Friday, October 22, 2010

Mailbag: Atmosphere is overrated


Our building is an absolute dump. The place is falling apart, the walls need a paint job and the carpet is worn thin. Even though we're a strong number one station no one seems to care that we're working in these conditions. Why doesn't management do something to improve the environment?

There used to be a chain of restaurants in New York called Horn & Hardart. They were actually automats, in which there were no waiters, but a wall of doors behind which you'd find food. You'd put change in a slot and pull out a bagel, a sandwich, or a slice of pie. Their slogan was, "You can't eat atmosphere."

Guess what... the viewers can't see anything but the set. They don't care if your desk is falling apart or your computer is out of date. All a viewer cares about is content and what's visible. Same strategy as the's substance over style.

And if you're already number one, management sees no reason to change anything. So they pump money into sets and equipment and anything that will improve the on-air product.

Dear Grape,

Our station is adding an hour to our morning show but no people. What's the deal?

Ah, the old news-expands-to-meet-its-needs strategy. To understand this, we must look at spaghetti sauce. (I'm really into analogies today.)

Say you've got a pot of thick, rich sauce and some extra people are coming for dinner. So you add a little water to stretch the sauce. It's a little thinner but still good. But if you added a lot of water eventually you'd have tomato juice.

Same deal with staffing. Eventually you stretch people so thin they become tired and ineffective. But the beancounters don't see it that way. They figure people are already in the building in the middle of the night producing two hours of news, so why not let them produce three? Since morning shows are basically the same stories over and over again on a half hour wheel, the beancounters don't see this as a problem.

Meanwhile, the viewers get tomato juice for breakfast.


Consultants say no one cares about local sports and yet stations go all out to cover Friday night football. Isn't this a contradiction?

Excellent observation! What's even more puzzling is that the people who care are at the games and not home in time to catch the late news. Why stations don't create a half hour Saturday morning show with all these highlights is beyond me.

But that would actually make sense. Forgive me.


You keep mentioning "Palookaville" in your posts. Where exactly is this place?

It's down the road a short distance from Podunk.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Anchor checklist

Since I got a good response from the reporter checklist, thought I'd do one for anchors.

Over the years I've worked with a wide variety of anchors; some who were top of the line and others who phoned it in and picked up a check. You can find great anchors in small markets and lousy anchors in big markets. Some are leaders in the newsroom, others feel it is their job to read the prompter and do nothing else.

If you're new to the desk it can be a daunting experience. The toughest thing for a young anchor is not getting a big ego. That anchor title can do weird things to normal people, and turn friendly co-workers into monsters. Great anchors are still team members, still "one of the guys" who will do everything from knocking out a package to changing the toner cartridge in the printer. Lousy anchors look at the rest of the staff as underlings, and won't even make a fresh pot of coffee in the break room.

Being a great anchor is a combination of talent and psychology; you need the gravitas to carry the newscast while maintaining your humanity to treat even the newest intern with respect.

That said, here's the checklist:

-Write your own copy, or at least re-write the stuff you've been given. If you've ever seen an anchor who regularly stumbles while reading, you can be sure that's an anchor who is always reading another person's copy. While some anchors can do it, most are a lot better at reading stuff that originated in their own heads. You talk the way you write, and if you're writing your own stuff you're going to talk normally.

-Know what you're talking about. (And with election night coming up in two weeks, that's a must.) If you find a story in your rundown and don't know anything about it, take some time and do a little research. The Internet is an encyclopedia at our fingertips, so there's no excuse for reading a story and not knowing what it is about.

-Get a pronunciation guide. If you can't pronounce the President of Iran's name, learn, lest you sound like an idiot.

-Learn to mark your script. If you've got a camera change coming up, note it in bold magic marker on the bottom of the preceding story. You don't want to get to the next story and then realize you're on the wrong camera.

-Read your copy aloud before air. If you run out of breath at any point, your sentence is too long. Cut it in half.

-Learn to change cameras seamlessly. Finish story number one on camera one, look down at your script, and then look up at camera two. Easier for the director to punch, and a smoother look for you.

