Friday, May 14, 2010

Movies to remind you why you got into the business

(reposted by request)

Many of us take solace in our favorite movies and TV shows, though of late Hollywood hasn't offered much. I have my own collection of favorites, which are generally played in response to what's going on in my career. "Die Hard" was my favorite after a bad day (one News Director wore out my first copy), "Rudy" got cued up when I needed inspiration, and you just can't beat "It's a Wonderful Life" when you tend to look back at your life choices.

But if you've been in the television business for any length of time, you know that the day-to-day grind can put you on auto-pilot, and sometimes make you forget the magical lure that got your into the career in the first place. If you've lost your spirit, just need to get back on the ethical path, or want validation that the business is just more interesting than any other, here's a good way to spend a few hours.

All the President's Men. Not just a great movie, but the best movie about reporters who got their story the old fashioned way. The sequence with Robert Redford working the phone, doodling on his pad between important notes, is so dead-on for any reporter. The scene with Redford and Hoffman going thru thousands of slips in a library is a classic. And for those of you who don't know much about history, you can learn a ton about Watergate from this film.

Absence of Malice. A great expose on the ethics, or lack thereof, in our business. Why you'd rather be right than first. Any why you should be careful in your reporting.

The China Syndrome. Jane Fonda & Michael Douglas use a whistle blower to get the story. How a story can change the world and save lives. And why a smart photog is any station's best asset.

Broadcast News. An excellent look at both the journalistic and cosmetic sides of the business. (If you look like William Hurt and have the soul of Holly Hunter, you'll go far.) The layoff scene is particularly timely these days. Albert Brooks flop-sweat anchoring is a classic.

The Big Carnival. (Also known as "Ace in the Hole")You might have to look hard for a copy of this one. Kirk Douglas is a down on his luck reporter who manipulates a story and turns it into a media circus. Hence the title. Great expose on what's wrong with the business.

Wag the Dog. Yet another satirical look at media manipulation taken to the extreme. Doesn't seem so far fetched anymore.

Good Night and Good Luck. The story of Edward R. Murrow. Good historical piece for those of you too young to remember the guy, and nice to look back at when TV News was a lot simpler.

The Year of Living Dangerously. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, watch this first.

Kolchak, The Night Stalker. You gotta be kidding me; a vampire movie made this list? You bet. This 1970's horror gem features Darren McGavin as a dogged, old fashioned reporter with ink in his veins. While his techniques (bribing sources with bottles of scotch) would be frowned upon today (bean counters wouldn't approve the expense), his nose for news is something sadly lacking in today's newsrooms.

Lou Grant. I stumbled across an old rerun the other nite on something called American Family Network, (Wednesdays, 9pm EST) and I'd forgotten how good this TV series was. A great look at different styles of reporting and how a news team working in harmony can bring great results.

The Ratings Game. A laugh out loud Danny DeVito movie about the mob fixing the ratings. Fuhgeddaboudit.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

News Director's playbook: promoting from within, and why the most qualified person often does not get the job

Filling an anchor opening is always a dicey proposition for a News Director. Not only is it a crucial hire, but the ND has to consider the fallout in the newsroom. If you promote someone from within, what happens to the other people who wanted the job? And if you go outside for your hire, chances are the new person will get the freeze-out from the staff...and so will you.

With that in mind, I thought I'd go over some of the factors that NDs have to take into account when filling an anchor opening. In this example we're going to assume our morning anchor is moving on, and we have several people in the newsroom who want the job.

Personality: A morning show is a different animal, as we want an anchor who is upbeat. (I hate the word "perky" but you know what I mean.) Perhaps my best fill-in anchor is a terrific hard news reporter who has never done a feature, and is seen in the community as a serious journalist. I can't see that reporter hosting a segment on purses and shoes, so I might go with someone who is not as talented on the anchor desk but has a more warm rapport with the viewers.

The Co-Anchor Factor: If this is a co-anchor job, who has the best rapport with the anchor who remains? You can't put two people on a morning show who hate each other.

The Domino Effect: Okay, so I pull my best reporter off the street and put her on the anchor desk. Where does that leave me for day to day coverage? I've got another reporter who is just average on the street but has some real potential on the anchor desk. Then I'll have to hire another reporter. But if I hire an anchor from outside, I can leave my reporting staff intact.

The Shift: The morning shift is an absolute killer, so I need to take this into account. Which of my applicants are morning people and which are night owls? Then there's the social life question, since people on the morning shift have none. Who can best deal with getting up at two in the morning and going to bed at seven?

Contracts: I'll want my new anchor to sign a two year extension. I know my best substitute anchor is looking hard for a new job, and probably doesn't want to stay any longer. Meanwhile, I have a reporter who just signed a few months ago, so a new contract won't be a big deal.

The Local Factor: My best candidate is a reporter with a ton of potential on the anchor desk, but I know she'll find a job easily two years from now. Meanwhile, I've got a married reporter whose husband just opened a law practice here in town, so she's not going anywhere, ever. Won't it be nice to never have to worry about the morning show again?

Money: I've got a budget and really have very little wiggle room as far as salary is concerned. Will one of my reporters take the small raise, or would I be better off finding someone outside who is making peanuts and thinks the salary is a huge increase?

Morale: This is a tough one. Pick someone from within, and you might start a revolt and jealousy will rear its green-eyed head. Pick someone from outside, and people will resent you. No-win situation all the way around, so I'll probably go with the lesser of two evils.

So, you can see there are a ton of other things that factor into the decision, many of which have nothing to do with talent. And that's why the best person doesn't always get the promotion.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mailbag: The agent question


It seems that everyone I see in the "moving on" section of various websites has an agent. So obviously I need one, right?

