Friday, December 18, 2009

Some stories are just a perfect storm

I was sitting in a New York airport last Saturday waiting for my plane to board. Like most people in the terminal, I was reading. A giant flat screen above was blaring CNN, but few were playing attention.

Then the anchor said the magic words of the day. "Tiger Woods."

Every head snapped to attention. People walking by the gate stopped to watch. When the story ended, the heads went back down, the people who were walking by continued on their journey.

Right now we've got a raging health care debate, two wars overseas, an economic crisis... and yet a philandering golfer captures our attention.

Sports stars cheating on their wives is nothing new. (Neither are politicians for that matter.) If A-Rod had cheated on his wife we would have just shrugged.

But this was different. When someone this squeaky clean does something so out of character, the fall from grace can seem like one from Mount Everest.

L'affaire Woods probably gave newspapers a nice infusion of capital and sent TV ratings up for a few weeks. (All across America, News Directors are saying, "He couldn't have run over the hydrant during sweeps?")

Why was this story so compelling during a time when we have so many important stories going on? Because it was such a surprise, and so different from the everyday stuff we see. (And, let's face it, America loves good celebrity dirt.)

If you want to find a watercooler story, you must surprise the viewer. Dig up something that will make heads look up and people stop in their tracks. It doesn't have to be anything sensational like the Tiger Woods stuff, but just something that stands out. It has to be different than what we're broadcasting every day.

Surprise the viewer and you'll surprise a News Director when looking for a job.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mailbag: Agents and the "get out of jail free" card

Grape,

Are agents -- even the ones a little more reputable than others -- a waste of money? Would a big market ND really toss aside my tape in favor of someone else who was represented by an agent... even if my talent level was the same or better?



Well, I hate to answer the question this way, but it depends on the agent. Some are wonderful people who will truly take an interest in your career and try to get you a good fit rather than just collect a commission. Some simply send your tape out with every single client they've got and hope you get hired.

As for NDs dealing with agents, that also depends. I've had two NDs who flat out refused to talk with agents. Personally I didn't mind doing it, but I will say that some were so totally obnoxious that I passed on their clients because I didn't want to deal with them. I remember two agents who were so polite that it was a pleasure to deal with them.

Are there some NDs who won't look at tapes unless they're from an agent? Yeah, but most are smart enough to look at every tape that comes through the door. You never know how your next star will arrive. If you're equally talented with someone represented by an agent, that doesn't make a bit of difference. The ND is going to hire the person who is the best fit.


Dear Grape,

To get out of a contract early, is it best to come to the ND with a sob story (not necessarily false) and ask if I can get out soon? Or should I come to the ND already with a job opportunity in hand that would better my life, and explain things that way?


Well, it helps to have a good relationship with the ND. If you two have been on bad terms, fuhgeddaboudit. NDs can be the most vindictive species on the planet.

In these situations it pays to be truthful. I once hired a reporter who told me she didn't have a contract. When she turned in her notice, her ND called me and told me she was under contract. I called her back and she admitted she had lied. End of job offer.

If you have another offer you have to do two things: you must tell the ND that wants to hire you your contract status, and you must tell your current ND about your offer. In once case I wanted to hire someone who had two months left on her contract. I called her ND, who turned out to be a nice guy and he split the difference, letting her out a month early. Has she sneaked around, that wouldn't have happened.

Here's something else you can do when looking to get out early. Sweeten the pot. By that I mean make it easy for the ND to replace you. Give a very long notice (one month or more) offer to work a few holidays, weekends, etc.


Grape,

I've decided its time for me to leave my station and move on to better (hopefully) things. Many have suggested using an agent, so I've sent tapes to a few. I saw your post on what questions to ask ND's when interviewing for a new job. Any advice on what to ask an agent?


Ah, back to agents again. Some fair questions are to ask about the number of clients (too many and you'll get lost in the shuffle), some names of previous clients (if the agent won't give them to you, then move on), and if the fee is negotiable. You'll also want this in writing: is the fee the same if you find a job on your own? Let's say you happen to meet a ND who offers you a job and the agent has had nothing to do with it... do you still owe the agent a full commission? And is the commission for the full length of your contract or just the first year?

