The Producer Page: August 1996

IN THIS ISSUE...

  • Wall-to-Wall Pitfalls
  • Danger: Olympic Torch
  • Star Producer
  • When the Ratings Suck
  • Winning Producers
  • Producers on the Move
  • Letters to the Editor

  • WALL-TO-WALL PITFALLS
    by Scott Libin, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, (libin@poynter.org)

    I've been thinking a lot the last few weeks about the phenomenon of "wall-to-wall" or, to put it more formally, "sustained" live coverage. The TWA crash and, to a lesser extent, the Atlanta bomb both provided prominent examples.

    You and those who read your newsletter know just how it works. In many -- maybe most -- TV newsrooms, the top priority upon learning of a huge breaking story is not to gather information, to dispatch crews, or to plan coverage. All of that comes after Job One: No, it's not quality -- this isn't Ford; Job One is getting on the air.

    You can't really blame news directors for establishing this as the most urgent mission. Newspapers, radio, magazines, and online services can all cover big stories in their own ways, but only TV can put live, moving pictures in front of millions of people in mere moments. (Even if those pictures for a while are nothing more than talking heads on set or in the newsroom.) And, in fairness, there's usually enough to go on the air with as soon as the first confirmed reports cross the wire or feed or whatever. But going on the air is one thing; staying on is quite another.

    For the first few hours after a major disaster such as the TWA crash, there's just not much actual information available. (This was less a factor in the Atlanta bombing because most of the audience was asleep for the first few hours.) You've got at most maybe half a dozen facts you can trust enough to share with viewers: A plane is down, here's the airline, here's the rough location, maybe you know the flight number, maybe you don't. You certainly don't know some of the things people care about most: Who was on the plane, did anybody survive, and what caused the crash?

    So, once you've recited the facts as you know them a few times, what do you do? In the old days, standard operating procedure was to go back to regular programming until you had something more to offer -- something like live reports from the scene, or at least near it, or at the very least the airport or someplace similarly relevant. But nowadays, returning to non-news programming -- even with the promise that you'll break in again at the very moment you have anything further to report -- is like reaching right through the screen, handing that viewer the remote, and suggesting she shop elsewhere for news. And where she finds it, she just might stay.

    Nobody wants to let go of viewers once you've got them. You want to be the one they find when shopping around -- "sampling" or "surfing" or whatever the latest term is. But there are few risks greater than having too much time and too little to say to fill it.

    This is true not just of TV news, but of many sticky situations in life. Some of the dumbest things anybody ever said came out due to simple, primitive fear of dead air. Think about your biggest job-interview gaffe, or the most astonishingly stupid thing you ever said on a first date. Chances are your motivation was the same as the anchors' when it's time to stretch: You just had to say something -- anything.

    I know, the best anchors can handle this. But we can't all be the best. (And, when it comes to anchoring, I speak from experience.) What we tend to do is speculate. We load up our speculation with all sorts of qualifiers and disclaimers, but that's not what people remember. Worse yet, anchors (prompted by producers, prompted by news directors) often try to force others to speculate. And often those who find it hardest to resist these loaded questions are our own reporters. Fear of saying "I don't know" is almost as great as fear of saying nothing.

    So, what's the solution? I don't know. (Hey, that didn't hurt.) But I do have a suggestion.

    We all know how important it is to have a thorough, up-to-date disaster plan, and we agonize over whether we've thought of everything: who calls whom, how to round up our experts on a moment's notice, where to send equipment and people. All of that comes under the category Bob Steele, who directs the Poynter Institute's ethics program, calls "front-end work." And in the same category is something some news managers don't think of as part of disaster planning -- but it can, if not thoroughly planned, be a disaster itself in the making: It's the set of guidelines -- the "protocols," in Bob's terms -- that govern the way we make ethical decisions on deadline. It's not how we get on the air, but what we say and do once we get there.

    These things are tough enough when you have time to sit around and talk about them, to get everybody's view, to reason, and to reflect. But when you don't -- when that bulletin crosses saying "plane down" -- you need to know that everybody already has the same principles in mind. That anchor on her way to the set for the first cut-in doesn't have time to stop in the news director's office for a thoughtful examination of the issues. And she may not come out from under the lights for quite a while. In the meantime, where does she get her guidance for the hundred little split-second decisions behind all that ad-libbing? It's not the voice in her IFB, telling her where to pitch next. By comparison, that's the easy part. It's the other voice, telling her not necessarily what to do, but how to decide. Because she and her colleagues and the people who lead them took the time before the big story broke to think things out, to talk them out, and to commit themselves to certain practical principles.

