Friday, December 19, 2008

Are you miscast?

In the annals of Hollywood, it is generally accepted that the most miscast movie in history is Guys and Dolls. That's the one in which some producer hired Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando for the film, then gave Sinatra the talking part and Brando the singing part.

Last night we sat down to watch Mamma Mia. (Cut me some slack here... all New York men love musicals.) Anyway, as the movie starts I'm looking at the DVD box and note that it stars Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. So I'm naturally assuming that they must have talking parts in the movie.

Nope. Now Streep is a wonderful actress and Brosnan's James Bond beats the heck out of the new guy, but when these two sang a duet...

Mamma Mia.

If my cat Bella had sharpened her claws on a blackboard it would have sounded better.

I'm sure both Streep and Brosnan took the roles because they were a nice change of pace and a lot of fun. And that brings me to my point.

Have you tried everything in this business? Since a lot of you are re-thinking a career in broadcasting, perhaps you're being a bit too narrow minded in your planning.

Over the years I've done just about everything, from morning show weather (worst shift in TV) to play-by-play (best gig ever.) But for about ten years I did nothing but features, and then when consultants decided that no one wanted to watch features anymore, I was stuck. I had, effectively, pigeon-holed myself.

These days versatility is very marketable. People who can do more than one thing are valuable to a News Director. You may like what you do, but there might be something out there you like even better... and you might even be better at it.

Let's say your reporting career is going nowhere after five years but you're known as the best writer in the newsroom. Perhaps you need to try producing. Or the weekend weatherman quits and the ND can't find a suitable replacement. Throw your hat in the ring and give it a shot. Or maybe you've always wondered if you'd be a decent anchor but there are never any openings; ask the ND if you can do the morning cut-ins.

The point is, lots of people will have to be flexible in the coming years. You may have wanted to just be a street reporter all your life, but you owe it to yourself to explore all aspects of the business. And trust me, this will give you a lot more options if one of those pink slips ever lands on your desk.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mailbag: Second Thoughts


My station laid off a few people earlier this month. They decided to cancel the morning show, which I produced. I can't help but feel slighted after putting in over a year working the "graveyard shift" and being a trooper through some tough times. I literally lived there during Hurricane Gustav, which hit our market pretty hard. This lay-off has me taking a hard look at myself and my future in journalism. What do you recommend for someone who feels they've been knocked down a peg?


Dear Concerned,

Well, you're not alone, but I'm sure that doesn't make you feel any better or secure. But hey, you could be a realtor or a car salesman.

Seriously, lots of people out there are re-thinking the future of the business, and as I've said before, people of my generation (those who can't do anything with a cell phone except make calls) are getting out of the business.

First, you young people need to understand there is no loyalty anymore in this business or any other. Your immediate boss may be loyal, but he or she is always at the mercy of the parent company and bean counters. You must always watch out for yourself, always have an "escape tape" at home that's ready to send out.

That said, there is a future in this business for the very talented, but the money is not going to be what it once was. More important, you also have to ask yourself about your dream. Do you want to work in television because it is a "glamour job" or do you truly burn to be part of the journalistic process? While sitting in the producer's chair, do you get a "rush" when your newscast starts and leave with a natural high when it ends? And finally, what are the alternatives... can another career fulfill you in that way? I know plenty of people who have gone into PR and been bored out of their minds writing one press release per month.

One thing in your favor; producers (good ones, anyway) are still in great demand. If you can write well, put a great show together, and work well with a team you'll find a job.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why "no comment" can be a great sound bite

You'd think that after years of dealing with television cameras that politicians would "get it" when it comes to dodging questions.

Nope. They actually think that "no comment" sends the reporter away with nothing. In reality, many sound bites without substance can speak volumes.

Here's something they didn't teach you in college... some sound bites don't need any words. They sure don't need any facts. And they don't need any answers to your question.

Case in point: Did you catch Obama's exchange with a reporter when talking about the Illinois Governor? Obama said, "I don't want you to waste your question," to the reporter. What he really said was, "I don't want to answer your question," and he didn't, but his tone, his body language, and the fact that he dodged the question was the "sound bite" that played everywhere. Good reporters smell blood in the water when they see things like this. Many times a non-answer is better than a real answer, as it was in this case. And every politician, Republican and Democrat, does this. It maybe the one non-partisan agreement in Congress.

I look back at the time I was assigned to ask a gubernatorial candidate about an extramarital affair (which turned out to be true) knowing full well I wouldn't get an answer. And I didn't get one. But his physical reaction (the death stare, twitchy lip that Elvis would envy) told viewers all they needed to know.

