Saturday, June 20, 2009

No b-roll? No problem!

A very creative approach to a story with little video...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Why viewers won't let their kids watch local news

It's called "desensitization."

And it's part of the reason viewership of local news continues to head into the abyss.

What does it mean? Well, if your local news leads every day with a murder, then after awhile murders aren't exactly that unusual. And young people watching the news start to think that if murders are basic, everyday occurrences, they can't be all that bad. "Geez dad, murders happen all the time. What's the big deal?"

When young people see this every day, the shock value of a murder begins to fade. They lose their sensitivity to it, and become desensitized. Does this make them more likely to commit murder? To think less of the value of human life? I'm not a psychologist, but I'd guess in some cases the answer is yes.

And it does make parents turn on Raymond instead of your local news.

Remember, we live in a society of obsessive parents. Helicopter parents. Parents who, with enough money, would put their kids in a protective bubble till they're eighteen. If they think something on television is affecting their little darlings, they'll turn on something else.

And if they're not letting their kids watch, they're not watching. Remember, helicopter parents let their kids decide what radio station to listen to and what stations to watch.

While I don't expect stations to stop chasing the scanner (it's too damned easy, right?) I would hope producers keep their more gruesome stories for the late newscast when hopefully the munchkins are tucked in bed.

A while back someone came up with the term "family sensitive news" and the theory was that you kept stuff like grisly crimes off the early newscasts. It was a great idea then, and it still is.

Next time you cover a story about a teenager who has killed someone, think about where he might have gotten the idea that it isn't such a big deal.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Have a little class out there

During the day I listen to sports radio WFAN out of New York on the internet, and one of the topics was about how horrible Joe Buck's new talk show was on HBO. I had the thing on my DVR, so I sat down to watch.

They weren't kidding. The show started out being painful to watch, and gradually got worse. By the end it had descended into a parade of F-bombs and one line that was in incredibly bad taste. Brett Favre even let a four letter word fly.

I could only wonder what Joe's father Jack would say if he were alive.

I'd met Jack Buck, the legendary Cardinals announcer, when I was in Cooperstown covering the Hall of Fame inductions one year. (I'd gotten lucky in that our sports guy had left, we were short handed, and I was a baseball nut.) Anyway, I spotted Buck standing alone for a moment and approached him, just to shake his hand. The guy couldn't have been more charming, asking me about myself, my career, giving advice. What a class guy.

I'd like to think his son has the same attitude, and if he does, he needs to totally revamp his show and tape the thing. All sorts of bad stuff can happen on live television, and this was a perfect example.

But it brings up the notion of class, and how little of it we see in our world today, particularly from people in the public eye.

While I'm not surprised that football players swear, Brett Favre should know that millions of kids look up to him. I can only imagine some eight year old in Green Bay watching this show with his dad and enduring the parade of profanity.

But class is more than just words... it's how you conduct yourself. My father used to shake his head when he'd see some guy in a nice restaurant with a baseball hat on. "Cafone," he'd say, which is loosely translated in Italian to mean, "No class. No manners."

If you work in television, you're always in the public eye. Do what you want in private, but when you're out and about, remember that people are watching. And when you meet people, send them away thinking that you were brought up right, and a real classy person.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Stick a fork in me: How to know when to get out of the business

I've gotten a lot of comments from people thinking about getting out of the business. Most of these are from people of my generation, but lately the twenty-somethings are chiming in with the same thoughts. While that is much too young to give up on a dream, this is a business in which you must follow your heart. If reporting is in your blood, it's hard to get it out.

So I thought I'd relate the story of the day I knew it was time. We'd been out shooting weather video of some torrential rains when we were sent to a road construction site nearby. A road crew worker had actually slipped and been sucked into a storm drain and drowned. It was one of those sad, freakish things that happen every once in awhile. So we did our live shots at noon, knocked out a package for the newscast, and went home.

That evening the EP called me and told me the network wanted either me or the weatherman to do a live interview on their morning show to talk about the storm and the accident. I'd have to be at the station at four in the morning, and I knew the ND wouldn't cut me any slack and make me work my regular shift. It would be at least a fifteen hour day.

I told the EP to let the weatherman do it.

And that's when I knew I was done. Even the lure of a network live shot was outweighed by a good night's sleep.

While I still work in news and still get pumped for the great stories I work for the networks, I'm not in front of the camera anymore and it doesn't matter. Why? Well, at that point in my career I'd pretty much done everything I'd wanted to do, and I wasn't going to move any higher up the ladder. Chasing a brass ring is something everyone should do, but when it gets tarnished it's time to move on.

There are all sorts of factors that weighed into my decision. Management was a big one, but it simply wasn't that much fun anymore. It had become work. A career had become a job. The big markets weren't calling.

