Friday, May 29, 2009

Jay Leno

I thought we'd end the week with a story about a guy whose fame and fortune didn't go to his head.

Before Jay Leno became host of the Tonight Show, he used to travel around the country visiting local NBC affiliates and making appearances on newscasts. He'd meet the staff, knock out some promos, and do just about everything we asked.

Our weatherman was in the middle of his cast at the almanac graphic, running down the highs and lows of the previous day. Leno walks into the shot and says, "Excuse me, aren't you supposed to be predicting the weather? So why are you telling people what happened yesterday?" Everyone just lost it.

Back in the day the network used to have these junkets in which a reporter and photog would fly to LA and spend a week in Hollywood. They'd line up actors from all sorts of shows for you to interview. You didn't even need b-roll, as they'd send you home with clips of every actor.

On one such trip we were very excited when we saw Leno was on the list. We were to meet him on the set of the Tonight Show early that afternoon. That morning his publicist called and said, "Jay won't be able to meet you on the set."

I was really disappointed. Until the publicist said, "Could you possibly help us out and meet him at his home?"

An hour later we're tooling through Beverly Hills and down Leno's driveway, where he was tinkering with his car collection. The guy has this massive garage with some of the most beautiful vintage cars I've ever seen. He comes out, greets us, asks us if we need something to drink, and asks what we need. Then he proudly gives us a tour of his car collection.

So we do an interview by the pool (a spectacular house, by the way) and then Leno says, "So, what else do you need? How about some promos?"

He comes up with an idea on the spot in which he is the mechanic fixing my car. "I'll pull one of them into the sun for you," he says. "Which one did you like the best?"

I mentioned I liked the blue convertible, but it's buried back in the garage behind a bunch of other cars. "Okay, I'll get it," he says. "You'll have to move a whole bunch of cars," I said. "The one near the door is fine." But Leno insisted on bringing out the blue convertible. He spent fifteen minutes jockeying cars around the garage until he got the blue one out.

The promo we did was a classic. I'm standing up in front of the convertible. The hood is up, and Leno is dressed in mechanic overalls and bent down so you only see the top of his head and you don't know it's him. I ask, "So what's wrong with it?" Then he stands up and goes on this long spiel about our newscast, and how viewers will get "better performance" if they watch it.

We were there about ninety minutes. We never did meet Mrs. Leno, as we were told she was terribly camera shy. But we left with a great memory of a guy who rolled out the red carpet when he had no reason to.

It's that kind of class that is rarely seen in our business today. If you watch Leno's last show tonight, just keep in mind that he's a guy who made it to the top by being nice.

It can happen to you as well.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How you can tell if you hate your current job

If you saw the movie trailer for "Drag Me To Hell" and said to yourself, "I'm already there."

Metal or plastic?

The other day our vacuum cleaner gave up the ghost. Since the thing had lasted an incredible 19 years, I wanted another one from the same company, Princess. It had been an expensive purchase, but in reality it really hadn't since it lasted so long. The thing was well constructed out of metal.

I headed to the vacuum shop owned by a guy I know and asked for another one. Turned out the company had gone out of business. (Thank you, NAFTA.) I looked around the store... there must have been fifty different vacuum cleaners from which to choose. I asked which ones were made out of metal and weren't made in China, as I was tired of cheap plastic junk that falls apart.

Incredibly, there was only one. Something called a "Riccar." The guy put a "suction gauge" on the thing and it easily outperformed some well known plastic models, which amazingly weren't that cheap. So I bought it. It even comes with a ridiculously long warranty. The company obviously believes in its product. And, it's made in the USA!

So where is this "vacuum-cleaner-and-how-it-translates-to-news" metaphor taking us?

It's metal versus plastic. Quality versus cheap junk. Something that's thrown together versus something that is put together with care and effort.

Think about that when you're putting your story together. Have you really taken the time and care to make sure each story is as good as it can be? Or is it as flimsy as the products we're importing these days? Did you approach the story with the attitude that since it's not going on a resume tape, you can phone it in? Or did you treat it like it might be the last story you'll ever do?

When we first get into this business, we give one hundred percent. As we learn and gain experience, our work becomes better, more solid. But along the way (and this happens to everyone) we can get worn down. The muse wants a vacation. The company is treating you badly. Your ND is a jerk.

Doesn't matter. You still have to turn out a quality product.

NDs in big markets with money to spend will spend it on quality people.

Don't let your product turn into plastic.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mailbag: Whack jobs have ratings diaries too


What is the best way to get crazy viewers off the phone when they call the newsroom?

Oh, man, does this bring back some classic memories. I've talked to some incredible loons in every station I've worked. What the heck, I'll share some of the all time great ones:

-While working at an NBC affiliate, a viewer came up and asked if he could come to the station and meet Mr. T, then starring in a show called "The A-Team." I tried to explain that the show was shot in Hollywood, but the man insisted cameras were rolling in Roanoke, Virginia. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I told the guy, "Look, Mr. T. is very a private person. If you give me your address I'll have him send you a picture." I took the man's info and forwarded it on to the network.

-While working at an ABC affiliate, we would field regular calls for Peter Jennings. After fruitless attempts to convince the man the network news was not headquartered in our station, we decided to play along. Every time the guy called, we'd yell, "Hey, anybody seen Peter Jennings?" Someone else would say, "He's on his dinner break." Peter Jennings was always on assignment, out to dinner, on vacation, or at a parent-teacher conference. The guy politely bought all of it.