Got a tough question you know won't be answered? Ask it anyway. Chances are you'll get a "sound bite" that could be the money shot in your package.

The hot trend for 2009: Consumer Reporters

Yesterday I went to the store and bought the following items:
-Gallon of milk
-Can of Progresso soup
-Colgate Toothpaste
-Two bottles of Ajax dish soap
The total for this shopping extravaganza was $1.36.

You read that right: one dollar and thirty-six cents.

How did I do it? Clever use of coupons. I've been doing that since I was a kid.

Then it hit me. What has been sorely missing from local newscasts are franchise reporters. Specifically, consumer reporters.

The woman behind me in the checkout line had her jaw drop when she saw what my total was. But I wasn't using any government secret to save money. In reality, most consumers aren't terribly well educated in the art of saving money on basic stuff. While clipping coupons is pretty basic, there are all sorts of ways to cut costs, from re-financing a mortgage to using credit card reward programs.

If you're a general assignment reporter, you might start reading the money sections of newspapers along with consumer magazines. You see, viewers vote with their pocketbooks on election day, and they often do the same when it comes to local news. Show a viewer how to save a buck, and you've probably got a loyal viewer.

I truly believe we'll see a rise in consumer reports in 2009, and that means stations will need reporters who are well versed in the field. If you aren't, start reading. Interest rates are about to hit the lowest levels in history and that will have all sorts of effects on everyday life.

It's great to be a solid GA reporter, but throwing a clever consumer piece in the middle of your resume tape might give you an edge next year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas gifts for TV people

You know how some people are just impossible to buy for? Especially those people who really don't deserve a gift?

Well, fear not, the Grape has compiled a list of last minute gift ideas for TV people. If you were unlucky enough to draw the name of someone you despise in the Secret Santa game, here are some suggestions arranged by job title:

News Director: What ND wouldn't love to have a consultant at his or her beck and call 24 hours a day? That's why the "Bob the Consultant" action figure is the perfect gift. Just pull the string in the back and hear such tired cliches as, "You need a higher story count" or, "Do at least five live shots in every newscast even if there's nothing going on" and the all-time classic, "You need to do some research." Batteries not included, must deposit one thousand dollars into base of doll every ten days with no way of ever getting it back. Smoke blowing feature optional.

Lazy Anchor: Tired of your anchor taking two hour dinner breaks? Well, you need the "Dinner Break" watch. During the day it looks and operates like any other timepiece, but between the hours of 6:30pm and 8:30pm it runs at double speed. Imagine the surprise when your anchor returns to the station at 7:30 thinking it is really 8:30!

Logistics Challenged Producer: If you're a photog, you'd probably just buy a producer a map so he or she could know exactly how long it takes to get from point A to point B. Now with the "Time-Shifter GPS" a producer can be tricked into giving you the time you need. Simply plug in any destination, and the GPS will add 20 miles, thereby giving you plenty of time to get to your story. It also factors in 15 extra minutes to counteract any order to "drop whatever you're doing" so you have time to actually break down and pack your gear.

Consultant: No more templates telling stations how to run a newscast. Simply present your consultant with the new "Television Magic 8-Ball" which is just like the one you had as a kid, only it's filled with appropriate advice. The consultant can simply ask the 8-ball a question, shake it, turn it over, and wait for results like "more graphics" "less graphics" "more live shots" or "fewer live shots."

Photog: Tired of hearing how stressful it is to eat in the car? Now you can present your favorite photog with the "Steering Wheel TV Tray" which clamps onto the steering wheel and has plenty of room for an eight piece place setting. Charger plates optional. He'll feel right at home!

Bean Counter: Now you can drive these people nuts with the crystal canister of "500 colorful beans." But the dirty little secret here is that there are only 499 beans in the jar. Guaranteed to provide hours of fun as they count the beans again and again while thinking they've gone nuts!

Assignment Editor: Do you have one of those AEs who wouldn't know a good story if it hit him in the face? You need "Scanner Block." Just activate the device within 100 feet of the assignment editor and it will knock out the scanner, forcing him to assign real stories!

Reporter: Are you a photog who has to deal with a prima donna reporter? Now you can make their lives miserable too. The "Tripod Enhancer" is an easily concealed device that fits just under the tripod head, yet adds an extra 20 pounds of weight. Imagine the joy you'll experience watching your favorite reporter lug the equivalent of an anvil up a steep hill!

Well, that's it for this catalog. Of course, if you're still stuck for an idea, you can always buy the Grape's book. Links are on the right side of this page. Hint, hint...