Saturday, December 11, 2010

The ratings are in, but what do they mean?

Just about every market in America should have received their November ratings by now. You can generally tell how things went by looking at the faces in the sales department... or checking out the mood of your News Director.

But very often ratings are not made available to the staff. If you work at a station that subscribes to the theory that ratings books must be guarded like government secrets, you're probably wondering why. Well, a few reasons. First, if the ratings are good, you don't want to tell the staff because they'll start asking for raises, and, heaven forbid, think they're actually doing a good job. If the ratings are bad, well, it's obvious you don't want to run around showing off plummeting numbers.

By the way, if you want the ratings and work in one of these stations, you have a few options. One, make friends with someone in the sales department. Two, ask a a staffer from another station in the market. Three, see if the local newspaper has them; very often a media columnist has access to the numbers.

Now, what do they mean? Well, there are two ways to look at ratings: book to book, or year to year. For instance, you might compare the November book to the May book. Or, you might compare this year's November book to last year's November book.

Stations usually look at both and choose the method that best serves the sales department. For instance, let's say last November book was lousy, May was great, and this November was somewhere in between. You don't want to show the drop from May to November, but you do want to show the increase from last November to this November. Got it?

Confusing, I know, but that's the way things work.

What do numbers mean for you? Well, if you're an anchor or producer and things are heading up, you'll want a copy of said numbers to include with your resume tape. Showing that you can build an audience is a good selling point when looking for a job. If you're a reporter it's hard to show that you had a specific impact on the numbers.

Got it?


Thursday, December 9, 2010

My record player can beat up your iPod

For the past couple of days I've been tinkering with my record player. This thing called a drive belt snapped... it's the part that makes the record platter spin around. And since there aren't exactly a whole lot of turntable repair shops out there, I ordered the belt and took the record player apart. Now I'm back in the vinyl business.

While playing a few records to test the thing, I started reading the album covers and the dust jackets... and realized most of the young generation has never experienced these little bells and whistles that made old fashioned records more enjoyable than today's music downloads.

Years ago you'd walk into a record store and, get this, you could actually take a record into a booth and listen to it before you decided whether or not to buy it. Then when you played it for the first time, you'd put the record on the record player. You'd read the album cover, a friend would read the dust jacket, and it made for a nice experience.

The term "flip side" comes from the record industry. What was on the other side of that hit record? If you bought one, you took home the other. Sometimes you'd get a clunker, sometimes not.

Then there were records, like the "Best of Bread" which had theme sides. There was the mellow side and the rowdy side. I remember a party in college where a gal held up this record and asked the group just that. "Mellow side or rowdy side?"

In this era of instant gratification, we've lost the wrapper that comes with music. It's like getting a Christmas gift handed to you, with no package, no wrapping paper, no bow, no cute tag.

Television news has gotten the same way. The bells and whistles are pretty much history, victims of a time crunch, lack of creativity, or both.

Back in the day you'd be working on a package and a photog might say, "You know what would make this better?" And then he'd talk about a certain clip of music, or a sound effect, or a clever graphic. You'd actually get excited adding these unique elements to a story.

I've posted the story of our hula hoop package on this blog before. It was a package that took twenty minutes to shoot and it won the AP award for best feature in the state. But what took it to another level were all the elements we added to it. The vintage black and white video of hula hoops from the 60's, a clip from the American Graffiti soundtrack, some clever editing and great nat sound breaks.

Ninety percent of the time, that package today would look like this: voice track, sound bite, voice track, standup, sound bite, voice track. No bells or whistles.

When you do that, you're just handing the viewer an unwrapped gift.

It's those little things that take your packages to the next level, those little things that tell a News Director looking at your resume tape, "This reporter really got creative and took the extra time to make the package special."

A television story is called a "package" for a reason. Wrap yours up like an old fashioned record album, give the viewer lots of elements and things to think about, and watch the quality of your work zoom to another level.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How to make your News Director's life easier

I know, some of you read that post title and said, "You gotta be kidding. Why should I?"

Well, you need a little insight into the job to understand why your ND looks stressed, might have a short fuse, or seems preoccupied all the time.

The job is not fun. Well, it probably used to be, but these days the parameters have changed. The big culprit is money. Years ago NDs had massive budgets and worried about important stuff, like, you know, news. Now News Directors have beancounters and sales people hovering over their heads, and have been turned against their wishes into glorified accountants.

