Thursday, April 1, 2010

The chocolate war

Lent officially ends at sundown, at least for Catholics, and when the sun dips below the horizon I will have accomplished something I've never been able to do.

Giving up chocolate for Lent.

I've tried this before and failed miserably, since I'm a chocoholic. As a kid the nuns impressed the importance of making a sacrifice for Lent. My suggestions of giving up things like beets or broccoli just got a roll of the eyes from the good Sister, who stressed that we had to give up something we liked. The problem was that forty days without something you like sounds like an awfully long time.

Sort of like a two year contract. (You were waiting for the metaphor, right? "How is he gonna tie in chocolate rabbits to broadcasting?")

How do you get through something that seems like forever? One day at a time.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you look at the elephant and think it would be impossible to eat the whole thing, you have to break it down.

Instant gratification is the mantra of the young generation. You guys want things fast and furious, and start drumming your fingers if things down download quick enough. You also tend to get desperate if your career doesn't rocket up the ladder as you had planned.

One day at a time is a good way to approach a lot of things. In broadcasting, we often learn one thing at a time. We figure out how to use nat sound, master that, and then work on something else, like live shots. But we tend to get discouraged if we don't master things immediately.

Experience can't be rushed, and mastery of a process takes time. If you said to yourself, "Today I'm going to do a package that has perfect nat sound," and you'd never used nat sound before, you'd be disappointed in the results. But if you gave yourself a month to get better at it, you wouldn't have a problem. Along the way you'd learn to fade, cross-fade, write to your nat sound, etc. By the end of the month you'd have enough experience that it would become second nature to you, and you'd have mastered it.

Don't expect to turn out network quality work on your first day. Just work on getting a little better each day. All those improvements eventually add up to the point where you're doing quality work on autopilot.

Meanwhile, no post tomorrow, as it is Good Friday. Besides, I'll be in a sugar coma.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Covering anger in America: Don't add fuel to the fire

Several years ago a reporter showed up at a shooting just a few minutes before air, then did a live shot without knowing all the facts. The reporter played up a racial incident, which later turned out to be nothing more than a cop shooting back at a guy who was shooting at him.

And.... cue the riot.

Many reporters put their own assumptions ahead of the truth in their haste to be first, or just controversial. The results can be disastrous. When you jump to conclusions without doing the legwork, the story becomes an opinion.

Several years ago I met a producer of a major network show who had covered the Iran hostage crisis. I mentioned that every time we saw the Iranian people, they were shaking their fists in defiance.

"Do they do that all day?" I asked, tongue in cheek.

"Only when we point the camera at them," said the producer.

Hmmmm. Are people only "angry" when the little red light goes on?

Right now the anger in America appears to be at the level we saw in the 1960's. But unlike the 60's, we're seeing more opinion injected into coverage.

When we see a brick thrown through a Democrat's office window, the culprit has to be a Republican.

When we see a gunshot in the wall of a Republican's office, the culprit has to be a Democrat.

Case closed. Tell the police investigators to go home, since the media has already solved the crime.

Several factors are in play here. First, there are always whack jobs and disturbed people out there. What they do is not always political. What political party did Ted Bundy belong do? Was David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) a Democrat or Republican? If these guys were committing crimes today, media people would be looking for political undertones. Surely, anger at the government triggered their killing sprees.

Second, getting fifteen minutes of fame has never been more alluring. Look no further than the White House party crashers. People love being on television. Next time you're covering a crowd that might turn angry, note how they act when you're just walking around and how they change when you shoulder the camera. The general public has learned that playing to the camera can land you on the evening news.

But the bottom line is that too many media people are jumping to too many conclusions. When you have no proof, no facts, no witnesses, and nothing on tape, you're basically broadcasting a story that is pure opinion.

And that just makes people even more angry.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Want ratings? Follow the money

Quick... what are the three stories Americans care most about right now? Don't think, just answer.

Your answers probably included health care, the economy, jobs, the war, or politics.

Anyone out there say "car wrecks" or "crime?" Anybody?

So why are you loading up your newscast covering stuff Americans don't care about?

That recent health care vote on a Sunday garnered tremendous ratings for the news outlets that covered it. You would think a discussion about things like pre-existing conditions and physician reimbursements would drive viewers away in droves. But it was just the opposite.

Because the discussion wasn't really about health, it was about money. And viewers care more about that than just about anything else. That is also the reason for the phrase "people vote their pocketbook on election day."

Stories about the economy and jobs are all about money. Stories about politics are about how much Congress is spending your money. The war? It's not only about terrorism, but about how much it costs to fight it.

Several years ago I joined a station that put on a white collar newscast. We never covered car wrecks, domestic disputes, or crimes featuring shirtless criminals robbing convenience stores that seem to fill every newscast these days. A manager told me, "Our viewers don't care about that stuff." He also told me that we were tied for first in the ratings, but our viewers were worth more to advertisers, so we could actually charge more for commercials than the other station. The other station had numbers, but those numbers were comprised of people advertisers didn't want.

Local news ratings have been going downhill for several years, and part of the problem has been the fragmenting of the audience. But the big part is the fact that the scanner has become a crutch for News Directors, and viewers have tuned out the parade of death and destruction. But if you put on a newscast filled with stories that actually affect the viewer, you can reverse the trend.

When you're looking for an enterprise story, always consider the money factor. You'll probably have better results pitching it and your viewers will be more interested.

And keep this in mind... if you honestly don't care about a story, why should the viewer?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Today's salaries are a blast from the past


It's obvious that the primo salaries of the 1980s have gone by the wayside.
But by how much?

Let's say a reporter/anchor was pulling down $100,000 a year during the apex of broadcast salaries.(I'm sure it depends on the market and a zillion other variables) But, if you had to make an estimate, what would that same reporter/anchor make in today's news salary market??

Well, funny you should bring this up, as I was recently talking to a reporter who was making the same salary I made as a reporter in 1986. Problem is, things cost a lot more today.

Let's look at my expenses back then on that 20k salary. (Oh, you'll love this... we had a choice of overtime or comp time! You could trade 5 1/2 hours of OT for a day off!)

Rent: $360 (and it was a really nice apartment)
Gas: About $1.25 per gallon
Plane ticket home: Always less than $200
Lunch in a restaurant: Never more than five bucks
Dinner for two in a nice restaurant: $20-30
New car: I bought a brand new Mazda RX-7 two-seater sports car for $11,000. You could easily find something more practical for 7-8K.
Student loans: None. Paid for college working summers.
Expenses that didn't exist: Cell phones, Internet access
Health insurance: $11 per month, $5 co-pay (really good insurance)
Phone bill: Less than $10
Can of soda or candy bar from the vending machine: 25 cents

Now, flash forward to 2010 and you see the problems young people have making ends meet.

As for those big salaries, yes, we had six-figure anchors working in small and medium markets. And yes, those days are long gone. I would guess that those same anchor positions today would pay about half of what they did back then.

The reasons? Cable and satellite TV fragmented the pie, the Internet killed the golden goose, too much supply and not enough demand in the personnel department, loss of network compensation (stations received whopping checks from the networks to run prime time programming.) There are plenty of little things, but those are the major ones.

That supply and demand thing is the big reason stations don't have to pay big salaries anymore. If you won't take that 20k job, there are dozens of eager kids right out of college who will be happy to accept it.

Will it change? Who knows? Some new invention we haven't even considered might create a huge revenue stream for stations. Then again, in twenty years your avatar may be appearing in viewers' living rooms to deliver the news.