You'll also want to be very careful with agent contracts. Can you easily get out of the contract? Sometimes you get stuck with an agent who is doing nothing for you.

Check the agent's website and call up a few clients who might be listed. Are they happy with the service? Or has the agent done nothing at all?


Grape,

How has this year compared with last as far as your clients finding jobs?


The first part of this year wasn't good. The last half was. Amazingly I had four people find jobs during November sweeps. Hopefully that's an indication that the worst is over and the business bottomed out this year.


Grape,

For my Christmas wish I want the Grape to start twittering.


Would you settle for a snuggie?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best and worst of the decade: Top 10 positive things in broadcasting

While there wasn't much good to say about the business in the last ten years, a few things have managed to creep through the dark clouds and provide a ray of hope. Now, if the empty suits and beancounters can stay out of the way, maybe some real journalists can save the business.

Here goes:

1. Skype

A favorite with beancounters, this system of doing live shots will probably be the death knell of microwave and satellite trucks. And in the process, hopefully save a bunch of jobs. Let's say a ND needs a new truck. He can spend six figures, or buy a bunch of laptops. With the savings he can hopefully hire (or not fire) a bunch of newspeople. As the technology gets better, more and more stations will go in this direction.


2. The DVR

Never has taping a local newscast been so easy. The DVR is becoming more commonplace in households, and makes time shifting a breeze. It's easier to watch stuff via the DVR than on the Internet. The downside is that you can also breeze through the commercials incredibly fast. Look for more "product placement" and ads that actually appear during newscasts (sponsored crawls, weather maps, etc.)


3. More opportunities for young people in big markets

Experience is wonderful, but let's face it, it doesn't take ten years to learn how to knock out a terrific package. Some young people are naturals and whip smart. Nice to see those who are truly special make it up the ladder a lot quicker than my generation.


4. Downsizing of newscasts

By this I mean cutting newscasts that really had no business taking up air time. When a small market has a newscast at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, it just dilutes the product. Fortunately some stations have realized this and stopped thinning out their stories.


5. Consultants are fading away

The easiest way for a News Director to cut the budget is by eliminating the consulting services. While some consultants are very good, and a few even taught me a lot, by and large they simply tell you what you already know and cost a lot of money that can be better spent on newsroom personnel. They're melting like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.


6. Young people are becoming more sarcastic at an early age

It used to take years for people new to the business to get jaded and disillusioned. Now, bada bing, six months and you realize you're a hamster on a corporate wheel. Kids can see the puppet strings in a short time. Welcome to the party, pal.


7. A few stations ditch the one man band

It absolutely makes my day when I hear about a station smart enough to realize this is a bad idea.


8. Networks are more careful when calling elections

After that fiasco in 2000, the battle to be first rather than right got reversed on election nights.


9. Some stations starting ditching contracts for everyone

A Southerner once told me, "You ride a horse longer with loose reins" and this little bit of wisdom filtered down to a few newsrooms that realized putting 22 year old people under three year contracts is a ridiculous idea. Putting them under any contract is just plain silly, as kids spend too much time worrying about contracts ending and timing a new job. Managers finally realized contracts can work both ways... you can get stuck with a bad person for several years. Until you know someone's track record, contracts are a bad idea. And they often chase away talented people.


10. Finally, people began to appreciate the fact that photogs are the most important people in any news operation

And a lot of people didn't know that until they were gone.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Best and worst of the decade: Top 10 bonehead broadcasting decisions and trends of the oughts

The oughts. That seems to be what everyone is calling the decade that's about to end.

Highly appropriate, as the past ten years have pretty much been a zero as far as the broadcasting industry is concerned.

We've seen the biggest changes in the history of the business, bigger than when we went from film to video, from tape-to-tape to non-linear. TV News will never be the same, and if anyone is trying to predict what it will look like in the next ten years, well, fuhgeddaboudit.

Meanwhile, time to look back at the decade, and we're going to start with the worst decisions of the past ten years.

