Friday, September 25, 2009

Before targeting a market, do some research

A while back a female client got some interest from a certain market I knew to be primarily a war zone. I had done one story for the network there, and on that occasion we got a hotel in another town because we didn't feel safe parking the sat truck or our personal cars there overnight. She asked me what I thought of the market, and I said, "If you were my daughter, I wouldn't want you living there."

Many times I hear from young people who throw out names of markets they have as goals, and I think a lot of times people simply grab names they recognize. Just because a city is a big market, doesn't mean it's a great place to work or live. By the same token, you shouldn't discount cities in small markets that are great places to work and live.

It's nice to look at the market list and dream of working in one of the top markets. But you really need to do some homework before blindly sending out tapes. You need to do this in two areas.

First, do some research on the city itself. Along with the obvious stuff like cost of living and climate, consider important figures like the crime rate, as this may have a definite affect on the stories you cover. Does this market have the top murder rate in the country? Well, then, you might be covering nothing but crime every day. Does the market have almost no crime? You might be covering more substantial stories.

The second thing you need to research is the station itself, and lucky for you, many stations put their product on the internet. Before sending a tape to a particular station, watch their newscast. Is it solid, with the kind of stories you like to do? Or is it a bunch of flash and trash, with lousy photography from reporters who are obviously one man bands? Don't rank these according to their ratings, but according to the quality of the product.

I used to send out tapes blindly to places I knew nothing about. A few years ago I drove through a city to which I'd sent tapes and all I could think of was, "Why would anyone in their right mind want to live here?"

Doing research is even more important today since so many stations hire over the phone. And if you've ever been on a blind date, this is basically the same thing, except you don't have a friend fixing you up.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Attention, dead broke college journalism students (yeah, I know that's somewhat redundant)

I fully expect someone who reads this blog to win this:

Viewers have wised up to our old tricks

Watching a station waste money on a custom tag made me just shake my head the other day, and wonder how many of these old school tricks are still around... and not fooling anyone.

Back in the day you'd go to a party, people would find out you worked in television, and you'd end up explaining the business. You could bring people to the station and show them the chromakey wall and watch their jaws drop in amazement. Nobody knew about sweeps, sound bites, ratings, media bias, or any of the things that are common knowledge today.

Just look at magazines like Entertainment Weekly and TVGuide that have sweeps issues and routinely discuss ratings. Or cable talk shows that fill time with chat of bias and media manipulation.

In other words, there are no more media secrets. Everything we do is out in the open.

So here's a list of stuff that needs to be buried in a time capsule. Forever.

-Custom tags: Yes, I mentioned them already, but talk about a waste of money that could be spent in the newsroom. Does anyone really believe a viewer thinks that an average local station really has its own White House correspondent? Please. There's nothing wrong with saying, "Network correspondent Joe Reporter is at the White House."

-Pre-arranged questions on live shots: We discussed this in a seminar years ago and everyone agreed that nothing looks more fake that having a reporter toss back to the anchor, the anchor asking a question, and the reporter having the perfect answer. Just once I'd love to see an anchor ask a question and a reporter say, "Don't know. I'll have to check it out."

-"Closet" live shots: Nighttime live shots so dark that the reporter may as well be in a closet. If you can't see anything but the reporter, don't bother setting up the shot.

-Live shots from car wrecks: Nobody cares.

-Live shots from events that happened hours or even days ago: I love seeing some reporter on the late news in front of a darkened City Hall, or a crime scene that was cleaned up the previous day.

-"Exclusive" banners for stories that everyone is broadcasting, or stories that are so unimportant that no one else wants them. Save the exclusive banners for something special. Use them all the time, and you're crying wolf.

-"Breaking news" banners: See above.

-Teases that don't deliver: Nothing ticks off a viewer more than a great tease followed by a lame story.

-Sweeps stunts: You're in sweeps every day. To assume that people suddenly switch allegiances when the calendar hits November, February or May is ridiculous. You build ratings by doing a solid job every day. Got a great story in September? Don't sit on it for two months. And if you're asked for sweeps ideas, come up with solid stuff that isn't sensationalized.

-Sweeps series: Viewers don't have time for those anymore.

-Stories "that can kill you" during sweeps: If I see one more sweeps piece on the lingering death waiting for me on my dish scrubbie or shopping cart handle...

-Overkill with weather equipment: Go ahead, ask a viewer to explain "doppler." Viewers watch weather for the credibility of the person presenting it, not the equipment. I've seen a few weather maps with so many different radar sweeps it looks like the Hollywood opening of the Academy Awards.

-Bias: In case you hadn't noticed, viewers have figured this one out big time.

Remember, content is still, and always will be, the king. Keep your reporting solid and unbiased, ditch the sensationalism, and people will watch.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Feeling left behind

I remember my first station vividly, and how every reporter was sending out mass quantities of tapes in search of the next move up the ladder. We'd talk about job openings a lot when we were off the clock, dreaming of the brass ring that surely lay ahead for all of us. We were a close knit group. Our lives were like an episode of "Friends"... a bunch of single people sharing dreams and laughs.

Then something happened I didn't expect. One of the reporters got a great job. He came in beaming that morning, resignation letter in hand. We congratulated him and he gave us all the details of his new station. I was happy for him... briefly. Until I got this empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I'm not sure I can categorize this feeling; part jealousy, part sadness over saying goodbye to a friend, part wondering why him and not me... and also wondering when my turn would come. I was being left behind. I was mad at myself for not being big enough to simply be happy over the success of a friend. That night I probably knocked out two dozen resume tapes and hit the post office the next morning.

If you've been in the business awhile you may have had this feeling. Being left behind can do damage to your psyche. Bad enough when it's someone talented who is your friend. But if the person moving on has no talent and is a mean person, this sort of "life is not fair" moment can send your neuroses into overdrive.

Looking back, I now know that someone else's career really had no affect on mine. If you cruise the job boards and see people with your experience level or less moving on to great things, it can drive you crazy.

Focus on your own career, and don't worry about what other people are doing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Don't forget the bottom line

Watching last nights Giants-Cowboys game I couldn't help but laugh at the excesses of the new stadium in Texas. A massive TV screen. Exotic restaurants. Even go-go dancers on platforms, apparently a nod to the groovy 60's.

Oh yeah, the home team lost to my Giants.

My other hometown team, the Mets, also opened a new stadium this year, raving about the restaurants, the "rotunda" and the shopping experiences that were available.

Oh yeah, they forgot to put a decent team on the field.

Too often people lose sight of the bottom line. When fans shell out big money to go to a stadium, they do so to watch the game. Bells and whistles are nice, but I'd take grimy old Shea Stadium in a heartbeat over these new McStadiums.

Which brings us to the bells and whistles of a TV station. I can't tell you how many times clients have gone on interviews, then called me to rave about things like the building, flat screens on the set, and the technology.

None of that has anything to do with your career.

A while back I decided to rank the stations at which I had worked. I noted the two I liked the least were situated in the nicest facilities, while the two I liked the best were housed in buildings only standing because the termites were holding hands. My two best working experiences were in absolute dumps, but filled with incredibly talented people and supportive management.

In other words, the only thing that matters to you should be what a station can do for your career. Not their ratings, not the toys, not the pretty new editing systems.

Content is still king, and if you don't believe it just look at the declining viewership for local news. Local newscasts may look better than ever, but they're filled with mostly junk, so viewers aren't fooled by this video equivalent of junk food. Give them the steak, and spare the sizzle.

By the same token you shouldn't be swayed by the fancy trappings of any station. Always look at two things: the content, and the people working there. Without that, you'll get lost in the shuffle.