to any public speaking event was fraught with absolutely nauseating, trembling fits of terror. I’m fully over that now. But I still have problems of confidence in certain areas. You know those people who always have something to say in response to anything? I am absolutely not one of those people. I was raised in a strict children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard environment, and never had the sense that anything that came out of my mouth was worthy, so keeping my mouth shut has always been a default. There is absolutely nothing scarier to me than the question “So what do you think, Nicola?” and everyone looking at me expectantly. Shudder.

I believe in trying to be counter-phobic, which to me means dealing with my fears and not be such a baby. I’ve become much more comfortable answering questions in front of a camera, but those situations are also controlled. I have the questions beforehand; I can rehearse my answers, and if I mess up too badly I can have as many “do overs” as I need. Last weekend, however, was the first time I had to do live TV and that was fairly horrifying. My biggest fear was that I would be like Cindy Brady in an old episode of The Brady Bunch, who brags about her quiz-show abilities in the lead-up to a live TV game show for kids broadcast, but then freezes into a wide-eyed, open-mouthed gape as she’s mesmerized by the red light on top of the television camera. What if I pull a Cindy Brady??? Plus, just to tweak my neuroses, I wasn’t given any information prior to the segments: no questions to prepare; no suggested talking points; no knowledge of how long this live TV hell was likely to go. And I will say, the entire experience was terrifying, exhilarating, and a great learning experience. I am no longer afraid, and it’s worth a lot to me not to be afraid of something.

2. Watching People Do What They’re Good At

We academics lead sheltered lives. We are surrounded by other academics, and students, and administrators, but it’s a pretty narrow slice of expertises. Doing TV is actually kind of fascinating as you watch people doing things that are quite foreign and being very good at it. For example, in Finding Jesus I was really taken by the way the director, Gary Johnstone, saw the world — I mean, visually saw and processed the world (and I consider myself a “visual” person!). The way he set up shots, and the results of those shots, were just far far better than anything I could ever do. Even when we weren’t filming, if I grabbed my camera to take a picture, he would whisk it away and command that I take it from another angle, or a different height or exposure, or whatever. I would compare the two photos — mine and his — and the differences were astonishing. SO GOOD. In the academy, I would never have an opportunity to work with a director, and to learn from that.

Similarly, my experience doing CNN’s New Day was amazing, as I watched the anchors at work. I had always assumed that anchors were just newsreaders who looked attractive or authoritative and read off a teleprompter. To prepare for my interview. Mikaela and Chris had about 90 seconds during the commercial break. They spent it silently reading a bit about me and the show, and list of suggested questions. The power of their concentration was intense. Then they looked up, smiled and introduced themselves, and worked in 10 seconds to put me more at ease by chatting and asking for “off the record” knowledge. The director gave us the 5 second count-down, and they immediately picked up with professionalism and authority. Without looking at their notes or teleprompter, they got my name right after just having met me a minute before, and asked excellent questions which, I will tell you, bore absolutely zero relation to the ones they had had in front of them. In other words, they were thinking on their feet, and they worked to engage me and the audience simultaneously — and to wrap the whole thing up in 4.5 minutes. After it was done and we cut to commercial, they were very kind and gracious, and then they had another 90 seconds to prep for the next segment, which was entirely unrelated to Mary Magdalene. I left the studio deeply impressed and humbled by just how hard their jobs are, and how easy they made things look. To me, that’s very inspiring; I love seeing people do what they love, and doing it very, very well. So part of doing TV is to move me out of my comfort zone but into the comfort zone of other experts, for a little bit of inspiration.

3. Access

As scholars, we get pretty good access to very cool things, if by “very cool things” you, like me, think of things like ancient manuscripts or archaeological sites sometimes closed to the public. Let me tell you something: television gets better access. For scholars to get access, we need to write letters and applications, find funding from our universities or other places, spend months lining up appointments and paperwork, and so on and so on. Television production companies have “fixers” who do these things for you, so that all you need to do is show up. You don’t even need to show up: you get ferried there. Because I do TV, I’ve wandered around museums and cathedrals before they open, poked around in their storerooms, handled precious relics, touched 1600-year-old books, and got to spend time, alone or almost alone, in places few people get to go. As an ancient historian, this kind of access to the past is a thrilling privilege; it helps me to think differently about the past than I would if my research were confined to reading in libraries.

