Saturday, January 3, 2009

Why are you promoting the competition?

If I'm a morning anchor at a CBS station, I'm certainly not going to talk about last night's episode of Desperate Housewives.

If I work for an NBC affiliate, I'm not going to talk about CSI.

Memo to people who work at the affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS, and the CW... your station doesn't broadcast American Idol.

I continue to be amazed at the non-Fox station employees who spend time promoting the competition. It's one thing to talk about the Super Bowl, which is an event. But to devote any time at all to a reality show airing on another station simply doesn't make sense. If you send even a handful of viewers over to another station, and one of those people has a ratings diary, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

American Idol may be the most watched show in America, but if you break it down, 90 percent of the population doesn't watch. Do the math.

Does it really make sense to tell your viewers you're hooked on another network's show? Of course not.

So here's a delayed New Year's resolution for you... if you don't work for a Fox station, American Idol doesn't exist when you're on the air. If you want to win the ratings battle, promote your own network.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mailbag: Can you help the competition?


I'm a brand new reporter and the other day was sent to cover a news conference. The other two stations were there. As we were packing up one of the other reporters was doing a separate interview and the photog's camera battery died. My photog lent him a spare, and the guy used it until he finished the interview.

Is this common practice? I thought we were supposed to be fighting the competition.

-Rookie Reporter

Dear Rookie,

What you saw happens all the time and is just a matter of common courtesy. Batteries die, tapes run out, and it's okay to help out the other guys. You'll forget a pen, pad or microphone someday. On that day you'll be glad your photog was nice to the competition, because you'll be the one in need of a favor.

You beat the competition by digging harder for facts and hustling more. If the other guy has technical problems, you haven't really beaten them... and if it happens to you, they haven't beaten you.

It's a very small business, and many times a simple act of courtesy can be remembered well down the road and pay dividends for you.


You talk a lot about stations being truly strapped for money. But how is it that my station can afford a chopper, which mainly covers odd and non-news things, but can hire more staff?

-Chopper Curious

Dear Chopper,

Well, some companies have deep pockets. Some companies plead poverty while their corporate execs fly private jets. And some companies just know how to manage money and invest it in news gathering.

Trust me, there are plenty of ways to cut costs without cutting people and equipment. Maybe the chopper has a sponsor, maybe your station leases it by the hour or shares it with other companies.

Look at it this way, if television stations were in such horrible shape, why are people lining up to buy them?

Learn to read a corporate balance sheet and you might find the answer.

By the way, politicians spent about three billion dollars on TV advertising in 2008. Not exactly chump change.

Dear Grapevine,

I'm looking for my first job and I've heard people say that certain places are "good news towns." What does that mean?

-Looking for a foot in the door

Dear Looking,

Generally people describe towns with a lot of scanner news as "good news towns." In reality, that means news that falls in your lap.

Every town can be a good news town for you, provided you are willing to actually dig up your own stories. You can turn great stories in the sleepiest markets if you take the initiative. Be pro-active instead of waiting for the stories to come to you.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Need a resolution? Try one of these...

Don't need to lose weight? Don't smoke? Well, that doesn't mean you can't change for the better in 2009... and maybe have a positive effect on your newsroom and the business.

So if you're stuck for a resolution, consider one of these:

-I will treat photogs better. Buy them coffee, cold sodas, carry the gear, offer to drive once in awhile, include them in discussions about how to approach stories. And if you're a producer, stop ordering them around.

-I will respect station equipment. You're not paying for it, so why care, right? Well, that editing system that broke down because people treated it like junk costs the same amount to replace as your salary. The job you save might be your own.

-I will apply to every job that interests me, regardless of my experience level.

-If a job advertisement reads, "No phone calls" I will not call a News Director.

-I will look for stories that make a difference, or spotlight people who do.

-I will look for enterprise stories that have nothing to do with crime.

-I will not yell or scream in the newsroom, nor will I create drama.

-I will put every package together as if it were my last.