1. Embrace the Internet

Yes, you may love the Internet, but it is the main reason the business has taken such a hit. This big bonehead decision surfaced around 2000, and has been more damaging than Y2K. (Remember that?) Back when we first heard this directive from beancounters and corporate empty suits, the most common reaction was, "So let me get this straight... you want us to tell viewers to turn off their TV sets and turn on their computers?" Well, yeah. Problem was, the stuff on the computers was free. Had those in charge made TV viewing on a computer a subscription based operation from the beginning, appointment television would still exist. People would still tune in for the free 6 o'clock news rather than spend a buck to watch it later on a computer. But the horse is out of the barn, and it isn't going to be coaxed back in.


2. Promote the other network

Huh? Why would we do this? Well, turns out your network or local station probably does it all the time. Are you something other than a Fox affiliate yet watch your anchors talk endlessly about American Idol? Oh, now you get it. Years ago this stuff would get an anchor fired, but now it seems fine to basically promote another station that might be airing a watercooler show. The boneheads in this case are the NDs who allow this to go on.


3. The Chicken Little weather philosophy

This country got seriously whacked by a ton of hurricanes this past decade, and it set in motion the trend of trying to one-up the competition. Years ago if Mother Nature was brewing up something bad, you'd get a non-intrusive weather crawl. Now entertainment programming is filled with endless squeezebacks, ear splitting sounders preceding crawls, and break-ins for weather watches instead of warnings. Personally, I love the stations that carry "Who wants to be a Millionaire" and run their crawls or radar over the answers. (Apparently it would take someone from NASA to put the crawl over the top of the screen.) As one ND put it, "it makes entertainment programming unwatchable." The desire to get on first with hurricane stuff is out of control, with break-ins now preceding storms by five days. And wall to wall coverage has deteriorated into calls from yahoo viewers talking about the wind blowing as the hurricane fades away.


4. The one man band comes to big markets

Call it backpack journalism, multi-media journalism, or any other euphemism, it's still beancounter news designed to cut costs while throwing quality out the door.


5. Filling the newscast with Internet video

It's bad enough to cover non-stories, but stations are now taking whatever is the hot video of the day off the Internet and broadcasting it as a story. For some reason it is usually someone robbing a convenience store. Yes, there's funny and interesting stuff on places like YouTube, but putting it in a newscast is just lame and shows the world your staff can't dig up real stories.


6. Bias becomes acceptable

A friend of mine who has worked in the business for a long time calls 2008, "The year journalism died." Never before has bias, which ran both left and right, been so acceptable. If you want to know why the general public trusts journalists about as much as Congress, look no further.


7. Live shots take precedence over everything

Wonder why your package looks so lame? Maybe if you didn't have to do live shots all day with teases thrown in you'd actually have time to put together a decent story. Live shots haven't fooled the public for a long time, especially when you do them in your late newscast from the location of a story that ended several hours ago. Not really a new trend, but it got much worse this decade.


8. Including part of a newscast from a central location.

Ever see one of those out of market segments in which the anchor or weatherperson mispronounces just about every local town or name incorrectly? That's what you get when you outsource part of your news to a central location. This doesn't fool viewers either.


9. The death of the kicker

These days every newscast closes with yet another weather forecast, even though the viewer has just seen one ten minutes ago. Kickers used to be a significant part of a newscast, the thing that kept viewers sticking around till the end. For those of you who can check your ratings in 15 minute segments, check the last half of your newscast and you'll see your viewers bailing in droves.


10. The death of local sports

Not totally dead yet but headed in that direction. Blame the consultants for this bonehead decision, as they'll tell you sports fans get their sports from ESPN. Well, I'm a huge sports fan and I don't as I can't stand a smart comment every single sentence. Local people may follow national teams, but they want local sports.


11. The graveside vulture interview

(Yeah, I know the article calls for the top 10 decisions, but I had to get this one in.) The practice of shoving a microphone in someone's face at a funeral is just another tasteless line that was crossed with more frequency this past decade. I keep waiting for a reporter to get a punch in the mouth from a grieving widow. And the reporter would deserve it. May the NDs who allow this be buried under a circus tent.


Next up, the best things of the decade. (And I'll be hard pressed to find 10.)