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Thoughts on the Programme Problem

Steve Glover

The big problem with programme is originality. If an idea is tried out at an Eastercon and is seen to be successful, you can almost guarantee that by the end of the year everyone will be using it in one form or another. On the other hand, if a new idea fails disasterously, it's not likely to be re-used, no matter why it went wrong. This leads to a situation where cons have programmes drawn from a fairly short list of standard types of items: Guest of Honour talks or interviews; panels on aspects of science fact, fiction or fandom; films and (dare one admit it?) videos; a token workshop or two and a few games of one sort or another. I propose to devote a paragraph or so to each of these events. While a disco, masquerade, firework display or "banquet" are fairly regular parts of some programmes, I don't know enough about them to be able to comment usefully.

One approach to originality is to think of new things to do within this original framework. This can lead to some very contrived items indeed (how long until we see a panel on fannish filofax fillers?), but it has the advantage of not being TOO original. After all, we don't want to scare anyone off, do we? This is basically the approach we took with Lucon, although we had the additional excuse that we wanted to provide a sort of "condom sampler" of as many different types of item as possible. As it was, we were slightly overprogrammed on the day.

There isn't much scope for changing the design of a GOH speech, beyond the actual selection of the GOH. It's not a good idea to programme items opposite such speeches (at least for small cons), but I'm not sure that it's any part of a committee's job to dash around the place chasing people up for the speeches. An announcement in the bar, and perhaps a reminder to people in other rooms, but anything else seems to cause a disproportionate amount of resentment. Most GOH's are informative and entertaining enough to stand as programme items on their own merits, and the knowledge that a certain percentage of their audience is only there because everything else has been shut for an hour can't be good for the guest's self-esteem.

The GOH speech tends to be followed by a question and answer session, which could sometimes be considered as a separate programme item. This would be a good idea, if it were easier to start the conversational ball rolling. A variant on this is the GOH interview, whether carried out by a fan, the guest's agent or indeed another guest. It helps a lot if the interviewer has a good idea of what questions to ask (and not to ask?), and I'm sure that interviewing isn't as easy as it looks. In any case, the main function of a speech or interview is to allow the con members to find out more about the guest than they knew before the con. A possible new way of doing this would be to have the guest interviewed by a panel, reversing the normal chat-show ratio.

The main meat of many cons is the selection of panels, and I'm sure I can't be the only person who thinks that the standard format (four talking heads on a dais overlooking the audience) is getting somewhat tired. It is probably alright if the panel is meant as a spectator sport, with the main interest being in how the panellists interact with each other and with the subject matter, but it would be nice to encourage more participation by the audience. Depending on the size of the audience, it ought to be possible to conduct panels more as open discussions, with the seating arranged in a rough circle and the panel members (now demoted to the role of initiators) fairly well dispersed.

This still leaves the question of what panels should be about. The general introductory panel on "X for Beginners" is an easy option, but it would be rather out of place at some cons. I think that that type of panel belongs at "general purpose" cons and maybe the Eastercon, but not really at special interest cons where a certain familiarity with the subject may be assumed. Token items for special interest groups at "ordinary" cons are a good idea, but it'd be folly to do too much in that direction. To a great extent, it is easier to decide on subjects for panels once you know who's available, but it would make more sense (in terms of con coherence) to think of the panels first and then see who's able to speak on those particular items. Many panels could be spiced up no end if a taste of controversy can be introduced., "Why bother with X?" makes for a more interesting item, especially if the panellists have radically differing points of view.

The film programme deserves a lot more thought than the usual mix of recent blockbusters, cult films, turkeys and classics. It is also one of the areas where audience expectation weighs most heavily. This is partly because the film programme is one of the best selling points when trying to interest non-fans in a con. Nice though it would be to run a programme of films of interest to fans, rather than of sf/fantasy/horror films, I think you'd find you'd alienated a large proportion of your membership. One idea would be to have a common thread on which to attach the films, although if your films all stay too close to the theme you have a recipe for instant boredom. There is no reason why a film programme shouldn't include a couple of discussion items, a quiz, or at least an introduction. As to video programmes, there are circumstances where these are "legal" (the copyright holders will usually grant permission to show videos of a TV programme if one of the actors is present), but we could really do with a clarification of the law and its chances of enforcement in this area. There may be scope with the definition of "public performance" versus "private showing", but it's all rather vague and I don't know of anyone who'd like to be a test case.