-At an affiliate that carried Oprah, one woman continually called suggesting local restaurants that served healthy dishes in an effort to help her lose weight. We told her we'd pass on her suggestions. She stopped calling when Oprah dropped a few sizes.

-One station had a special telephone number that listed job openings. The last four numbers of the line spelled the word "work." A man called and complained the line had been disconnected. When the reporter asked if he was calling the "work" number, the guy said, "Yeah. 555-W-O-O-K." The reporter said, "Maybe that's why you don't have a job."

-At an affiliate along the gulf coast, one caller wanted to know if the beaches in Panama City, Florida were safe from attack by those who wanted to overthrow the government. When I asked what she meant, she said, "Well, those Sandanistas might be there. Nicaragua is near Panama City." (At the time Central America was having problems with revolutionaries.) I assured her that there were no terrorists on Florida beaches.

Bottom line, sometimes you can't win an argument with these people, so it's best to just agree with them and play along. If you can't get off the phone, write a note to the person at the next desk and have yourself paged. Then make sure the caller hears the page as you politely say, "I've got another call."

But as much as you want to just hang up, you have to keep in mind that ratings companies don't discriminate based on intelligence. Stephen Hawking might have one diary, and a guy who could work as a crash dummy for Chrysler might have another. Each one counts equally.


Physically, what's the first thing you notice about a reporter?

Well, every manager has his or her own thing, but for me it was eyes. You could have the most attractive person in the world, but if the eyes had no life in them they just didn't connect.

On the opposite side of the coin, take an average looking person with incredibly expressive eyes, and that kind of animation takes the person to the next level.

You don't have to be Mary Hart, but use your eyes when on camera. They tell the story as much as your words.

If you don't look excited and interested in your own story, the viewers won't care either.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Angels & Demons

Nope, not a review of the new movie. Rather a test to see which category you're in... or what direction you're headed.

Okay, grab your pencils and let's go...

1. You've stumbled on a terrific story, one that will no doubt go on your resume tape. But there's no way you can get out of editing your sweeps piece today. Do you...

A: Give the story to another reporter.

B: Keep it to yourself and hope the competition doesn't break it.

2. You've applied for the vacant weekend anchor position, along with others in the newsroom. The ND decided to hire someone from another station. Do you...

A: Welcome the new person with open arms, help the new anchor find a place to live and get settled, and offer assistance in the newsroom.

B: Not talk to the new person and treat the new anchor like a leper.

3. A politician tells you something, but stresses it is "off the record." Do you...

A: Keep the secret.

B: Broadcast the information anyway.

4. You're assigned to do a ridiculous live shot. Upon arriving at the location your photog finds he cannot get the shot in. Do you...

A: Ask the photog if he can move the truck and try again.

B: Call the station and tell them you can't get a signal.

5. You're a one-man-band shooting a feature at a strawberry festival. When you're done the organizers give you a giant tray of strawberries. Do you...

A: Bring the berries back to the newsroom so that everyone can enjoy them.

B: Stop by your apartment on the way home and put them in the fridge.

6. You're covering a media event. A one-man-band from the competition discovers she has forgotten to bring videotape, and you have extras. Do you...

A: Offer her a spare tape.

B: Do nothing and watch her freak out.

7. You're assigned to cover a politician who personally disgusts you with his policies. Do you...

A: Put aside your feelings and cover him objectively.

B: Slant the coverage to make him look bad.

8. You know of an opening at another station and you're going to send a tape. That same day one of your co-workers is laid off. Do you...

A: Share the opening with the person who is now out of work.

B. Say nothing.

9. One of your co-workers comes down with the flu. The person is new at the station, thousands of miles from home, and single. Do you...

A: Drop by with some soup and orange juice.

B: Do nothing.

10: You're covering a tragedy. A family member comes up to you after you've shot video and says, "Please don't put my parents on camera." Do you...

A: Do the story without putting the parents on camera.

B: Ignore the request.

So, are you an Angel or a Demon? Obviously, the more times you answered "A" the closer you are to getting a halo.


8-10 A's: You're close to sainthood. You're an Angel.

5-7 A's: You're basically a good person, but you need a little work to earn your wings.

2-4 A's: You may rise to the top by steamrolling people, but you won't last there long.

0-1 A's: You have a future in management. Congratulations! Grab your pitchfork and let's rock!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day coverage

Many of you who are working tomorrow will no doubt be assigned to cover a Memorial Day tribute.

The thing to remember is that stories like these are photographers stories, and for those of you who are one-man-bands, you need to let your cameras do the talking.

You need to let the sound and pictures carry the story. You'll get a bugler blowing taps, or someone on bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. You'll see some crusty old veterans in wheelchairs, and some young ones missing limbs. You'll see widows wiping away a tear.

Words are not necessary.

Keep the copy to a minimum. You don't need to do a standup.

And remember, there's a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. If you don't know what it is, look it up.

While many see this day as something to create a long weekend or a shopping bonanza, make sure you do justice to the real meaning of Memorial Day.

And to those of you who've served, thanks for giving us the freedom to write whatever we want.