The Producer Page: April 1997

IN THIS ISSUE...

  • Care and Feeding of Your "Meat Puppets"
  • When You're Ready To Go, Be Ready to Research
  • Producers on the Move
  • Advice for Producers
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Training for Producers (Act now to apply or register)
  • How to Subscribe or Submit Stuff

  • CARE AND FEEDING OF YOUR MEAT PUPPETS
    by Anonymous Anchor (A.A.)

    Talent. Somtimes the title fits, sometimes it fits like a bad super. I'm Talent. I'm a meat puppet. I'm an anchor. I'm also an experienced producer and news director. I've worked in shops where the chemistry between anchors and producers is so bad the directors had to add promos during breaks so the anchors and producers could finish yelling at each other. But I've also worked at stations where they work as a synchronized team and put on good television effortlessly night after night. Quoting "Broadcast News": "It was like great sex!" So, while avoiding any journalistic carnal knowlege, here are some ideas on improving your relationship with Talent.

    Strengths and Weaknesses

    This may sound simplistic, but if you take the time to do it, you'll see some results. Write the name of each of your anchors on a piece of paper. Be sure to include your sports and weather people. Include their back-ups. Under each name jot down their strengths and weaknesses. Think hard about these. Take notes during your show and spend a week putting together a list. (Whatever you do, don't leave your list around for them to see!) Here are a few to get you started:

    • good ad-libber
    • strong writer
    • good with reporters
    • looks authoritative
    • smooth on cross-talk
    • dresses well
    • great voice
    • shows sympathy well
    • primps during bites & breaks
    • stammers if anything goes wrong
    • needs to buy a personality
    • dumb as a post
    • never pre-reads anything
    • primadonna

    Let's hope you don't have too many of the bottom ones. But if you do, there's hope. The most important thing here is that you get a good picture at the tools you've got to present your broadcast to the viewer.

    Maximizing Your Strengths

    Now that you have a clear picture of what you're dealing with, think like a football or basketball coach and put together a game plan that maximizes those strengths in every show. Make sure you give a toss to a breaking live shot that could fall apart any minute to the anchor that can ad-lib out of it when the signal goes to hash. Give the most important local stories to the anchor who's a good writer. If your anchor can't get to a generic live shot at :00:01 without looking panicked, then give them some video :10-:15 before the shot and wipe to your generic live. This may sound simplistic, but in charting your strengths and weaknesses you may find a better way to present your stories.

    Rules for the Care & Feeding of Talent

    Chances are, at some point in your career, you've done time in front of the camera. You figure that gives you insight into what your talent is thinking and why they do or don't act or perform the way you want them to. You're wrong. I've been both, so trust me, you can sympathize but you can't empathize. I'm not trying to say that a job in front of the camera is more difficult than producing, just different. Very different. So to help you understand your meat puppets, here are some rules for their care and feeding.

    1. Always protect the talent.

    While making the list you may have written, "dumb as a post" and "primadonna" for one of your anchors. Sadly, you may be right on the money. But if you knowingly let your anchor go into a show with copy that's going to trip them up or let a director take a shot that makes them look stupid, you'll not only damage your relationship with your anchors, but you'll damage their image to the viewers.

    Watch your talent closely during the broadcast. Do they look their best? I've done entire shows with my tie wildly crooked and my co-anchor's hair dangling off her ear. No one said a word. I've called newsrooms posing as the general manager threatening to fire someone if they didn't have the anchor turn his collar down. He'd done twelve minutes looking like an idiot, but no one cared. Like it or not, their image is your station's image. Hence, their image is your image.

    Protect your talent from the morons that call on the phone after the broadcast. Be friendly, and always side with the meat puppet. If it was awful, say he/she didn't mean it and they're terribly sorry. Remember you're a family. Don't side with anyone against the family. If it's really bad, dump the call to the news director. That's what they get paid for.

    2. Anchors are Babies.

    Get out the Pampers. Even the most experienced, professional anchors can and will act like toddlers. They'll count the number of stories they're reading, get peeved when there's no water on the set, or blame others when they make a mistake. We all have stories, but the bottom line is you're the producer. You've got to be firm but you also have to care about what makes them happy. Granted, this can get ridiculous, so sometimes discipline is the way to go. However, if making sure some P.A. has water on the set for your anchor all the time makes your anchor better, do it. Your broadcast will benefit and so will you. Also, the occasional "liked the way you read that story on the homeless" goes a long way. You might find the sentiment returned.

