Friday, April 30, 2010

Anchor preps

Since we talked about dumb anchor questions yesterday, I thought I'd share one classic that shows what happens if you're not prepared on the anchor desk.

At one station we used to all gather around the bank of televisions at six o'clock and keep an eye on the competition while watching our own newscast.

On one occasion the other station's female health reporter was doing a set piece on prostate cancer. It was a pretty standard piece with nothing out of the ordinary. Then she turns back to the male anchor and wraps it up, with something to the effect of it being a good idea for men to get checked during their annual physicals.

"So," said the male anchor, "How do women keep from getting prostate cancer?"




While our newsroom roared we all couldn't help but feel for the medical reporter, who had been handed one of the all time great "dead fishes" in the history of television. (That's when someone on the news team hands you the equivalent of a smelly, rotting sea creature, out of the blue, and you say to yourself, "What the heck am I supposed to do with this?") The poor woman sat there, dumbfounded by the question, and finally told the anchor that women don't have a prostate.

"Oh. Okay."

Viewers expect the anchor of any newscast to be well versed in the stories that are being told. If you find yourself on the anchor desk, it's up to you to make sure you know what you're talking about. Nothing screams "clueless" like a young anchor who can't pronounce the Iranian President's name or who thinks a newly elected State Senator will be headed to Washington, DC instead of the state legislature. Or the anchor who tosses to sports and talks about the home team "kicking a touchdown."

If you're an anchor, even for one day, it is imperative that you know what you're talking about. Can't pronounce a name? Look up the pronunciation guide. Not familiar with a story? Do some reading on the Internet. Don't know anything about sports? Talk to the sports guy before the newscast so you won't look stupid. Same deal with weather.

The more you know, the smarter you are... and the smarter you appear. This will pay great dividends when you're handed a current events test on your next job interview... and those are getting more popular by the day.

We currently have an encyclopedia at our fingertips, able to look up anything in a matter of seconds. So being unprepared or ignorant of a subject is no excuse.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stupid anchor questions

One of the most obviously contrived practices in television news is the anchor follow-up question. You're certainly not fooling the viewer with these, unless you've got one of those mean anchors who likes to throw curve balls at reporters in an effort to show them who's smarter. But for the most part, these questions are pretty ridiculous.

It's just like a rule lawyers follow: Never ask a question unless you know what the answer will be. Lawyers, like reporters, don't want to be surprised in front of a crowd.

The problem with these questions is the way they're phrased. I've seen a reporter wrap up a package on an approaching hurricane, and the anchor ask, "So, are the people there worried?" (No, they're out flipping burgers on the grill and they're gonna play slip-n-slide to make good use of the rain.)

Most of the questions are so ridiculous and so obvious that the result is they look awfully dumb to the viewer. Since many of you are young and being tossed on the anchor desk relatively early in your careers, you need to phrase any questions to that they appear to make sense.

Instead of, "What is going to happen next with this legislation?" you might say, "I understand you have more information on tomorrow's debate... can you shed some light on that for the viewers?" Or, "You and I were talking earlier about tomorrow's debate... would you share the agenda with our viewers?"

Throwing obviously rehearsed questions at reporters has never looked normal. If your ND likes to have anchor questions, make sure they're phrased in a way that they don't appear to come out of left field.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Last minute sweeps ideas

Well, tomorrow is the day some News Directors begins to twitch, as this is the time of year many management jobs are on the line. May sweeps is arguably the most important for a manager, as we don't get another sweeps month till November to make amends if the book is bad. (Nobody cares about the July book, as it is usually favored by last place small market stations trying to give their sales people something to market.)

Anyway, if you're still stuck, here are some of the sweeps stories that desperately need to be done...

The all-encompassing "everything can kill you" series: This three-parter takes all the previous sweeps stories about things that can kill you and creates a montage of death for one lucky viewer who wins a contest to be on the local newscast. In this story, Joe Sixpack is sent to a tanning bed wearing bowling shoes with no socks while eating undercooked chicken, soft boiled eggs, and cookie dough ice cream he purchased in a supermarket that didn't disinfect its shopping cart handles.

Stranger Danger payback: In a follow-up to the classic sweeps series in which a reporter with a puppy tries to lure unsuspecting children into a minivan to show parents they need to be more careful, the kids get even. In this two-parter, a child entices a reporter from the competition into one of those plastic ball bouncy houses, then zips it up from the outside, trapping the reporter and making him miss his live shot. In part two, our camera follows the reporter as he has to explain to the News Director that he missed his hit time because he was trapped in a bouncy house by a kid who reminded him of Macaulay Culkin.

Hurricane preps for the incredibly stupid: In this one part special report, a reporter re-enacts the horror of a man who was trapped on the middle of an escalator for five hours when the power went out at the mall during a storm last year. Great walking stand-up opportunity.