-Ask reporters about their stories when they get back to the station. Don't depend on your producer to do it. Stories change, and what looked like the lead in the morning meeting might really be a story that belongs in the second block.

-Take responsibility. The producer may be putting the newscast together but your face is the one on camera. If there's something wrong in the script, fix it before you go on air.

-Don't take a two hour dinner break. Nothing separates anchors from the rest of the staff more than this. If you're one of the guys, act like it.

-Go over the newscast with the director before air. He'll let you know if there are any problems in the script.

-If you find any stories that might be questionable, discuss them with the News Director. If the ND isn't around, pick up the phone.

-Do the menial stuff. Make coffee, take the script to the director, bring food back for the staff members who don't have time to get something to eat.

-Remember that interns are not your personal servants. They're there because they want to learn something. Take time to teach them.

-Take your producer and director to lunch once in awhile.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sweeps pieces: the last gasp of quality reporting?

One of the most common complaints I hear from people is that they simply aren't given enough time to do a story justice. I don't mean run time, but time to put a story together. Obsession with live shots has "shortened" the day for reporters, and if you have to interrupt your day to do something for a noon show, you're really pushing the envelope to do a decent job.

Getting a sweeps assignment might be your last chance to do an old fashioned job of reporting. You get your story in advance, get a little extra time to set it up, and more time to shoot and edit it. Since NDs consider sweeps pieces sacred, they'll usually give you carte blanche to do your best job.

Funny, it used to be that way every day of the year.

Years ago you'd run into a story that demanded extra time and you'd usually get it. We didn't have wall to wall live shots. (I did about two a month.) We weren't required to stop what we were doing for the noon show, if we even had one. But bottom line, News Directors trusted reporters, and if a reporter said he needed more time, the ND knew there was a reason.

Might be interesting if we treated every day like a sweeps day.

What consultants have failed to realize over the years is that viewers simply don't care if someone is live unless something is actually happening live. And let's face it, 90 percent of your live shots are after the fact with absolutely nothing happening live.

Imagine if you could use that time to make your story better.

Well, things probably aren't going to change so take this opportunity to turn out some special packages. If you've got the extra time, don't waste it. Your resume tape will thank you.


Monday, October 18, 2010

The November 2010 sweeps ideas are in!

Yes, back by popular demand (or at least the hit count the last time I did this), the great sweeps list is ready for distribution.

While many of you have already been assigned pieces or series for November, some managers wait till the last minute and then demand ideas. With that in mind, here are some sure fire winners if you're tapped out in the enterprise story department.

-Trick or Treat, it's Lady Gaga: Okay, this is a pre-sweeps package, as it must air in late October, but it's a great consumer piece for these troubled economic times and will get viewers pumped up for November. Cash strapped parents no longer have to spend a small fortune to dress up their daughters on Halloween; simply combine anything that falls out of the back of the closet and poof! You've got a Lady Gaga costume. Since the singer doesn't wear the same thing twice, you've got an unlimited supply of options. Platform shoes, chest waders and a pith helmet? You're Lady Gaga! 3-D glasses, a leisure suit and bowling shoes? Lady Gaga again!

-New stuff that can kill you: The classic sweeps favorite is back! You think viewers are scared of infected eggs or worried about disinfecting shopping cart handles? Please. That is so five minutes ago. Time to take them to a new level of fear and send them cowering under the bed for the entire month. This year's series focuses on a business traveler who hits the trifecta of death when he deals with an unsanitized steering wheel in a rental car, leans back on a bacteria laden headrest on an airplane and caps off his day when he arrives home and unpacks his checked suitcase which was sneezed on by a airport baggage handler not wearing a mask. Feeling ill, he crawls into bed, but a surprise awaits as bed bugs have hitched a ride on his suitcase and jumped into the mattress when he unpacked. He later develops a fatal case of restless leg syndrome when the bed bugs bite him, forcing him to jerk awake and thrust out his leg, thereby knocking over a lamp on his end table which hits him in the head and sends him into a permanent dirt nap.