    It's important to remember that most anchors are terribly insecure. However, they're strong enough to take a risk and put whatever talent they have on the line every night. If the broadcast goes in the crapper, they often hear about it two hours later at the grocery store. Imagine if you had to explain to the produce clerk at the Safeway why video of a monkey riding a horse came up on the mayor's obit. You, the director, the font op., the tape op., or the audio person can make the mistake, but to the viewer, it's the anchor who's accountable. So when it does happen, and they handle it well, make sure you let them know. Your babies may act like children, but they can make you look very good if you treat them right and that pays off next time you're looking for a job.

    3. Get to Know Your Talent

    You're coaching a team. Find out about your players. How they feel about the station, you, and the broadcast. An hour over beers or a few cups of coffee could save you a month's worth of headaches and heartache. You might be shocked to learn they know a lot more about things than they let on. These days an anchor team may get a new producer every six months to a year. To them that's like getting a new mother or father. Know what they like and don't like. Find out how to get the most out of them. Chances are they'll tell you. Here are a few good questions:

    • How should I talk to you in the IFB?
    • When should I talk to you in the IFB?
    • If I get a breaker, which one of you wants it, or do you care?
    • What are your interests/background? Is there a special topic or story you want to write or read most often?
    • Should I remind you when there's ten/five minutes to the open?
    • Do you feel like you're getting enough/too many reads?
    • How's the pacing of the broadcast? How can it be improved?
    • What can I do to make you more comfortable on-air?
    • If our news director won't pay me for these beers/coffees will you tell him/her we're working in a cheap sweat shop?

    You'll be amazed at what you can learn from an hour with your talent outside the station. If you show them you care, they'll usually do the same. Many times they'll recommend you to their friends and contacts, and you'll end up with a better job when you leave.

    Curse or Blessing?

    It's up to you. Talent can be a curse or a blessing. A no-news day can be chicken salad or chicken sh--. If you make the most of your Talent, you'll be a better producer and your broadcast will hum. Remember, you're the foster parent of a TV family now. Make your kids work for you. Believe me, they want to.


    WHEN YOU'RE READY TO GO, DO YOUR RESEARCH
    By Anderson Williams, Weekend Exec. Producer, WBRC-TV Birmingham

    Every newsroom has it. That one weathered copy of "Electronic Media" that makes the weekly rounds from desk to desk. "I just read it for the articles," claim your co-workers. But we all know what they're actually reading it for: the job listings.

    Many times browsing the classifieds is just idle day dreaming. You may not really be ready to move on. But if you are taking the ads seriously, there are things you need to think about before copying the cover letter and dubbing the demo tape.

    "If you feel you're going to produce the same newscast forever or if there's" no apparent chance to move up into management, it's time to go," says Al Volker, Managing Editor at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama. "If you find yourself complaining constantly to yourself or others give it six more months," he says. After that Volker suggests you make contacts and start" looking.

    Once you land an interview, the real work begins. Don't be afraid to you use your skills as a journalist. Ask plenty of questions. "I ask tons," says KMGH's Deborah Stanley. "I have four pages worth before I take a job and I add to the list every time I leave a job, " she says.

    One question to ask: what's the station's news philosophy? It seems like a clique question but the answer can tell you a lot. "If they give you details about their commitment to news or specific things they have done in the past that's a good sign, " says WSFA-TV's Greg Schieferstein in Montgomery, Alabama. "History has a way of repeating itself, " he says.

    Griff Potter works as the Executive Producer at WAFF-TV in Huntsville, Alabama. He suggests posing the philosophy question to other staff members. "If the managers and the in-the-trenches troops give vastly different answers it's clear all the horses at this station probably aren't pulling the same direction, " Potter says.

    Bill Perry at KETA-TV in Oklahoma City has a different approach. "Always try to spend some private time with one or two people from the weather department," he suggests. "They are invariably tuned in to all the station gossip and really know what the trouble spots are, or at least what the staff thinks they are. I suppose it's because weather people, if I may speak generally, are frequently treated as a "Dear Abby" type by many staffers, and weather people also have the unique advantage of being able to roam the building almost invisibly, much like a fly zipping through the newsroom, " says Perry.

    One special projects producer, who asks not to be identified, suggests going even further: call other stations in the market and ask questions. "Ask them what they think about the station you're considering and what they know about what it's like to work there. In my experience, this is a great way to get a lot of good, honest information," they say. Cliff Hill, WAAY-TV's investigative reporter, agrees. "Take the offensive and ask other people in the market how they view the new station you're looking at," says the Huntsville, Alabama anchor/reporter.

