Friday, August 28, 2009

Mailbag: Why consultants exist, and sweeps ideas

Grape,

Our station consultant visits three times each year and each time we seem to change our style of news. We never seem to give one concept enough time to grow. What's the deal?


First, here's the definition of consultant:

"A person who borrows your watch and then charges you to tell you what time it is."

Basically, consultants are employed for the most part because they provide an easy way to explain bad ratings. Example: bad book comes in, GM barges into ND's office for an explanation. ND says, "Well, the consultant told all our anchors to wear pink. What did you expect?" So the ND lives to fight another day and the consultant is called back in to try something else.

Think about it: if a consultant showed up and said, "Everything looks great," your station would stop paying him. So they have to change things up to keep their jobs.

What this means to the product is that it never is given time to develop. Knee-jerk reactions to ratings are the biggest reasons some last place stations never move up.


Grape,

Our ND has asked us for sweeps ideas. Just wondering where you got yours when you were a reporter.


Well, I sorta cheated. I would read the entertainment magazines and find out what big miniseries or movies were coming up in sweeps, then pitch stories that would be natural tie-ins. For instance, if the network was running a movie about some famous inventor, I'd find a local inventor. Then the station has a natural promo to run in the movie and can run your package in the late newscast.

Hot button issues are another good source, though sometimes a hot issue today might be history by November.

And if you've got some stories you've been wanting to do that need more than ninety seconds to tell, pitch them for sweeps. Usually reporters are given more time for sweeps pieces.


Grapevine,

I'm nasal. How do I fix my voice?



Well, I'm not a speech therapist, but I'd say you're "talking through your head" which is often a common problem of Midwesterners. You are probably not using your diaphragm.

Here's an exercise, and please don't laugh because it works.

Get something to read and stand up. Hold your nose so absolutely no air is getting through. Now concentrate on talking by using your diaphragm. At first you'll sound like Donald Duck, but practice this and eventually you'll start using your diaphragm and get rid of the nasal sound.

FYI, you should always cut your voice track standing up. This stretches your diaphragm and gives you more resonance. Those of you who "sound young" might try this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Kickers: A no-brainer to increase your ratings

Full disclosure: Most of my time as a reporter was spent doing features. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes interesting, sometimes both. They always ended the newscast and left the viewer with a good feeling.

Flash forward to today, and what closes out our newscast? Yet another weather recap (usually the third time we'd heard the forecast in thirty minutes.)

So how did we get to this point? The answer lies with consultants and producers who cannot time a show.

Back in the day when consultants were beginning to take over and send the business into its current downward spiral, stations spent tons of money on "research." Basically, this meant a bunch of expensive phone calls that asked questions about anchors and elements of the newscast. If you received a call you might hear, "Do you recognize an anchor known as Jane Jones?" If you answered yes, you'd hear, "Do you have a favorable opinion of Jane Jones?"

But the key question that threw newscasts into a tizzy was this one: "Is weather important to you?" Of course everyone said yes, and consultants basically came back with this: Weather is the most important element of a newscast, so we need more of it. This resulted in weather basically taking over the feature slot in many newscasts and made the show a lot easier to time out. A producer no longer had to watch the clock like a hawk, because a good weather person can fill ten seconds or sixty at the end of a newscast.

What's amazing is that when I did features, producers (if we even had them) timed out the show using a stopwatch, a typewriter, and an endless supply of wite-out. These days, throw a kicker into the end of a newscast instead of weather, and watch producers break out in hives.

The weather close has become a crutch, but more importantly, it has taken the good feeling out of the end of a newscast. It's just like removing the final chapter of a book, or the last ten minutes of a movie. People who have already seen two weather teases and a full weather cast have kinda figured out what the weather is going to be, and don't need it a third time. And that means they might be gone by the time your newscast ends.

People love features, despite the consultant drive for an endless amount of weather. Oh, they'll tell you "viewers want hard news" but this has been misinterpreted into chasing the scanner. Yes, viewers want hard news, but health care reform falls into that category. So does the economy. So does politics.

Show viewers a parade of car wrecks and murders and they won't remember any of it. But throw in our old friend the waterskiing squirrel and they'll not only remember it, they'll come back the next day.

Kickers also give producers more leeway when writing teases. Write a great tease at the top of the show for a kicker and a viewer will stick around. Write a tease at the end of the fourth block that says, "When we come back, one more look at weather" and you're doing nothing to promote your product.

Even if you don't have a local feature, the network feeds are filled with all sorts of fun stuff.

And if you're a reporter, start suggesting some fun stories at the morning meeting. You'll enjoy doing them as much as the viewers enjoy watching them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Memo to "sky is falling" meteorologists

Ah, it had been such a peaceful summer without any tropical activity. No crawls, no annoying squeezebacks every ten minutes, no break-ins to regular programming with urgent news about a storm that is five days away.

Then, of course, things began to heat up, and as usual, some local stations can't help but go into "Chicken Little" mode.

It's one thing when your market is about to get seriously whacked by a hurricane. But when something is either days away or not a serious threat, the constant weather interruptions do nothing but annoy viewers and get them to change the channel. Here's a newsflash... viewers can read. A simple crawl every thirty minutes with coordinates of a storm that is days away is just fine.

And please, tone down the ear-splitting beacons that precede a crawl or a squeezeback. They totally drown out the show we happen to be watching. Once again, we can read.

Meanwhile, time for another warning that hurricanes are no time to prove your bravery (or stupidity) out there. I can't help but laugh at reporters who do standups telling people to "stay in their homes" while said reporter is out getting pelted by rain. One of the biggest dangers in hurricanes comes from flying debris. Think a two-by-four off the side of your head would feel good? You can still get plenty of good video by using windbreaks and shooting under cover.

So the words for this hurricane season are moderation and common sense. Weather people, remember that programming pays the bills at your station. And reporters, note that if you're dead you won't be able to put together a good resume tape.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

TV history tonite...

It would do you all a lot of good to check out the 60 Minutes special on Don Hewitt tonight.

I'm sure it will feature plenty of historical stuff as well as examples of solid, old school reporting... something the industry could sorely use today.