4. I Collect Moments, Not Things

My family complains about me, because I am the opposite of a hoarder. I’m a compulsive thrower-outer. I’m not especially sentimental, and I don’t organically understand the urge to collect things. But I do like to collect moments. I’m not a thrill-seeker, but I derive a lot of pleasure from great experiences, those moments when you just can’t believe you get to live this life. This reason to do TV relates to the issue of access. I have a lot of precious memories that come from doing TV: lying on a pew in the silent, empty church of San’Agnese in Agone in the heart of Rome, looking at the ceiling frescoes in peace while listening to throngs of tourists in Piazza Navona outside the church’s great doors; running a finger gently along the ancient leather spine of Codex II while listening to a muezzin call the faithful to prayer in dusty hot old Cairo; galloping giddily on an Arabian stallion in the Giza desert in the middle of the night, with no lights except the illuminated pyramids rising in front of me and the twinkle of Orion’s stars. These gifts come courtesy of opportunities that television has provided. I think of Roy’s terrific speech at the end of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner: “I”ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…” When I die, I imagine I’ll be thinking of those moments in my life where I feel the full force of the incredible privilege of being alive.

5. Because Public Education Matters

I have spent a good part of the last 25 years pretty immersed in the elite world of the Ivy League, and I feel some days like I know every room in those ivory towers. I know that much of what is said about the bubble-world of the Ivies is true. And academia is itself a bubble-world, full of people who talk only to people like them, or like us. The worst of us, to be judgmental here for a moment, are those people who think that this isolation is absolutely fine, that they are perfectly entitled to earn six-figure incomes to teach tiny classes about deeply obscure things, that living the Life of the Mind is a right rather than a privilege. It’s not. And I fear that unless academics find some way of helping non-academics to make meaning in one small part of their lives, we will be perceived as useless old albatrosses. My little piece of the solution is that I happen to think a lot, and know a lot, about something about which a great number of people are curious. Why would I not find a way of engaging them?

So these are my five reasons. Does this strike a chord with anyone?

4 thoughts on “Why I Do TV

  1. Big difference between documentaries and live appearances, esp. when working with American organizations. Being live means ones thoughts are unedited, non-manipulated, more honest whereas first rule in documentaries should be, as its hard to get a straight answer is, who else will be in the program, this in and of itself should be the deciding factor as to the real agenda of the film makers. Secondly there is a world of difference between American TV and European. Compare American TV with ARTE or with the BBC and one will be amazed as to how shallow some of the docs. are when it comes to American TV. For example, some yrs ago, we attempted to show what a Jew in the time of Jesus, may have looked like, naturally this is difficult but we wished to get away from the tall, blond, long haired, blue eyed image one sees. We took a skull of a male from that period, the BBC had some one in England come up with a forensic likeness and when they later sold it to CNN, people there complained that he looked like a NYC cab driver and had an artist do a ‘makeover’ , clean him up a bit. As I’m guided by the words of HL Mencken, ‘if your mother says she loves you, check it out” I Googled the name of CNN’s in-house artist, out of curiosity and lo and behold, and he made the makeover now in his own image, and to make things worse, it/he was being billed as ‘the face of Jesus’.

    As for doing this for free, yes news pgrms are done gratis, whether or not one has a position, but documentaries are another thing as they are done for commercial reasons and one should be paid no less that what the cameraman, usually free lancing makes. Today’s rate withtheir own camera, is around 2,000 Euros a day. Also be aware of film makers parading themselves as ‘investigative journalists’ as this is their ploy to say, ‘I’m a journalist and we don’t pay, don’t fall into that trap as anyone with or without a degree in journalism can make that claim.

    Lastly, when working with some of the big names in American TV, tape the interview and have the film maker sign an agreement with you, that if you end up on the ‘cutting room floor’, there is at least full attribution of your ideas. I learned the hard way, American news superstar, flew me halfway around the world for an interview, (gratis) only to end up on the cutting room floor. Sometime later when I got a copy of the Easter special I realized that the media superstar, had taken my ideas/wording almost verbatim, doing a stand up here in Jerusalem, ca half mile from my home. I complained and was told by colleagues, this is the norm as the big names in the media, wish to get as much screen time as humanly possible. The don’t share.

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