Thursday, March 17, 2011

Prayer to Saint Patrick: Please drive the snakes out of our business

You don't have to read a Harry Potter book to visit Slytherin house. It's alive and well in the television news industry. Over the years I've run into plenty of managers and co-workers who could play Lord Voldemort without needing a script.

What constantly amazes me about this is the fact that the snakes in the business seem to only bite those on their own news team. I worked in one shop where I could hear the knives flying the minute I turned my back.

If you have a human being for a News Director count your blessings. If you have supportive co-workers who can be thought of as true friends, you're very lucky.

But sadly, in most organizations, you'll run into a snake who either wants you to quit, wants your job, or wants to prevent you from getting a promotion. There are strategies for dealing with snakes, but we must first separate them into species. (Call it the news version of the Sorting Hat.)

-The anchor-wannabe snake in the grass: This reptile generally slithers around the newsroom, waiting patiently in the high grass for an anchor opening to occur. In the meantime, said snake will deftly spread gossip about any other possible anchor candidates, dropping a line here or there to management about people being lazy, being negative about the company, or making a mistake in a story.

The strategy: Ignore this snake and resist the impulse to fire gossip back in its direction. Be the good soldier and always volunteer to pitch in, work a holiday, come in without being called during a big breaking story. Trust me, the ND will notice that more than idle gossip. When things are dead even talentwise, the team player will have the edge for a promotion.

-The management power trip snake: One of the toughest things about being a manager is having to make decisions that can seriously change people's lives. One promotion, one shot at the anchor desk, one chance at a reporter's gig can launch a career. When you make a decision that turns out well it truly warms your heart. Sadly, said power can often go to the head of managers, many of whom are jealous of those who have on-air careers. Power is a great afrodisiac, and can be a huge turn-on to those who have no life outside the station. You may be the victim of constant cutting remarks, a string of bad assignments, or a permanent spot in the station doghouse.

The strategy: This snake relishes getting under the skin of employees and gaining the upper hand. You need to take a "whatever" attitude, ignore the comments or bad assignments, and continue to do a great job so that you can get the hell out of Dodge. That's the ultimate "last laugh."

-The young producer power trip snake: Ah, the power trip rears its ugly head again. This is a very common variety of snake, as young producers are very susceptible to the clout monster that comes with the territory. Ordering veteran reporters or photogs like a bunch of soldiers is a rush to these people, who then simply don't understand why everyone in the newsroom hates them.

The strategy: See these people for what they truly are. Reporters and photogs may have to operate under time constraints, but you guys still have control over what goes into your final product. When you realize that you're the ones really in change, the producer snakes become paper tigers.

As in the wild, it is best to leave a snake alone and ignore it. Worry about your own career, and resist the temptation to be sucked into their web of deceit. They only have power if you give it to them.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Station research


I overheard my ND talk about "current research" being done on our anchors. What does that mean?

Well, tucked away secretly in that government vault we saw at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" are surveys your station has taken.

About you.

Yep, that stuff is classified, right along with the current location of aliens that landed at Roswell and the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa.

Call them "Q" ratings or "station research" or whatever, they are fancy pie charts or bar graphs that tell a station how you are perceived in the community.

When you're in management, you'll hear stuff like, "Our research shows she's very popular and well liked by young women." Or "He doesn't do well in research. Maybe we should replace him."

Most station research is done by consultants or firms that specialize in such things.

Let's say you're a main anchor and your station wants to know what the viewers think of you. Someone will get a call and hear questions like this:

"Do you recognize the name Barbie Fembot?"

If the caller says yes, they'll get this question:

"Do you like Barbie Fembot?"

Other questions regarding credibility and other such qualities will follow. Then the magical pie charts will appear on a manager's desk. The chart might say that while 80 percent of viewers recognize the name Barbie Fembot, only 40 percent of those like her.

So our anchor would have "high negatives." If most of the people who recognized Barbie liked her, she'd be someone who "tests high in research."

Then you have the focus groups. I've actually been in a few of these in regard to entertainment pilots. You're given a little wheel like a teleprompter control, and told to turn it one way if you like what you're seeing and another if you don't. The more you turn it, the more you like or dislike the current video.

What does all this mean to you? Well, viewer opinions are important. Even if ratings are great, viewers may not like a certain member of a news team. This type of research gives a station information that goes beyond basic Nielsen numbers.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mailbag: Those network letters

Hey Grape,

What is the deal with an O&O station? I sort of understand the concept but how does it relate to job hunting?

Ah, good question. For those who don't know, O&O stands for "owned and operated" by a network. Each major network owns and operates several local stations. For instance, WNBC in New York is owned by the NBC network.

If you get a job offer from an O&O consider yourself lucky. First, you've got network resources at your disposal, but more important, the bigwigs at the network will know who you are. And, if they like you, you could find yourself racing up the ladder to a network gig.

Dear Grape,

I work for a scanner chasing station and I cringe every time we cover a disaster because the following day we run a promo about our coverage. Is this common?

Unfortunately, yes. "When people died a grisly death, we were there! Bringing you the most blood and gore! We had the first shots of bodies being pulled out of the wreckage!"

Call it tasteless, tacky, insensitive, whatever. It's totally unprofessional and turns off any educated viewers. Or course, some stations aren't targeting educated people anyway.

There's a professional, tasteful way to cover a disaster. Put yourself in the shoes of the victims. And never promote it.


Does Charlie Sheen belong in our newscast?

Not really, but the train wreck is damned entertaining.