    When your prospective employer can't answer your questions, take that as a sign to proceed carefully. Remember: the only perfect job or boss is the one you see on your interview. But if you are ready to make a deal, be ready to sign on the line. "Never make a move without a contract, " advises Hill.

    Contracts should be checked over by an attorney. But don't go overboard. "If your new employer thinks you're a newsroom lawyer he'll take a second look at your candidacy," says Al Volker. Volker, who's been in the business thirty years, says trying to pin down little things, like days off, will raise eyebrows. He does suggest getting salary, benefits and a job description on paper. "This is particularly important if your station doesn't offer a contract, " he says.

    But KMGH's Deborah Stanley doesn't take chances. "Get as much as possible in writing," she urges. "I was told at one job I'd get overtime when I had to work six days in a week. I didn't have it in writing and when I tried to tell the business manager about it, they called me a liar. Now I don't even take a job until everything is in writing. Not just pay and job title, but also moving expenses, how long they are putting me up, overtime policy, etc.," Stanley says.

    One major market producer agrees. "I'm not saying you need a contract, " they say, "but a written agreement is the best insurance you can get that the job you sign up for will be, at least close to, the job you get."

    But as Brad Smith, a former executive producer in Rochester, New York, points out not everything can be guaranteed. "After you've been a producer for a while, write down what's important about your job to you, and know what is a deal breaker," Smith says. "Then get as much of that in writing as you can. Your new employer will respect you for it if you are up front and courteous."

    Remember, a verbal agreement is not "worth the paper it's written on". At minimum get a letter of intent once you accept the job. "At least have an employment letter in hand when you resign your old job ," says Volker.

    But WSFA's Greg Schieferstein says some things must be left to trust. "I don't think it's important to have everything in writing," he says. "Even if you do, things can change." But Schieferstein urges you to do your homework. Once you've done your homework, listen to your gut reaction. There is a certain amount of trust involved in changing jobs. As one person commented for this article: "After all, how is the public supposed to trust us if we can't trust each other?" KSTU's Scott McGrew agrees. "If you don't trust the new station, you shouldn't be working there, " he says.

    The bottom line: Check out your prospective station very carefully. Ask plenty of questions in the interview. Don't be afraid to pose those same questions to other staff members, other stations, and the person you would replace. There will be plenty of promises so get what you can in writing, but be ready to trust your new station on some issues.

    And one final tip: Make sure your new station subscribes to "Electronic Media". "

    Hey, you never know right?


    PRODUCERS GET ADVICE

    response to letter #1 from last month.

    Alice: I just had to respond to letter #1 in your March newsletter. The reason? I have 1/10 the experience of the producer who wrote about trouble finding a job, and I've had no problems whatsoever in my own personal job search. I have a few recommendations to pass along.

    First, what does your resume look like? With all your qualifications, is it 12 pages long? Make sure your resume HIGHLIGHTS your past experience, but any news director will tell you they don't read resume's past page one.

    Second, the producer writes "I've sent my resume to every head hunter.... out there." Well--- did you ever consider bypassing the head hunters and going" straight to the stations? Anyone who has access to the WWW should know about job sites like www.tvjobs.com and ultimate.tv.com.... they have tons of producer openings. When you see an opening you're interested in, put your resume, cover letter, and tape in the mail OVERNIGHT and you'll be surprised at how much more often you'll hear from people.

    And third, what's on your tape? Is it last night's newscast, or a reel of your best stuff? Most news directors seem to want to know what you do on a daily basis; not the way you covered the OJ Simpson verdict. I suggest sending last night's newscast (unless, of course, that particular show crashed) with an explainer about how you make EVERY newscast stand out. Then, offer the news director an additional tape of your best stuff.

    I hope this is helpful; I've only been in the business for three years, but after talking with hundreds of people in the business, this method seems to be the best.Good Luck!

    Robin Radin, News Producer


    response to letter #2

    I am also a journalism student at another pretty well-known school. It occurs to me that the answer might be right in front of you. I'm not sure how your television program is set up, but here we have a small professional staff that oversees the news operations of our PBS-affiliated television station and NPR-affiliated radio stations. On both the radio and the television sides, we have someone who is involved in BOTH editing/producing and in actually reporting/anchoring. Plus, they get to be involved in the practical education of the next generation.Maybe such a position, at an educational institution, is something you could check out.

