Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Producers don't need to eat at their desks

(reposted by request)

The year was 1982. My first reporting job was in Roanoke, Virginia. The staff consisted of reporters, photogs, and anchors, a News Director and an assignment editor.

No producers.

"What?" you ask. "How did you ever get a newscast on the air?"

Well, the anchor produced the show. Reporters wrote and edited the packages, intros, v/o's and vosots. The anchor wrote copy stories and teases, then tied everything together. We had one IBM Selectric typewriter that had an "Orator" font typeface. We typed scripts on these five part carbon sheets that had to be split before the newscast, then taped together so they could be run on a conveyor belt under the teleprompter camera. Rundowns were typewritten, and we dealt with changes by using White-out. The anchor picked out color slides that served as over the shoulder graphics. During the commercial breaks the director would tell the anchor how we were doing on time, and the anchor would decide which stories to drop if we were heavy.

Now flash forward to the present. Newsrooms are top heavy with producers, usually with one for each newscast and with an AP. Computers have replaced typewriters. White-out? You gotta be kidding. No scripts to split, no taped together paper sliding off the prompter. Everything is electronic. Changes to the rundown are made with a few keystrokes.

So when I hear young producers, who have all this incredible technology at their fingertips, tell me they have to work eight straight hours and can't stop for lunch and have to eat at their desks, I honestly don't get it. (And yes, I have produced many newscasts. I still don't get it.)

The problem may be that you are the product of your environment. Or you can't write fast enough. But I'm betting the main culprit is time management, or the lack thereof.

Regardless, I'll show you how to knock out a great newscast and have plenty of time to eat like a normal person. Take coffee breaks. Creative types need to get away from the desk and recharge, and this will make your work and your newscast better if you're fresh during crunch time instead of exhausted.

As an old anchor once told me, this is the only business where you have to be at your absolute best at the end of the day.

OK, so you're a producer for the 6pm newscast. You've just left the morning meeting, you know what the packages are, where the live shots will probably be, what your lead might be. As always, everything is subject to change, but we'll get to that later.

Let's say it is 10am. Make a quick check of the wire to make sure nothing major has broken, then get cracking. (And by the way, there are plenty of other people in the newsroom who check the wire as well. All the anchors, reporters, photogs, and especially the assignment editor... so don't tell me you have to watch the wire every single minute.) Check the network feed rundown to see what might be interesting, or coming down later.

Now, start your rundown. Put in your commercial breaks. Now you're responsible for 22 minutes.

Put in weather and sports. Now you're responsible for 16 minutes.

Let's assume you are going to have three packages, two in the first block and one in the second. Let's assume two of them, one in each block, will have a live shot. Put all three packages and lives in your rundown. (Obviously blank till the reporters get back.) While you're entering the live shots, put in the location supers if you know them and obviously the reporter supers. Three packages and two live shots ought to knock out another five minutes, so you're down to 11 minutes, one of which will be taken up with teases.

Now you've got a skeleton of your newscast. Now, look at your vo's and vosots that are on the board and figure out which ones "flow" with the packages. Sometimes the "news pyramid" doesn't coordinate with having flow. In other words, don't lead with a political story, then go to crime, the back to political. Think of your topics as "mini-blocks." If you're leading with politics, look at the board and find stories that relate.

Let's say the President is in town and that's your lead. You might also have a vosot with a local Congressman about a new bill. And you might have a vo about school construction that has just begun with shots of politicians breaking ground. That last story may not be the third most important story in your newscast, but it "flows" with the first two.

Now you're up to your second package, which is about consumer spending. Doesn't seem like it relates to the first mini-block, so simply write a line that will tie the two together when the stories are in house.

"While kids will soon enjoy their new classrooms, they might not be wearing hundred dollar sneakers, as consumer confidence is low."

Okay, you'll write that later, but just start thinking about how to tie things together.

Now, go thru the rundown and create your mini-blocks. Now you may look at your show timer and see that you are a few minutes light. And here's the trap that many producers fall into. They think "It's early. Something will move on the wire or on the feed."

You don't know that, so start collecting things to fill in the blanks now. Make a list of wire stories and things ALREADY on the feed that you can use IF NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS or if the feed goes down. The problem with early morning feed rundowns is that they change, and if you depend on a piece that ends up being a bust, you'll be scrambling in the afternoon.

It's probably around 11am if you're organized. Now you can start writing your teases.

"What? How can I write teases if none of the reporters are back?"

Well, just look at your rundown, but I want you to work backwards.

Find your kicker, and let's face it, your kicker isn't likely to change during the day. Kickers are worth teasing twice or three times, at the top of the newscast and with the weather tease.

Let's say your kicker is about our friend the water skiing squirrel. You already know what the story is about, and you know you'll have a weather forecast. Those two things will not change. So go ahead and write the tease before weather.

"Coming up... John has the very dry forecast... but things are all wet for one creature at the beach."

Bada Bing. One tease out of the way.

The squirrel will come after the last break. Write the tease.

You can "pencil in" this tease at the top of the show as the last tease of your open. You know the President will be first, and you might look for something to get you from politics to the squirrel. (Sounds weird, but work with me here. That's the challenge of producing.)

Now let's say your B Block story is a consumer piece on how to change your driving habits to save gas. That's not going to change either, so go ahead and write the tease at the end of the A Block for that story.

So now you have three teases done and one outlined. You have your packages, live shots, and stories in the rundown. You have a list of wire stories and feed pieces that you may or may not use. It still isn't noon.

Just before noon, you might touch base with your field crews to see how their stories are going. Check the wire again. Check with the assignment editor. Look at the board.

Now, go to lunch. Out of the building. And go with someone. Relax and talk about stuff that isn't related to work.

Okay, you're back. Check all the stuff your checked before lunch to see if anything has changed.

Now as the reporters and photogs trickle back in, it is time to shine. Don't just tell them "You've got a minute twenty." You need to ask about the story, and in the cases of teases, you need to ask the photog what the best video would be. Many a "money shot" misses the top of the newscast because a producer didn't know it existed.

2pm. Your anchors arrive and there's probably an afternoon meeting. Bring your anchors up to speed on what you've got, as well as the 10pm producer so you don't go over the same tracks.

Your anchors should now be your first line of defense. They should be keeping an eye on the wire while helping you write anything that needs to be written or rewritten.

3pm. Go to the break room, get some coffee, then hunt down your director and give him a preliminary rundown of the show to see if there are any problems from his point of view. Make sure he knows where the live shots are.

The rest of the afternoon: Actually look at the video that is being cut, especially for vo's vo/sots and teases. Nothing makes a newscast appear more stupid than copy that doesn't even come close to matching the video. Adjust your copy accordingly.

Add any breaking news that happens, but remember to adjust your copy if it has disrupted your "flow." Look at the stories before and after to make sure the intros and outros make sense.

If all goes well you should have no problem printing your script at 5pm. Remember, the earlier you get the script to the director, the more technically trouble free the show will be.

While I realize this is not an exact science, hopefully you've learned to get the stuff that isn't going to change out of the way early so that you have time to adjust when the big stories do hit late in the day. I've seen too many producers waste those precious morning hours surfing the net, talking with friends on the phone, or wasting time when they could be getting the easy stuff out of the way and making time for...

Lunch. Bon appetit.

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