As distinct from a “production associate” – which is actually TV “code” for gag-writer – a production assistant is a gopher, a minion if you will. But with certain shows, they are INVALUABLE. I’m speaking of “People Shows” – “Springer”, “America’s Got Talent”, “Britain’s Got Talent”, etc.
You see, these shows use a resource that is the most difficult in The Business to control – the PUBLIC.
The problem is, the Number One Priority in television is to put on a Good Show. And with any reality show, you are faced with the same problem – its “stars” are AMATEURS. Which is where the production assistants come in, for it is they who make things hum.
On Springer, they have to coach the combatants. The show relies on people coming to the studio to have a “secret” revealed to them, along the lines of: Your Wife’s Been Having An Affair With Your Older Sister Who’s Really Your Father (I just made that up – but it’s probably been done).
Now obviously, the production assistant cannot TELL them that – the victim would NEVER be able to convincingly fake surprise – they’re an AMATEUR. But they WILL point out to said victim that after the big secret has been revealed, they need a REACTION from them – otherwise there’s no show.
Which is why the people on the show often go postal at inappropriate times. Having realised what they’ve just heard is IT – there’s nothing else coming – they know that if they just shrug their shoulders, they won’t get their ten minutes of fame.
So they LAUNCH themselves at the other person, having been assured by the production assistant that the off-duty cops hired by the show will intervene – without hurting them – to ensure they don’t do any real damage to the other person.
Of course, on talent shows, physical conflict is rare. There, it’s all about DRAMA. They COULD just parade the acts across the stage, voting for the best ones and… but I’m boring myself just saying this.
No, what modern talent shows need is a STORY. The silly acts are just there as filler. They KNOW they’re going to get gonged, buzzed or X-ed off – and then SLAGGED off by the guy on the end of the panel. It all started with “New Faces”, back in Seventies Britain.
But the story isn’t about them. Its about the BIG one. The act with real talent. Preferably one who has endured hardship or has a Mother on her death-bed…
And it falls to the production assistants to FIND and DEVELOP that story.
Then the editor just puts it together like a three-act play – establishes the characters, develops the plot and builds to a climax. But without those unsung, nay INVISIBLE heroes, the production assistants, it wouldn’t HAPPEN.
An example of what can happen WITHOUT them, comes from Eighties Britain. “What’s My Line” is a format that goes back to Fifties America. A member of the public with an unusual occupation gives yes/no answers to questions posed by a panel.
More than X number of “no”s and they win… a diploma saying they beat the “What’s My Line” panel. No prizes – just an appearance fee, regardless of whether they win or lose. A simple format, but it had been going (on and off) for thirty years until a sloppy producer KILLED it.
On that occasion, it had been revived as a mid-afternoon filler (it’s a cheap format) but to pep it up, they decided to go for REALLY obscure professions – clown car engineer, storm-chaser, microlite test-pilot, the person who gives “Brazilians” to show-girls (someone has to do it).
The catch was – the panelists were failing to GUESS these left-field vocations.
Something had to be done. So the producer started feeding answers to one of the panelists – Barbara Kelly. And when the panel were going off in COMPLETELY the wrong direction, she would steer them back with a “quantum leap” of inspiration.
This went fine until a non-regular panelist overheard the producer giving Barbara that week’s occupations – and went PUBLIC. At which point, all of the guests whose jobs had been guessed went BALLISTIC. Whilst the diplomas had no more intrinsic value than a “Blankety-Blank Chequebook And Pen” (or my Mensa certificate) their personal value was incalculable.
That was the END of “What’s My Line”. If I had been in charge of the TV company, I’d have FIRED the idiot producer – not for cheating (as shown above, TV cheats all the time in the interests of putting on a Good Show) but for getting CAUGHT!
Of course, had it been down to a professional production assistant to sort the problem, it’d have been done properly and “What’s My Line” would still be on the air. Although given some of the Mickey Mouse job-titles around nowadays, it’s hard to see how ANYONE could guess THOSE!