    Ohio University Undergraduate Student


    response to letter #2

    Good News! There are producing jobs out there that will require you to report. Others that will "allow" you to report. I spent 2 years trying to get a producer job, finally found a ND who gave me a writing test and hired me. When I signed the paperwork. It said Reporter/Producer. He'd never said a word about reporting. I interviewed to produce.

    Long story short... I reported. Eventually just went out and did my stories as anchor packages to make them look good, in turn, make me look good.Options: 1) Look in those small markets where producers do one show and see if they also have to report. 2) Look for a weekend producing job in small to medium markets where you report the other 3 days a week.

    I've had professors and professionals tell me you should pick a track and stay on it. I agree with this 100%. But if you're determined and talented... you can find a job that will let you do both.

    Deborah Stanley
    Producer
    Denver, Co.
    Newschat@aol.com


    response to letter #2

    Since this is a first job for Aaron, and he'll probably end up in a small market, he may not have a choice about doing one type of work in what will probably be an understaffed newsroom. He may end up reporting/anchoring and producing one or more weekend shows, so concern about being pigeon-holed at this point in his career may be premature. The next move might be producing weekends and reporting three days a week or vice-versa. That's not uncommon in many markets either, even larger ones. And after a few years of this mixed bag, Aaron (or his bosses) may focus on what his strength is and go from there.Good luck. Been there, Bob Nenno (MS-TV/R-1977 Syracuse, 18 years in broadcast news, now p-r/teaching at Marquette University, Milwaukee)


    response to letter #3

    You ask about a rule that demands that you do a live shot every night at 10, regardless of whether anything is happening. I don't mind doing them as much as I used to. Obviously, I prefer a great live location where something's still going on. When nothing's happening, I look at it as a nighttime backdrop for my reporter to intro his/her package. I suppose I only draw the line at those 'black hole' live shots, in which the reporter could be in the rear parking lot, on top of a mountain, or ten feet deep in a well.. but we'd never know the difference because all we can see is the reporter surrounded by inky blackness!

    Large-Market Late News Producer

    To the line producer looking to go off line:I'm a special projects producer in a large market in the Northeast. Here's my advice for getting out of daily news and into sp projects:

    1. Be honest with your ND. Ask if there's a chance you can produce some series pieces every once in a while. You'll probably need those pkg's to move on.

    2. Offer to help the special projects producer in your station.

    3. It's very possible that a station would be willing to take a chance on a very good line producer who wants to do special projects even though that producer has no specials experience. I hope these suggestions help.


    PRODUCERS ASK FOR ADVICE

    Alice,

    I'm interested in input on the issue of LIVE. I produce a supper-hour newscast in Canada, where live is still (frankly) in its infancy. Live here is used as a backdrop, despite the push from inside most newsrooms to make live hits informative as well as active, lively, entertaining, etc.

    So,

    1) how do you get your reporters and photographers to become actively involved in their live hits, and to accept the responsibility for finding the right place to be live?

    2) how do you coordinate the info in the reporters sot with the info in the throw, the info in the reporter's live hit, and the info that can be contributed by the anchor?

    3) Do you engrave procedures in stone? I.e. a set time by which reporters must be ready to be on location, figuring out what they're going to show the viewers? or, a system whereby there's a procedure of who calls who and who decides what?

    We are finding that unless we aggressively push from inside to encourage reporters to interact with their locations, we end up with live standups in front of live backdrops. This feeds on itself by leaving the impression with our ground troops that we producers inside the newsroom are going to somehow tell reporters what to do, what to say and where to be out in the field (a pretty silly notion, when you think about it).

    We've formed some pretty bad habits and I need your help to get on the right track.

    (Readers, please send responses to AJMain@aol.com with LIVE ADVICE in the subject line, for publication in the next issue.)


    Alice,

    Like many newsrooms, ours in the midst of drawing up budgets for the coming year, and it occurred to us that SOMEONE must have software designed to track newsroom budgets.

    I'm not aware that Newsmaker has such a thing, but I wondered if you could put an enquiry in your next newsletter (unless, of course, you happen to know off the top of your head that such a thing exists, and can simply reply yourself!).

    We're looking for something that can track, on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, spending in a multitude of areas; i.e. overtime, casual staff, travel, meals, etc....

    Hope you can help.

