Behind the Scenes

Carol Hirschfeld has relished the transition from television front person to behind the scenes executive she tells Jo Bailey.

carolFor seven years they were the dynamic duo of 3 News. Carol Hirschfeld, the polished professional with the widest smile on television, playing the straight role to the often irreverent John Campbell, her boyish co-host.
While their on-screen chemistry ended with the launch of Campbell Live in 2005, the pair are still very much professional partners in the New Zealand current affairs scene. John Campbell may hog the limelight as the show’s presenter, but Carol Hirschfeld plays a pivotal role as its executive producer.

So what has it been like to move behind the camera and away from the public gaze? “I was very comfortable about moving behind the scenes as it was something I was completely ready to do, but having said that, it did take some adjustment. It was quite a big change to leave 3 News after fronting it for so long, and to take on the hotly contested 7pm slot with a completely new venture. We were facing an incumbent show already enjoying high ratings and I had never been in a competitive situation before. When you’re the newcomers it’s always going to be a big ask.”

A big ask it may have been, but the Campbell Live team has certainly risen to the challenge. In 2006 the show won two awards at the Qantas Television Awards, for Best Current Affairs Series and Best News or Current Affairs Presenter for John Campbell. “Frankly we were thrilled and blown away to win the awards. They were for a particularly important story we put together on broadband which highlighted John’s brilliance as an interviewer and underlined the skills of a couple of the reporters on the programme. We’re a small team and not as well resourced as the other network, but that’s the story of TV3. What we lack in technical resources we make up for in spades through the commitment and tenacity of the people who work here.”

Being responsible for the production of 22 minutes of nightly current affairs television is no easy job. Carol jokingly says her day starts “with my two squabbling children” (they’re now 12 and 6) before she heads into the office at around 8.30am. An editorial meeting with the news producers of 3 News is followed by another editorial meeting with John Campbell and two other Campbell Live producers. “Essentially the buck stops with me, with my role to be the arbiter on story selection and to run the budget of the show, while allocating the resources and stories to the different reporters.” She also helps with the selection of interview subjects, writes intros or promos, and subs the reporter’s scripts. “We’re particularly lucky that our boss Mark Jennings has given us a lot of autonomy. I think many people would have baulked at giving John and I the kind of freedom we’ve had with the show, but Mark relishes it, and has no problem managing the reasonably creative and volatile personalities you find across the board in the television business.”

Two years on, Carol says she feels “really good” about her transition from front person to executive producer. “Probably the most enjoyable part of my job now is watching the development of the younger reporters on the team and being able to give them the opportunities I was given as a young director working in news and current affairs.”

Carol’s own career in television began more than 20 years ago when she joined TVNZ as a sub-editor on late night news show Eyewitness. Before joining TV3, she had stints on and off camera with Fair Go, Crimewatch, Holmes, Frontline and Assignment. “I have had some fantastic experiences, filming in amazing places such as New York and South Africa.” She was thrilled when a woman came up to her at a recent event for Heart Children of New Zealand to say she remembered a story Carol had worked on with Anita McNaught 14 years ago, which prompted the government to look at providing more funding for heart children not on waiting lists. “It was an extremely proud moment to know the story had made a difference to the woman and her child, and that it still resonated with her after all this time.”

Campbell Live is not the first show Carol and John Campbell have collaborated on. While working together as newsreaders Carol produced both Home Truths and A Queen’s Tour, which he presented. “Although it was a lot of extra work on top of newsreading, I was keen not to lose my skills as a programme maker. John and I have complementary skills and very similar instincts in terms of the way we view news and current affairs, and had a lot of fun making those shows together.” She says the opportunity to make a 7pm current affairs show was a natural next step for the pair given John Campbell’s “extremely great” skills as a front person, and Carol’s extensive background working behind the camera.

With so many highlights in her career, Carol says possibly her “greatest moment on television ever” in terms of street cred was the appearance of her cartoon alter-ego in six episodes of the cult Kiwi comedy hit Bro Town. “My son and daughter were thrilled at my association with the show, and I have the hugest respect for its producers. Plus I had the best cleavage of my life in cartoon form,” she laughs.

Carol says her children are fairly blasé about having a parent who pops up on television occasionally, although when her son was much younger he did once howl, “I want the pretty Mummy”, while lying on the couch with Carol watching one of her pre-recorded segments. As she doesn’t get home until around 8pm after working a ten or eleven hour day, Carol says she has little energy left for anything outside her family. “I usually just want to sit down with them, eat some food, enjoy a glass of wine and watch some rubbishy TV.”

Since Campbell Live went to air she has cut down the number of gigs she MC’s but still has an association with a number of charities.  With the show taking up so much time, there is little opportunity for Carol and John Campbell to pursue other television projects at this stage. “We are locked into a pretty competitive ratings battle with our rival, so all our focus goes into producing the best current affairs show we possibly can.”

Whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Carol Hirschfeld continues to play a major part in the production of our daily diet of news and current affairs, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a very exciting business to be involved in.”

FIVE TIPS FOR ASPIRING TELEVISION JOURNALISTS

  1. Be tenacious. It’s a tough field to break into but good things (like a job!)  do come to those who keep trying.
  2. Be nosey. Journalism is a career that rewards the curious.
  3. Be prepared to work under pressure. Like a lot of jobs television journalism is about tight deadlines. Editors and producers do not favour those who miss their time slots.
  4. Be flexible. Journalism is not for 9 to 5 time-servers. The hours can be unpredictable as are the situations you may find yourself in.
  5. Be brave. The best journalists are those who have the courage to think and act independently. They draw on the facts to reach the truth,  even when the prevailing thought may be against them.

By Jo Bailey