Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Petraeus is a big story and Benghazi is not... yet

The big stories of the past few months tell us a lot about viewers and their interests.

Imagine you're doing a man in the street interview, and you have two questions:

-Who is David Petraeus?

-What's going on with Benghazi?

Thanks to the revelation of Petraeus' sordid affair in the past few days, you'd get a pretty high percentage of people who could answer the first question.

The second question? Half the people are more likely to think "Ben Gazzi" owns the pizza parlor down the street.

Ironically the first story is about to make the second story the bigger one. All because of that one intangible that makes viewers stop what they're doing and watch: a sex scandal.

The Petraeus story is a made-for-supermarket-tabloid tale. This isn't just a guy cheating on his wife, this is also a wife cheating on her husband. It's become an affair that tests your knowledge of geometry, going from a love triangle to a polygon at the Pentagon. Throw in a book title that's a hanging curveball over the middle of the plate for any comedian, and you've got a story that isn't going away for awhile. The public can't get enough.

Ironically, it's taking a sex scandal to get the bigger story rolling. Let's be honest here, Benghazi is bigger than Watergate, and Watergate was huge. The big difference? Nobody died during the Watergate burglary. Americans were murdered in Benghazi. Somebody screwed up, and it shouldn't take this long to figure out who.

You can argue why Benghazi hasn't taken off as a story. One argument is that the story was buried before the election. Another is that Americans don't care much for foreign affairs news. It could be a little of both. But now you tie in a guy involved in a racy affair, and Benghazi suddenly becomes more relevant, because you've added spice to the story. Did a General's "distraction" cause Americans to die? Now Benghazi trumps Watergate.

It's sad that a sex angle is needed to gain interest for a story, but that's the culture in which we live. It's too bad that so many journalists didn't see Benghazi as the huge story it is now destined to be.

Remember, there are no such things as boring stories, only boring reporters. If you have a good story, you have the ability to make it interesting, despite what you perceive as a lack of interest from viewers.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Burnout or bad boss?

I sometimes shake my head when I get phone calls and emails from people in their mid-twenties who say they're "burned out."

The phrase was coined in the seventies, and usually used to describe people in their forties and fifties who had been on the same treadmill a little too long. When I used to ride the trains in the New York area I'd see it during rush hour; the long faces of the "commuting undead" that told you they were sick of their jobs without saying a word.

I thought I was burned out around forty, having gone through a few years with a boss I couldn't stand. His management style sucked the life out of me, often putting my muse into vapor lock. I left the business for awhile, then came back. Because I wasn't burned out; my creativity was stifled by a boss who didn't understand creative people and how they're wired.

For those of you who think you're burned out, I know exactly how you feel.  You drag yourself out of bed, don't arrive in the newsroom one minute earlier than you have to, dread the bad assignments you're given. You walk on eggshells, trying not to make mistakes yet get criticized even if you don't make any. You're a member of the television undead.

Here's how you know you're not burned out. You say you don't care anymore about your stories, but you've got too much pride to phone it in. You still get a rush from knocking out a good story, or breaking an exclusive. You're looking for another job because despite the horrible conditions, you still love what you do.

There's a big difference between "Get me outta here" and "Get me outta this business."

We are ruled by a muse and challenged by a blank page. If you still want to do what you're doing, only do it somewhere else, you're not burned out. You're just working in a bad place for a bad boss.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The snowball

Even if you didn't grow up in the northern part of the country, you probably know what the term "snowball rolling downhill" means. As kids we loved making a decent sized snowball, rolling it down the very large hill near my house and watching the thing grow and grow and grow and end up like a boulder.

There are snowballs that roll downhill in television news, and they only appear in the middle of newscasts. I'm talking about what happens when some idiot in management thinks it is a good idea to get on the phone and ream someone out while the person is still on the air.

I've seen this countless times. Anchor, producer or director either screws up or does something management doesn't like. Rather than wait for the newscast to end to discuss this, the helicopter manager waits for the next commercial break, then grabs the phone and calls the person.

At this point you may as well put color bars on the air, because the newscast is shot to hell.

The victim becomes the proverbial snowball, thinking, "I'd better not screw up again" and ends up walking on eggshells. And you can't do your best work when you're concentrating on making not mistakes. The result is often the opposite. You just make more of them, as the problem rolls downhill and gets bigger and bigger.

I've seen anchors go into vapor lock when this happens. I've seen a director get so twitchy he could barely punch the rest of the newscast.

What can you do if you're a victim of what I consider rather transparent attempts to get under your skin and gain power over you? You have to be tough and consider the source. Consider the tactic, and what the management person is trying to do. And then you have to say to yourself "whatever" and move on.

Criticizing someone during a newscast is one of the most pathetic tactics used by managers. Grow a thick skin and don't become a snowball.