Check out the backgrounds.  They can be informative, entertaining, affirming – and unpredictable.

It may have originated with TV weather forecasters.  Remember when the guy or woman (always exceptionally attractive) would stand there and, with a pointer, turn to a weather map on display behind them.  That’s when we first learned about cold fronts, Canadian air masses, high pressure areas, fast moving bands of thunder storms, shifting jet streams and wind chill factors.  These background maps became even more sophisticated over the years and no doubt helped us to realize how complicated were weather dynamics, but also how entertaining their presentation could be.

Talking heads once just talked, with scant attention paid to what was behind them.  That has changed.  Organizations they represented or those presenting the facilities for interviews came to recognize the value of inserting a plug, advertising their brand.  So speakers now will nearly always be backed up by highly visible signage that proclaims affiliation.  Should a scientist be holding forth, a university banner will likely be placed behind him.  If a think tank researcher is being interviewed you will discover a wallpaper-like background screen with, e.g., “Heritage Foundation” printed all across the surface.   Beyond these fabricated backgrounds, natural and eye catching, iconic scenes are also regularly employed.  Watch  reporters in Washington, D.C. talking to us and you’ll surely spot the Capitol or the Washington Monument behind them to lend gravitas to their accounts.  An interview with a diplomat in New York City is likely decorated with a panoramic shot of the City’s skyline.  On the other hand, exchanges with professors are not complete unless shelves of serious looking books fill the background.

Politicians and government officials have become acutely aware that background messages can register as effectively as the speeches they deliver.  For many years now most all have recognized that serious ideas cannot be presented unless delivered amidst a sea of American flags.  Their handlers also understand the value of introducing campaign slogans into background displays.  “It’s Time for a Change”, “Yes, We Can”, “On to Victory”, “This is Our Time” – those are the messages to drive home in the event interest in the candidates’ words  fade.

More recently live human beings have been installed as background props for politicians.  People are specially selected and aligned behind a candidate to reinforce the messages he or she wishes to convey.  It may be a racially mixed group to demonstrate commitment to diversity.  Or military folks are arrayed behind to certify toughness, patriotism, the importance of defense or because uniforms make attractive backgrounds.  At times, you’ll discover young people placed on stage, or police or first responders, or just serious looking “average” citizens.  Human props no doubt enjoy  being on camera and positioned  up close to a major public personality.  On the other hand, there’s pressure.  They must appear attentive, smile a lot, applaud frequently and respond enthusiastically when significant policy statements are uttered.  At some point, many probably conclude they may have been better off seated in the audience out in front.

That’s probably also the case at State of the Union addresses.  The President delivers the speech with the background always the same, though not entirely.  Seated behind the President is the Vice President ( as President of the Senate) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  The speech traditionally is lengthy and not always compelling, so to those two public officials, it’s a challenge to appear interested or even stay awake.  The President and Vice President always belong to the same political party, but the Speaker may not.  (Think Biden -Boehner)  At such times, what we see is a study in contrasts, the Vice President, supportive and enthusiastic, the Speaker looking bored and not the least impressed with the Presidential agenda.  There the background speaks eloquently about our nation’s partisan divide.

TV reporters on the scene, where there’s “breaking news” and where the situation is fluid and unpredictable, are never certain what to expect behind them.  Simply by “setting up” they attract throngs, some people content merely to observe, others notably more demonstrative and eager to be noticed.  And so viewers will observe folks running back and forth, waving their hands, doing all they can to attract attention.  Others will hoist banners, hoping thereby that their messages reach large audiences.  There may be shouting and noise making sufficient to nearly drown out reports.

Even more dramatic are those instances where reporters hover at the edge of huge public demonstrations, riots or police actions or actually along battlefronts.  They attempt to distance themselves and to report calmly and objectively, hoping to remain safely above the fray, presumably secure in their role as detached observers.  But of course reality can intrude or be invited in.  Reporters, for example attempted to get as close as they could to the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, but were, on occasion engulfed and rudely jostled by the crowds or had to run for cover.  At times those being reported upon, energized by the presence of correspondents prefer presenting their own point of view directly, shouting into microphones to underscore their demands.  Here the background has burst in to the forefront.

So, next time you’re watching TV interviews or reportage, look beyond and behind who’s talking.  There’s much that can be seen and learned back there.

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