New weather warning debut: In a new promotion designed to get the weather obsessed to sign up online for a weather alert and thereby collect email addresses that can be sold to a spam company, the Chief Meteorologist demonstrates the station's new early warning system which fills the entire television screen with big bold letters reading, "Get the hell under the bed, now!" In part two, the Meteorologist tells viewers that they should stay away from electronics during a lightning storm, then reminds them that they can always get the latest Doppler radar picture during severe weather by visiting the station's website on any desktop computer.

Text arthritis: In this short, one-part medical piece, a doctor introduces us to a teenager whose hands are horribly gnarled from sending 500 text messages per day. He demonstrates the cure by taking the cell phone away from the kid.

Bad Internet sites for kids: In this short, one-part parenting piece, a social worker shows that kids can visit some very dicey websites when surfing the net. She demonstrates the cure by taking the computer away from the kid.

Twitter package: In this 8 second package, a reporter demonstrates the content of Twitter.

Is your anchorman's hair real?: In this lighthearted feature designed to quell Internet rumors, a reporter pulls out all the stops to determine if the main anchor's helmet-head is a toupee. With the help of the fire department, the reporter turns a high-pressure hose on the anchor, which may or may not send his rug into a storm drain... but that's the cliffhanger for part two!

The infinite loop: In this clever play on technology, an anchor tells viewers to visit the station's website for "more on this story." Hidden cameras follow a family as they leave the television for the computer, where the website tells them, "For more on this story, watch our local newscast." Hilarity ensues as the family bounces back and forth between the Internet and the television set, never getting the entire story as they become trapped for days in this electronic vortex.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sometimes you're home and don't even know it

Since I got so many emails in response to yesterday's post, I thought I'd continue on the psychological aspects of working in the business.

I guess it hit me about five years ago when I was looking to change cell phone companies. The young lady at the store was explaining calling plans, and asked me what percentage of my calls would be local.

"None," I said. She gave me a puzzled look. "My friends and family are all out of state," I said.

And then I realized that all the important people in my life were scattered to the winds, victims of the nomadic lifestyle we lead in this business.

Several years ago some psychologist did a stress study about major life changes, and found that moving was right up there with having a loved one die. We're not only talking about the hassles of packing and traveling cross country with a cat, but the aspects of leaving behind what has become comfortable.

Gardeners will tell you it takes three years for something that is transplanted to get comfortable with its new surroundings. "The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps."

So when you move, you are, in effect, ripping out the roots you've put down. You arrive at your new job all energized and ready to conquer the world, until the first weekend rolls around and you're alone with the four walls of your apartment. For those married with children, you can take the stress up a notch, as moving family members, especially kids, is not easy. (I'm not going to even get into what it's like driving a thousand miles with a howling Siamese cat.)

I recently spent time with someone who has reached a very nice market. This person is happy, challenged, works for a good company and likes the city. Many of her friends live there. The ND likes her work. While she has network quality talent, there's nothing wrong with her life.

So she's decided to stay.

I've said it before. Comfortable is the new black.

Sometimes reaching the top has nothing to do with your paycheck or market size. Sometimes moving to what you think is a better situation can actually make things worse.

Obviously most of you don't want to stay in starter markets making peanuts, and that's fine. But at some point you'll make a move and find your life hitting on all cylinders. It's at that point you need to consider putting the resume tapes in the closet instead of the mail, and making a real home for yourself.

Then you can actually talk to your friends in person instead of on the phone.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The double life

You probably didn't know it when you got into the business, but you're leading a double life.

Unlike people that work at "regular" jobs, creative people march to a different drummer. It's true whether you're a reporter, artist, sculptor, or writer. You have, in effect, two distinct personalities.

And very often your creative side is the dominant one.

You could have the perfect life away from work; the Norman Rockwell family, terrific friends, enough money to live comfortably. But unless your creative side is happy, it sometimes seems that none of the good stuff makes a difference.

It's often hard for non-TV people to understand this. They don't understand why we seemingly have the world by the tail yet often feel empty, like there's an empty spot in the soul. It's the creative fulfillment side; always changing, always demanding, rarely satisfied.

If you feel this way, relax, it's perfectly normal.

The trick is not to let the creative soul suck the life out of everything else. Creative people always want more, even if we reach what we thought were our goals. In college your dream is that first television job; within a few months, that dream is no longer fulfilling, and we set another goal. And another. And another. The result is often a feeling of emptiness, even if your "other life" is hitting on all cylinders.

What's my point? Well, these days, the rules of the business keep changing. The goals you attain might not match the dreams you imagined. So it's important to keep your creative side in check, to enjoy and cherish the good things in your life rather than let your quest for a goal dominate everything else.