Funny Business with Jane Wells

B-Grade B-Roll

Source: Youtube

I’ll let you in on a little secret. TV news reporters can be very lazy—yours truly included. We often have to throw stories together pretty quickly, so we don’t always take time to freshen them up with new “b-roll”. B-roll is the video you see while you hear a reporter speak, as opposed to “a-roll”, which consists of interview soundbites. The terms originated back when news was shot on film. Editors would roll the “a-roll” during newscasts to air an interview, then “b-roll” to show generic video while an anchor or reporter spoke. 

But generic b-roll has its challenges. We often call it “wallpaper video” because it’s so bland, it’s just sort of “there” to fill space. The bigger problem is that the video is sometimes really old. I’ve asked an editor, “Find me some b-roll of overweight people, but no faces!”, or “Get me some smokers!”, and when the video shows up on air, I notice the clothing b-roll subjects are wearing suggests the video was shot in 1982. Freshening up b-roll (manufacturing shoes in China, holiday shopping at the mall, freeway traffic) takes effort, and sometimes it’s just easier to pull tape from the library, even if the cars in the freeway traffic b-roll look like they’re from the Dragnet era. A couple years ago I asked for b-roll of planes taking off at LAX. When the tape hit air, I suddenly realized the first plane we showed…was from long-defunct PSA. Oops. Well, at least the plane was smiling, even if I wasn’t. 

My biggest fear, of course, is that we will air b-roll in which the people seen on video have since died. I’d hate for you to be innocently watching one of my retail stories and see old file tape of Aunt Martha shopping, when you still haven’t gotten over her tragic bird watching death.   

Capitalizing on our inherent laziness is a “commercial” on YouTube spoofing b-roll.

A fake company, 1-800-BBB-ROLL, is pitching all kinds of generic video for commercials (though it works for news stories, too). “Do you need shots of ordinary people doing things for your next commercial?” the cheesy pitchman shouts. “We’ve got that b-roll!” Shots available for purchase include “Angry Man in Traffic,” “Man Having Trouble Sleeping,” and my favorite, “Depressed Woman Touching a Wall.” What? “Why is she touching a wall?” the announcer asks. “I don’t know. That’s what depressed people do. Don’t judge the b-roll!” 

Not everything qualifies as b-roll. Once, I asked an editor to find a shot from the tape library of Barry Bonds. I was out in the field on a story, so I couldn’t double check the final product before it went on the air. The editor—who is excellent, but who couldn’t tell you the difference between Barry Bonds and Muni Bonds—searched the library and found the necessary shot. On the air, I saw…Dusty Baker. Sigh. That was a tough day. 

Which brings me back to our b-roll business pitch.

After the YouTube ad explains that 1-800-BBB-ROLL can dress up your Angry Man in Traffic in different styles of clothing, the firm explains what it cannot provide. “Kirk Gibson hitting the game winning home run in the 1988 World Series? No! That is too specific,” says our pitchman. “That is NOT b-roll.” But do you have b-roll of Barry Bonds?

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