-I will reach out to every new employee and make them feel welcome, even if they got the job that I wanted.

-If I'm an anchor I will write more of my newscast.

-If I'm a young producer or reporter I will ask veterans for advice.

-I will get involved in the community, volunteering for some sort of charity work.

-If I'm a veteran I will pay it forward, and offer advice to young people entering the business.

-I will be objective and not let my personal political views enter into my story.

-I will never tell anyone how I voted, nor offer personal opinions of any politician.

-I will try new things to make myself more versatile and therefore more marketable.

-I will remember that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing, and live by that principle.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Grape's fearless 2009 predictions

As I gaze into my crystal ball I ask what lies ahead for the broadcast industry for the coming year. Clouds form, but begin to thin out, and give me a clear picture of what you can expect in 2009...

-The industry will finally "bottom out" and begin to recover. Layoffs will slow, the economy will recover (more about that in a moment) and purse strings will begin to loosen up. And more important, stations will start hiring again.

-The economy will recover beginning January 21st. All those media people who wanted a certain person in the White House and pounded the general public with gloom and doom economic stories... well, those people want to keep that certain person in the White House. Slowly, subtly, positive economic stories will find their way onto the networks. The good feeling will trickle down to the broadcast industry. (Ironic, though, how those negative economic stories came back to bite those in the industry in the form of layoffs.)

-More and more young people will break into large markets as middle-aged veterans get out of the business. There will never be greater opportunities for someone with limited experience... but you'll still need a ton of talent. In other words, don't be afraid to send a tape anywhere in 2009.

-February 17th will be a day you want to take off. When that digital switch hits, everything will hit the fan, and George Carlin's Flying Mongolian Cluster will become reality. Every senior citizen who can't tune in The Price is Right or Murder She Wrote reruns will call your station to complain. I pity the engineers who work that day.

-Some stations will finally realize one-man-bands are the wrong way to go and ditch the concept. Others will hold onto it like grim death, along with their lousy ratings. (But the bean counters will be happy.)

-A few major market stations will experiment with one-man-bands. The Mets will also try to go through another season without a legitimate second baseman. Both experiments will fail miserably.

-A network morning show producer will get hit by a revelation that half the people on the planet are men and don't care for daily stories about purses and shoes.

-More major market stations will try using a few freelance reporters. If you can live without benefits or have a spouse who provides them, here's your chance for a foot in the door.

-RTNDA will have an incredibly low turnout.

-(I hope I'm wrong about this one.) Some idiot local anchor will get a DUI. Anchor will then offer a mea culpa saying, "I made an error in judgment." (Note: painting your kitchen the wrong color is an error in judgment. Getting behind the wheel while drunk is just plain stupid.) Anchor will not be fired, as GM will announce, "Our anchor has received an outpouring of support from the community, and we're going to help our anchor get through this." (Note to GMs: three emails from barflies does not constitute an "outpouring of support.") Station will turn anchor's "recovery" into a sweeps series.

-Men wearing vests will be the hot new trend for guys.

-Women not dying their hair will be the hot new trend for gals.

-Stations will start putting interns on the air. (In some markets, that could be an improvement.)

-More sports guys will start joining the news department, as the shortage of male newscasters continues.

-Some stations will actually cut down on the number of newscasts, as a smaller staff and higher DVR use will dictate changes. Also, because in some markets, there's simply not enough news to fill all the slots with a smaller staff.

-Noon newscasts will begin to die a slow, grisly (well deserved) death.

-More consultants will be typing their own resumes.

-And until you can pry his laptop from his cold, dead fingers, the Grape will continue to offer advice and tick off News Directors by revealing secrets of management. (And now that I'm talking about myself in the third person, I guess I have to run for office.)

Finally, a serious note. Can we get through one New Year's Eve without some news person getting a DUI and seeing their mugshot on the Internet? Please, if you're going out drinking, put the phone number of a cab company in your cell phone and spend ten bucks to get home safely and not endanger other innocent people. Or be the designated driver. You can have a Happy New Year without being stupid.