Trust me, no one wants to become a News Director because he wants to study a balance sheet.

The other bad thing about the job is that invisible line you can't cross. Wanna be friends with the staff? Well, you can and you can't. Get too close and you're seen as a pushover. Stay too far away and you're considered aloof.

A News Director's day begins when he walks out to the driveway to pick up the morning paper. Then he cringes as he unfolds it, hoping against hope that there's not a huge front page story his staff has missed.

So how do you fit into the picture? Well, every News Director has favorite people, and you can become one of those making things just a little bit easier. NDs love people they "don't have to worry about" and you can become one of those with a few easy steps.

-Bring solid story ideas to the meeting every day. When a ND comes to work and knows it's a slow day, he can count on the fact that certain reporters will always have good story ideas. (And those people will get the plum assignments down the road.)

-Stay out of the drama pool. Every News Department has drama, and some are like running soap operas. Do your best to avoid gossip, backstabbing, and the other little things that can tear a newsroom apart. Do the opposite and be a team player.

-Once in awhile, ask your ND something personal. You might ask about the NDs spouse, kids, what he did on vacation, etc. Anything to take his mind off the job is always welcome.

-Volunteer for the stuff no one wants. If you're not going home for the holidays, volunteer to work. One of the toughest thing a ND has to deal with are holiday requests for days off.

-Take care of the news car. As a reporter, I never left anything in a car and left it as I found it. As a manager, I was amazed at the stuff I'd find when I had to borrow a news car. Half eaten lunches, rotten fruit, cigarettes, shopping bags, you name it. The other pet peeve about news cars concerns the gas tank. Make sure you don't bring it back to the station running on fumes. The next person might have a breaking story and that five minute stop for gas might be the difference between getting the story and missing it.

-Respect the equipment. You wanna know why half the equipment in the station doesn't work? Because people don't treat it like their own.

-Answer the phone. I worked in one shop where the phones would ring forever and no one would answer. Grab the phone as soon as possible. Might be a great story on the other end.

-Don't complain. This is a tough one, but a NDs day is filled with complaints. If you want something, ask. Don't complain and demand.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The high cost of dreams

While most kids rode a school bus to high school, I took the train. It gave me a look at the future that few fourteen-year-olds see.

We'd be working on homework or talking sports while sharing the train with commuters. Occasionally I'd take a late train home and see what those same commuters looked like after a work day.

We called them the "commuting undead."

They looked like lifeless zombies, worn out and fried from whatever careers they'd chosen. I swore "this will not happen to me."

As a young reporter I met people in average jobs, and thought about them every time I thought about doing something else. In particular, I wondered what it must be like for someone who works on an assembly line. Doing the same thing, day after day, year after year. Imagine doing that for forty years or so.

Then it hit me that many people simply don't have dreams. For them a weekly paycheck, a six pack of beer and a big screen TV are all they need to be happy.

Which is fine, but not enough for anyone who's creative.

I hear a lot from people who are looking to do something else, who think life will be better outside the business. It may be true in some cases, and not in others.

The one thing you have to keep in mind is that at this point in time, not many people are happy in any career. The economy is in the tank, there's no loyalty anymore, and companies treat employees like dirt. Some of the people with whom I rode the train got what I thought were great jobs years ago...and now they're facing the same hardships like the rest of us. Pay cuts, layoffs, doing more work for less pay.

Back to dreams. Several years ago I was considering leaving the business for a job that wasn't the least bit creative. A friend of mine who was a creative director for an ad agency posed the best question: "What are you going to do for a creative outlet?"

All creative people have dreams. It's the way we're wired. We're not satisfied working nine to five and doing the same thing every day.

If you're considering leaving the business, make sure you take that into account. You may end up with more money and better hours, but if you lose your dream you may lose part of your soul.

I once got a fortune cookie that read, "Without dreams you have no future." Truer words were never spoken.

Dreaming isn't free, despite what Debbie Harry said in song. They may keep you in a career that will make you pull your hair out, but the alternative might be worse.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Attention college students

Regardless of whether you like or dislike Fox News, this is an opportunity to take a whack at your student loans and maybe get your foot in the door somewhere:

But you gotta sign up by Tuesday.