Workshops seem to be the latest thing in programme design, with modest space requirements and minimal running effort. But there's more to it than just getting your "expert" in a room with the interested parties. A workshop can too easily turn into a lesson on "how to.." with very little input from the floor. While programme items like this could be rather useful (ie care and feeding of: duplicators, projectors, wordprocessors, agents, whatever), a workshop should really be more participatory, Also, almost by definition, they have a fairly low ceiling on number of participants. If half the con want to attend your workshop on X then it should have been a panel instead. Almost any major area of fannish endeavour could support a workshop, although some would have wider appeal than others.

Games at cons fall predominantly into two classes, the "Obligatory Silly Game" and the quiz, appealing respectively to the spectator and the competitor. Silly games can likewise be divided into two varieties, on the basis of type of silliness. Appearances to the contrary, there is not a Willy Rushton inside most fans trying to get out, so games of the Radio 4 variety need some kind of preparation. It is really very difficult for most people to be spontaneously funny in front of an audience, and the results can be nearly as embarrassing as when the second type of silly game goes awry. This type of game is the sort that relies for its entertainment on doing silly things to the competitors. Some of these are merely standard quizzes with penalties for wrong answers, but others in the past have been physically dangerous. It's a wonder there haven't been any hospitalisations after some of these events. Most "sensible" silly games seem to involve taking a recent TV gameshow (or old parlour game) and converting it for an audience of con-goers, although there is the occasional original idea.

Serious games (usually quizzes) tend to be fairly restricted in format, with the "Mastermind" or "University Challenge" type being the two main examples. It seems that these formats will be used for as long as there are original sets of questions, but it would be refreshing to see some other formats used. Although a lot of TV quiz shows rely on fancy hi-tech display boards and such, a blackboard and coloured chalk would do nearly as well.

Putting original ideas into the traditional slots is all very well, but for real novelty value, entire new types of programme item are called for. This requires some fairly serious original thought, and I confess that I don't have very many ideas here. I did think of filling standard one hour slots with a group of linked "short talks", to be followed by about an hour's general discussion. This, though, can be seen as just an evolutionary development of the "talking head" style of panel. As debates are quite popular, it may be worth using a few variations on that theme; the balloon debate springs to mind as having many applications.

There is a case for saying we don't want novelty, because whatever new type of item is thought up for 1989 will be worked to death by 1991 at the latest. On the other hand, the whole thing is liable to go a little stale on us if we don't have new items. Of course, not everyone goes to cons for the programme, and there is a certain implication that the programme items are for the shy new faces to hide in until they're either driven away by boredom or they get to know more people at cons. Perhaps people first started staying in the bar rather than going to programme items because they'd seen it all before?

I've only been going to cons for a few years, but I've managed to get to a fair range of different "flavours" of con and it is surprising to find that the different types of cons are so similar in terms of programme design. Perhaps the common background is responsible, or perhaps genuine evolutionary perfection has been achieved, but the fact remains that we seem to have reached some sort of stasis. This can't be healthy. Of course, we can maintain the illusion of growth by ringing a few changes on programme and continuing to attract a few more con-goers each time, people who don't realise how stale it is until they've been in a few years themselves.

We've come a long way from the days where cons were first modelled, more or less consciously, on conferences. So another model to cannibalise (if we can't come up with original additions on our own) is necessary before stasis turns to boredom.

((Yes, let's avoid boredom! As I said in the editorial, SPECULATION, the bid for Easter 1991, grew out the conviction that we had reached the stage where conventions were judged by their location or who attended them rather than on the content of their programme. I remain convinced that, given a sufficiently stimulating programme, even the most diehard barfly will go to an item or two over the weekend. The more people do the same thing at the same time and place (whether drinking, attending an item or taking part in one), the closer we get to the original idea of a convention: a get together.

Currently, if someone has a particular interest they look for it at a convention, and if it isn't there the standard response seems to be "Well, let's run a specialist convention to cater for this interest". Thus, fandom is fragmenting into smaller specialised groups. A well thought out programme would go a long way toward keeping fans together - not just for nostalgic reasons, but because a specialised programme will pall even quicker than one trying to cover the whole spectrum and the result will be further fragmentation or many fans dropping out through boredom.

So, come on all you convention runners: lets see innovative, exciting, radical programmes. You have nothing to lose but a few night's sleep!))


This page updated on 09 July 1999