Nope. Here's the thing about those "moving on" sections. Agencies send the info to the websites since it is a good advertisement for the agency. Nothing wrong with that at all. I occasionally do it myself with, and they are kind enough to post what I provide.

But people who don't have representation (and there are more of those than people with agents) don't send a notice that they've moved on. It doesn't make any sense. If there was a "moving on" section for people who'd found jobs on their own, it would be huge.

Interesting note: When I first started mentoring people I sent a note to a certain website, but found out that because I didn't advertise on said website I could not post anything in the "moving on" section. So that might tell you that small agencies that don't advertise can still do a good job, even if you don't see any movement on certain websites.

There are good agents and bad agents out there, so be careful and do your homework before signing with anyone. And if you're in your first or second job, chances are you don't need one.


I've been trying to call certain stations to set up interviews on a road trip. (I'm not responding to any ad, so I figured the "do not call" rule doesn't apply.) I've been pretty successful, but at one station I am constantly met with a rude attitude when I call. Is there another way I can get in to see the News Director?

Uh, why would you want to? If they're that rude to strangers, how do you think they treat their employees? If you waste your time dropping by at that station, you deserve to get shot with the cluegun.


When putting together a resume tape, do I need some sort of "table of contents" after my slate? And should I put some sort of graphic between packages? Thanks.

No, a slate with your name and contact info is just fine. (Don't forget to label your tape or DVD as well.)

The order goes like this; Slate, one second of black, montage, one second of black, first package. Then put one second of black between each package. You don't have to put up a slate with something like "Package: oil spill" because that just wastes time and it will be obvious in a few seconds anyway.

If it's an anchor tape you don't have to separate your anchor clips, but do put some black between your anchoring and reporting.


What's the best way to thank a photog? One of our guys just shot some great stuff for me.

When he walks into the newsroom, yell, "Hey, great video!" in front of everyone.

Then buy him lunch.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A career in television news is like a first date that never ends

At one end of the personality spectrum you find Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight. At the other end, you find Ben Stein. (Bueller? Bueller?)

Most of us lie somewhere in between. But if you're on television and you're closer to Stein than Hart, you're in trouble.

Every time I get a new client I start things off with a phone call. In many cases, the client's personality just jumps through the telephone. I'm talking to Mary Hart. And then the tape arrives and I end up looking at Ben Stein.

Many of you are apparently checking your personalities at the door when you arrive in the newsroom. And unless that changes, unless the viewer can see different aspects of your personality, you're going nowhere.

You need to imagine yourself on a first date every day. Imagine that you're going to dinner with someone you really want to impress. You not only want to look your best, but show off a personality that is magnetic. If the person across the dinner table sits there and talks in a monotone, and shows no life, you wouldn't want a second date.

Think back to high school or college. The most popular people weren't always the most beautiful, but those who had a life force that was irresistible.

That life force needs to jump through the television screen when you're on camera, and needs to be in your voice when you're not.

Too many people fail to realize that the eyes are truly the windows of the soul. I used to work with an anchor who never used her eyes; they were the same for every story. One day I took some sheets of paper and taped them across the bottom of the television screen, then ran an aircheck of the anchor with the sound off. When she saw this, she realized that her eyes were exactly the same whether she was reading a story about a murder or one that was light hearted.

The same holds true of your voice. If covering a sad story, your voice can be soft and convey emotion. When doing a feature, inject some excitement into your voice.

Use your eyes, use your voice. Check out Mary Hart, and see how she uses both. While she's certainly over the top, she's not boring. Now imagine Ben Stein hosting Entertainment Tonight. It would be a completely different experience.

Remember, you're on a first date with the viewer every day. If you want to be asked out again, your personality has to come through.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The viewer's point of view

My parents often told me about the days before television, when families would gather around the radio for entertainment. Radio was, and still is, a "theater of the mind," as you have to use your imagination to see the pictures that go along with the sound. If you ever get a chance to listen to the shows from that era, you'll note that the writers were masters when it came to creating the scenes in your mind.

Sadly, many of you may as well be broadcasting your stories on radio. Because the pictures often don't match the words. The basic premise of television is that video can accompany sound and bring the total picture to the viewer.

This has been illustrated many times in recent weeks when it comes to the oil spill. When the story first broke, I watched story after story about "booms" being deployed in the gulf.

Fine. What is a boom? I don't exactly have one in my backyard. How does it work? Is anyone out there going to show me? Apparently not.

When it came to stories in the field, no one took the time to "show" the viewer what was being done. Sure, we saw booms being dropped in the water, but would it have killed someone actually demonstrate how the thing works? How hard would it have been to drop a boom in a small wading pool and pour some motor oil on one side?

We all saw plenty of graphics on how that containment dome was going to work, and that was good. Why not demonstrate the process? Take a running garden hose and drop a funnel over it. Simple, but no one thought to do it.

When doing stories in which you are describing how something works, put yourself in the viewer's place. If you're not going to show me how it works, I can read about it in the newspaper. TV people have a huge advantage over other media types in that we can use pictures and sound to describe what we're talking about. Too many reporters are so obsessed with the sounds of their own voices that they forget the viewer is sitting there, waiting for something to watch.

Always put yourself in the viewer's place. When you're assigned a story, think first about ways to show what you're going to be talking about, not about who you're going to interview. The viewer wants to see the story as well as hear about it, and talking heads are useless unless accompanied by effective b-roll or a standup that demonstrates what you're talking about. If you're doing a story on making a pie, show the process. If you're interviewing a teacher who no longer has funding for chalk, show her going to the store and buying it out of her own pocket. If you're talking about Wall Street, show me a stock broker actually making a trade or someone doing it themselves online.

Photogs have an old saying: "Without us, you're radio." Until you grasp the basic principles of show and tell, you may as well be broadcasting in the 1930's.