-Will my teenage daughter ever talk again?: A two-parter focusing on teen girls obsession with text messaging. In part one, parents lament that their 16 year old daughter has not actually spoken in three years. After spending two thousand dollars consulting with a psychologist, they contact their cell phone provider to turn off the text messaging plan on the daughter's phone. In part two we see the daughter's reaction as she tries to scream but is unsuccessful, as her vocal chords have atrophied due to lack of use.

-Make your own Snuggie for Christmas: Viewers are taken through a step by step process as they are shown how they can wear a bathrobe backwards and pretend it is a Snuggie.

-The Eliot Spitzer career advancement program: In this series a frustrated anchor who has been trapped in Palookaville for ten years puts together a horrible resume tape and sends out 100 copies with no response. In part two he cheats on his wife with an escort, leaves his job in shame, and is offered a network gig as a talk show host.

-Thanksgiving without Tiger Woods: Reporter goes in search of the most high profile local celebrity with the most mistresses in order to fill the holiday void created by the golfer's divorce.

-Thanksgiving with Brett Favre: In this piece a middle-aged male reporter shows people who are bored spending time with family over the holidays how to have fun with a cell phone. The reporter sends text messages to Brett Favre, pretending to be an attractive woman, then waits to see what he gets in reply.

-"It's a teenager's worst nightmare!": Time to retire the all-time most overused story intro, "It's a parent's worst nightmare!" since it now applies to about a dozen scenarios. In this series we turn the tables on the kids as we strive to find out what is truly the most horrifying incident to teenagers. In part one parents show up at the senior prom to watch their children, then take to the dance floor themselves. In part two moms open twitter accounts and sent tweets to the close friends of their children with messages like, "Make sure my son wears his hat on the way home, it's cold outside!" Finally, in part three, helicopter parents tail their sons on a date, then show up at the same movie theater and start making out in the front row.

-Convert your social networking to the real world and save at least ten hours per week: Reporters should find an agoraphobe living in his mother's basement who is obsessed with Facebook and Twitter and force the person to apply the principles in the outside world. Cameras must follow the subject as he is forced to take a photo out into a crowd and ask every person, "Do you like this?" Once this task is completed, the person will be required to speak in very short non sequiturs to complete strangers. "I just fed the cat." "My coffee is cold and I'm out of milk." "The new Star Trek movie rocks." In part two of this series, the agoraphobe is shown the folly of his ways, acquires a rocket science PhD with all his new found free time and gets a telecommuting job with NASA, albeit while still wearing a set of Spock ears in his mother's basement.

-"You may find our next story disturbing...": In this social experiment, every single story aired during the first three weeks of sweeps month is begun with this phrase even if the story is not remotely disturbing. For instance, a script might read, "You may find this next story disturbing... city officials have scheduled a special zoning board meeting," or, "You may find this next story disturbing... drinking orange juice every day may lower your cholesterol." During the final week of sweeps we show the station's ratings have skyrocketed during the experiment, necessitating the name change of the station newscast from "Eyemissed It News" to "Disturbing News Live."

-Hurricane Roulette: In this one-parter the Chief Meteorologist tries to explain why the National Hurricane Center has been so far off in predictions the past few years, focusing on the fact that the storms are being predicted by people living in Colorado.

-The vampire next door: A clever ruse designed to capitalize on the recent vampire craze and hopefully attract young female viewers who never watch local news. The key to this series success is a promo featuring a shirtless hunk detailing the fact that vampires exist; and trick is to run the promo every day as if the series is coming up in the next newscast. Then, after running teases throughout the newscast, the anchor will apologize at the end of the newscast and say, "Sorry, but we've run out of time. Our series on vampires will air tomorrow at 6." Then, simply continue the pattern of running promos all day, teases throughout the newscast, and a run-out-of-time apology. The vampire obsessed with continue to watch day after day in the hopes of seeing a piece on bloodsuckers which, in reality, has never even been produced.