That said, best to all of you in 2009. I look forward to hearing your success stories.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thank you, Houston, for proving my point

Some of the websites devoted to television news have been burning up the last day or so with comments about a reporter hired right out of college to work in Houston. This person is not one of my clients, I have never spoken to her, and unless she's one of the dozens of people who send anonymous questions to the Grapevine, I haven't corresponded.

But she proved that it pays to send a tape anywhere.

Many comments touched on the fact that dues were not paid and experience was not earned. While people traditionally work in smaller markets and move up the ladder, some people are just naturals at this business. I have no idea why the ND in Houston hired this woman. Maybe she fits what he or she was looking for. Maybe she had tremendous potential. Maybe she has "IT" in capital letters. Maybe she's just flat out smart. Some people are just really good right out of the gate. I've seen tapes from college with packages that are better than the ones I see from twenty year veterans. Some people just have a natural gift that defies all tradition. So why did she get the job?

Doesn't matter. She had the guts to apply for the job and got it.

Are the people complaining jealous, or just mad at themselves for not sending a tape to Houston?

I have a few clients who have so much talent I would bet the mortgage that they will end up in major markets or at a network. Yet I still have to twist arms to get them to go to the post office. (And you guys know who you are!)

If this Houston hire doesn't serve as a wake up call to all of you, it should.

And please, don't hate this poor woman. Would you, in the same position, tell the ND, "Oh, you shouldn't hire me. I need to go off and pay my dues."

Maybe she'll be a star, maybe she'll be out of the business in a few years. The point is, you all need to follow her lead and send tapes to any opening you see.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Video wallpaper

We're putting up wallpaper today. Wallpaper always looks spectacular when you first put it up, then as time goes by it fades into the background. In a year or two I won't even be able to tell you what it looks like, even though I'll see it every day.

Newscasts run the risk of being video wallpaper as well. When you look at the same thing day after day, you don't really "see" anymore. It fades into the background.

Doing the same stories every day creates video wallpaper for your newscast. If you are constantly chasing the scanner, running crime stories that affect no one, or talking to officials instead of people, you can send your viewers into a kind of hypnosis. Ever get to the end of a newscast (as a viewer, not a news person) and forget the stories you've just watched? That's video wallpaper.

Seen one car wreck, you've seen them all. Fires? Flames are flames. Same goes with crime. (Is there any video more boring than that associated with a bank robbery? A closed door with police tape. Riveting. Yet an anchor makes it sound like the end of the world.) Same with talking heads.

If you don't want to send your viewers into a hypnotic trance, you need to mix things up. Stop covering the things that always look the same, and dig up some real stories.

Oh yeah, this applies to resume tapes as well. If I see another resume tape that begins with a car wreck or a murder, well...

I forgot what I was going to say. Guess I went into a trance.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No such thing as a meaningless story

This afternoon, my New York Giants play a meaningless football game. The outcome has no bearing on their position in the playoffs. Their goal is simple; don't let anyone get hurt.

TV is a little different. There's no such thing as a meaningless story.

This time of year the phrase, "No one is watching" is heard in every station. Ratings bear out that viewership is down during the holidays, and the scenario feeds on itself. Networks put garbage on the air, so why should anyone watch? Trust me, this year, more than ever, people are home watching television because they don't want to go out and spend money.

And when everyone else is phoning it in, it creates a perfect opportunity for you to knock out some great work. A great package can stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of stories that have no life.

Who's watching? You never know. You may be working in Podunk but might not know that a big market ND is from the same town and visiting his mother. So he turns on the TV to check out the local news and sees... you doing a great package.

A GM is driving cross country and stops in a hotel in your market, turns on the TV and sees... you.

I'm willing to bet the people who work in Las Vegas give 110 percent the week that RTNDA is in town. They're just hoping someone will spot them. Because lots of people are in town who could change their lives.

Someone is always watching. Make sure when someone who can change your life is watching, you're out there doing your best.