What is a VO?
VO (we never write it V.O.) stands for voice over. Outside of television news, a VO is any time you hear a narrator or interview covered with video.
In a newsroom, however, it is a brief news story where you may or may not see the anchor read the lead. The anchor will continue to read as video is shown. A VO may or may not return to the anchor after the video. If the anchor is seen after the video, putting in a final bit of information about the story, that is called a tag. VOs may be chained together (usually with a graphic transition) so the viewer doesn’t see the anchor introduce or segue stories.
Your script should have an opening sentence that hooks your viewer. It should then get right into the script, or VO as soon as and then get right to the rest of the script, into the VO portion as soon as you can, or when your producer dictates. VOs can run anywhere from 15 to 40 seconds, depending on the video. If the video is compelling, it should run longer; if not, the script should be tightened up.
Writing to Video
Let’s apply some of what we learned in Chapter 1 here.
When we don’t write to video and it doesn’t match our words, it’s called wallpaper video. It happens all the time: The anchor reads a story about a property tax proposal that would benefit schools and you see video of kids at recess. A professional athlete is arrested and we video of him scoring a touchdown. Here we see a booking photos and generic library video I shot:
Try this exercise: Have someone read you Little Red Riding Hood while showing you pictures from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. There’s a splitting effect as you try to process what you’re seeing and hearing separately. Why would you say one thing and show another? You can do better.
Your script should be determined by your video.
Let’s say you’re writing a VO about gas prices. What could you show? Editors probably have file footage of people pumping gas, cars on the highway, expansive oilfields and gas station signs. With this video, you could write whatever you want about gas prices. This is wallpaper video. It’s just usual TV news junk. The words don’t match up with what we see, but they could.
Side case in point: A new diet study just came out, and you’re writing the script. You will queue up video of overweight people – shot from the neck down – walking on a crowded public street. It doesn’t matter if the study says weight loss will now be harder, easier, more dangerous, safer, or impossible; it will be the same video you use for any story about fitness and weight. I know this because when my station converted to HD the same week we ran a weight-loss story, I had to go out and get new video of overweight people with their heads cut off (fortunately I wasn’t around for the first post-HD story about smoking or aging).
Now, back to your gas prices story: What can you do instead of just calling up wallpaper video? You can remember Rule #1. Look at the video, whether it’s new or file footage, before you write. If it’s several shots of people sliding credit cards, pulling out the nozzle and putting it into their cars, create a stronger script by writing to those images:
NEXT TIME YOU SLIDE YOUR CARD AND START PUMPING YOUR GAS… IT’S GOING TO SHOW UP SMALLER ON YOUR BILL. GAS PRICES ARE HEADED DOWN GOING INTO THE HOLIDAY WEEKEND. YOU AND HUNDREDS OF OTHER DRIVERS ON THE ROAD WILL PAY AN AVERAGE OF FOUR CENTS A GALLON LESS THANKS TO MORE PETROLEUM RESERVES FOR MOST MAJOR SUPPLIERS.
We could’ve started this story more directly, saying that more petroleum reserves are lowering gas prices. Maybe that could be in the lead, but for the video we follow Rule #1 and write to the shots we have while including our viewer. Does our viewer care more about major suppliers or her credit card bill? We move the elements of the VO, and even a sentence, around so they follow the video while keeping our viewer engaged.
Let’s try another example involving a city’s budget for road repairs after a winter of heavy rain damage. If we are going straight to video without an on-camera lead, this is how we would write directly to the video:
THE LOGAN CITY BUDGET IS STRAINED AND PLANNERS ARE JUGGLING FUNDS TO KEEP OUR ROADS IN SHAPE THIS SPRING….
This is present tense and puts the subject first, which is good. However, what video will you show when your anchor reads about the city budget? What do planners juggling funds look like? This doesn’t work well for the broadcast medium. Instead, we use file footage of flooded roads and crews working on them and write to the footage:
THESE FLOODED ROADS AND THE DAMAGED PAVEMENT KEPT CREWS WORKING AT ALL HOURS THIS WINTER. NOW CITY BUDGET PLANNERS ARE JUGGLING TO PAY THE BILL….
Yes, we start with file footage, but this approach is more dramatic and better shows the winter’s impact than freshly shot video of cars on well-paved roads.
If you were using on-camera anchors before the video started, you could write a present-tense lead, but when you’re not looking at an anchor, follow Rule #1.