    Wendy Vreeken
    U. News at Six Producer,
    (reply to tips@utv.canwest.com)


    PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE

    JODI GRALNICK has left KSL in Salt Lake City to produce the 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts at WFTS channel 28 in Tampa.

    MADONNA FIGURA joins WKBW-TV in Buffalo, NY as Executive Producer. Madonna previously held the position from 1993-1994 before leaving to become Assistant News Director/Acting News Director at WROC-TV in Rochester and launching the 7:00am and noon newscasts at WOIO-TV in Cleveland.


    MORE HEADHUNTERS

    Last month I started listing producer headhunters. Here are a few more. If you haven't been listed yet, or you know someone who should be listed, send me a note.

    I'm going to make a permanent section on the webpage for this.


    Frank N. Magid Associates is constantly looking for top-quality producers for our 140 client stations. Send resume and letter to:

    Barbara Frye
    Director of Talent Placement
    Frank N. Magid Associates
    1 Research Center
    Marion, Iowa 52302


    PRODUCERS, TOOT YOUR HORNS!

    Spring is award time. If you win something, or if a co-worker wins something, type it up and send it to me for publication here. Send it to AJMain@aol.com. Go ahead and brag!


    PRODUCER SEMINAR AT POYNTER INSTITUTE. ACT RIGHT NOW TO APPLY. REALLY, RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

    April 1 is the deadline to apply for The Poynter Institute's next seminar on Producing Newscasts. But wait! In the remote possibility this issue doesn't reach you by then, Poynter is offering a special extension for subscribers to this newsletter: Apply within 24 hours of receiving The Producer, April edition, and we'll consider your application with everybody else's.

    Poynter's Producing Newscasts seminar can make a big difference in your daily work and your career path. It's not about stacking, stunting, and story count. It's about making yours the newscast worth watching, even on a "slow news day." It's about getting the best out of everybody who contributes to your show. And it's about rediscovering that good journalism is good business.

    The seminar runs June 8 through 13 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The cost is $350 plus your transportation, a few meals, and incidentals. We'll provide the hotel room, a few more meals, all your materials, and everything else a Poynter program offers. Ask somebody who's been here.

    We're looking for people who know what they're doing, but think they can be even better -- and lead others to do the same. For more information or an application form, contact Scott Libin at 813-821-9494 or libin@poynter.org.


    NATIONAL WRITERS WORKSHOP

    Sign up by April 2 (or as soon as you see this!) for the National Writers' Workshop in Charlotte, NC.

    More than 30 of the country's most talented journalists and authors will share their secrets at the Charlotte Hilton at University Place in Charlotte on Saturday and Sunday, April 19 and 20.

    Broadcast speakers are Steve Filmer, consumer editor for ABC's Good Morning America; Scott Libin, a Poynter Institute faculty member specializing in storytelling and leadership; award-winning photojournalist Lane Michaelsen, formerly director of photography at KARE-TV in Minneapolis, who now teaches at Poynter; and novelist and screenwriter former WBTV news anchor Bob Inman, now a novelist and screenwriter.

    The workshop costs only $65 per person and the special workshop rate at the Charlotte Hilton at University Place is $72 (but supplies are limited at that rate; call 704.547.7444 and mention the National Writers' Workshop).

    To receive an application, give your name, address, telephone number and email address on the National Writers' Workshop hotline, 704.358.5054 or email nww@charlotte.infi.net.


    RTNDA Spring Training Conferences

    There's still time to sign up for the sessions in Austin, Portland, and Columbus. (Hurry for Austin.. it's next weekend!) Among the topics: Power Producing. A guest speaker in Columbus is.. drumroll please.. ME! I did this at the Richmond session last weekend, despite an enormous case of nerves, and actually met some of you subscribers in person. (Some of you don't look much like your email addresses. But then, I probably don't either!) Anyway, if you're interested in attending these sessions, I can assure you that you'll have a good time, meet some interesting people, laugh out loud at least a couple of times, and take home some useful tips on writing better teases, working out problems with difficult people, and using graphics well. (Okay, so we ran out of time in Richmond before we got to the graphics part. We'll do better! Really!) To sign up and see what else the conferences have to offer.. dial up the website at http://www.rtnda.org/rtnda. Get right to the signup form at http://www.rtnda.org/rtnda/stc/spring_form.html.


    IN THE NEXT ISSUE

    What people do WRONG when searching for a job. Send your war stories and anecdotes to Ted Wilson at TCWilson1@aol.com.