But it's different for everyone. One day when I was working in New York I had the pleasure of working alongside Gabe Pressman, a Big Apple reporting icon who at the time was 84 years old. He still had the fire I had when I broke into the business. For him, the career virus that ran through his veins never left.

I'd also left the business about ten years into my career because I simply couldn't stand the News Director. But in that case I got back in a year later.

So how will you know? You just do. But the decision has to come from within, and cannot have anything to do with bad companies, cylon News Directors or low salaries. It's not a question of being able to live with your career, but rather, can you live without it?

I've known people who have gone into PR and been bored out of their minds. I've known others who have gone into sales and returned to news. Before you move on to something else, you have to know if that something else will give you the rush you get from TV. Or if you even need the rush anymore.

No one can tell you how far you'll go in this business or what the business will be like in five or ten years. The only thing to consider is your own heart, and whether or not you still love what you do when you remove all the outside influences.

And, by the way, you'll need a "replacement dream" to take the place of the television version. Creative people aren't nine-to-five assembly line workers. If you do leave, you'll need a new goal. I have a new dream, and it keeps me rolling just fine.

I once got a fortune cookie that read, "Without dreams you have no future." Truer words were never spoken.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

News Director's playbook: Anatomy of a budget, part three

Okay, the final post on this subject will talk about the future. Since the most asked question I get is, "Where is this business going?" I'm going to pretend I'm working at a station and planning for the next few years. My objective is to actually increase my news gathering capabilities without going the one-man-band route, and without firing anyone. This is part budget, part news strategy.

Personally, I don't think stations can cut much more than they already have. What I see happening is a re-shifting of resources. I think we're going to come full circle to the days when I got into the business, when most of the personnel was out gathering news. The business has become too top heavy with producers and behind the scenes people to the point that there aren't enough reporters and photogs out in the field. (Incredibly, we now actually have News Directors who have never, ever been out on a story.)

There are more technology changes coming. The Internet has been driving a dagger into the heart of the business. When the Internet was taking off, many corporate types were glowing about how it was going to really bring a ton of money into the business. "Embrace the Internet!" Those of us in newsrooms wondered why we were telling people to turn off the TV and go to their computers with Internet references every two minutes. Well, it worked. People went to their computers and stayed there, and it's killing the business. Nice going, beancounters.

But the Internet is about to provide something that will save local stations some serious money...maybe some money they can put into salaries?

So let's take a look at some things which might affect the budget in the near future. The object is to get more bang for the buck without cutting quality... and hopefully improving it.

-Technology: Some markets have been experimenting with Skype, which let's you transmit a live shot by hooking your camera into a laptop and sending the signal over the Internet. The sample shot I saw looked good.

So if I'm a ND with an old microwave or satellite truck on its last legs, I'm not going to replace it. Why spend more than six figures of a piece of equipment when I can buy a laptop? And imagine the savings on gas, maintenance, and operating costs of a live truck.

-Consultants: A no-brainer. Outta here. I think more broadcast groups will do what many have already done; taken their consultants in-house. If you've got a dozen News Directors working for the company, use their expertise to critique one another's newscasts. Or designate one of them as VP of News and make that person your consultant. But wasting money on stuff you can do yourself like research just doesn't make sense any more.

-A return to reporter driven newscasts. As producers leave, I'm going to replace them with reporters or photogs. I need people in the field gathering news, not people with no experience ordering them around. The remaining producers can produce more than one show, and the anchors need to pitch in a lot more in this area. When I got in the business we had no producers at our first station; the anchors produced the shows. Without computers. They looked fine.

-Get the anchors out into the field. Many work hard, but the two hour dinner breaks taken by some anchors must end. This will add substance to the product.

-No more co-anchors. As co-anchors leave, I'm replacing them with reporters and photogs. A return to the single anchor newscast will be a necessity. The salary saved can be used for more people in the field. I just don't think viewers care anymore unless you have a longtime well-established anchor team. Content is king.

-Hybrid news cars. Another no-brainer. Maybe a few electric ones for stories that are within range. (I can see it now. "Hi, I'm from EyeMissedIt News and my car ran out of juice. Can I plug in to your garage for awhile?")

-Trade out what you can. Cars, hair care, makeup, travel, whatever. When in doubt, trade it out.

-Weathercasters have to report on occasion. With the environment becoming more and more important, it's imperative for stations to have someone who can do science pieces. And let's be honest here... it doesn't take all day to put together a forecast. More substance to the newscast. So as weather people leave I'm going to hire weather people who can knock out a package. Or reporters who have an interest in weather.

I'm sure there will be more things we can't even imagine yet, but those are some ideas for the horizon. There are ways to get through these tough economic times; we just need managers with enough vision to see them.