    Effective leaders, and that certainly should include producers, make those conversations happen. They don't wait for that "slow time" that never comes in TV news, nor do they wait till they "need to," because by then, it's too late. Even in newsrooms that know this vital secret to covering major breaking news, it's still a challenge to fill those first few hours on air with only a few minutes' worth of information. But, when everybody knows the rules in advance, the danger to fairness, to accuracy, and to the team's own credibility is far smaller.

    Too bad you can't train that way for a first date.



    WINNING PRODUCERS

    KNXV Producers Patrick Radde and Julia Kerfoot swept the 1995-96 Rocky Mountain Emmy's for newscast production. Radde is the station's 6pm producer. Kerfoot is the station's 10pm producer. They accepted their awards recently in Scottsdale, Arizona.



    DANGER: OLYMPIC TORCH
    by MSCHWEITZ@aol.com

    (Dated 7/6/96)
    ========================================================
    ANCHOR LEAD
    ALL EYES ARE FOCUSED ON THE OLYMPIC TORCH , WHICH MAKES ITS WAY THROUGH OUR AREA TODAY...DESTINATION ATLANTA. BUT WHILE THE OLYMPIC TORCH IS A THRILLING AND EXCITING SIGHT FOR MOST PEOPLE, IT CAN BE A DANGER TOO. CONSUMER REPORTER (insert name) IS HERE WITH SOME SAFETY TIPS FOR THOSE OF YOU FOLLOWING THE TORCH.

    REPORTER ON CAM
    WE'VE SAID IT BEFORE AND WE'LL SAY IT AGAIN. THE OLYMPIC TORCH CAN SET YOUR HEART AFIRE WITH ITS BEAUTY...UNFORTUNATELY, IT CAN ALSO JUST SET YOU AFIRE.
    ===========
    TAKE EJ/SOT
    MOS
    oh...look at it...it's beautiful!
    butt to
    MOS
    wow...i ain't never seen nothing like it!
    ===========
    COVER OLYMPIC FLAME
    A BEAUTIFUL DAY FOR A TORCH JOB... ESPECIALLY IF THE TORCH BELONGS TO THE1996 SUMMER OLYMPICS, PREMIERING THIS JULY 19TH HERE ON NBC4. TODAY, THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE TOOK TIME TO THRILL TO THE FIRE AND PAY HOMAGE TO THE FLAME. BUT HOW MANY OF THEM KNEW THAT THE SAME OLYMPIC FLAME THAT COULD WARM THEIR HEART'S COULD ALSO FLAMBE THEIR INSIDES...SOMETIMES WITH DISASTROUS RESULTS.
    ===========
    REPORTER
    did you know the olympic flame is hot enough to blister your skin at best...and totally destroy it at worst?
    butt to
    MOS
    well i figured it was hot, but Ididn't know it could hurt you...
    butt to
    MOS
    i thought they had a way to keep it cool...
    butt to
    MOS
    get outta here!
    ============
    REPORTER STANDUP
    GET OUTTA HERE NOTHING. EXPERTS IN FIRE TECHNOLOGY TELL US THAT... PROMOTIONAL VALUE NOTWITHSTANDING... OLYMPIC FLAMES CAN RIP THE SKIN RIGHT OFF YOU IF YOU'RE NOT CAREFUL.
    ============
    REPORTER QUESTION
    how hot can the olympic flame really get?
    butt to
    DR. EXTER MINATOR
    external burn specialist
    well, depending on conditions, the olympic flame can reach several hundred degrees fahrenheit.it may be easier for your viewers to picture it this way...if you held the flame under a container of water... eventually that water would come to a boil. that means, not only could the olympic flame burn one of your hands beyond recognition...the container could also burn the other.
    REPORTER REVERSAL
    so we're talking about serious burn possibilities here?
    butt to
    DR. MINATOR
    absolutely. i would think long and hard before putting my hands at risk like that.
    ===========
    cover of mom & kid
    BUT PUTTING A HAND AT RISK IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TODAY TO 5-YEAR OLD IMA DUMPSTER. DUMPSTER AND HER MOM WERE IN A CROWD WATCHING THE OLYMPIC TORCH PASS BY WHEN THE CHILD REACHED OUT TO TOUCH OLYMPIC GLORY. TOO SOON THOUGH, OLYMPIC BLISS TURNED TO OLYMPIC BLISTER.
    ===========
    MOM DUMPSTER
    it happened so fast. one moment she was holding my hand...the next moment...she...(moms eyes begin to tear)...
    butt to
    DAUGHTER DUMPSTER
    olympic flame hurt!!!
    butt to
    REPORTER REVERSAL
    will you ever reach for an olympic flame again?
    butt to DAUGHTER DUMPSTER
    nooooppp...
    butt to
    REPORTER REVERSAL
    but will you watch the olympics right here on nbc4 starting july 19th?
    butt to
    DAUGHTER & MOM
    we're hoping we can get past this and watch the olympics...
    butt to
    REPORTER REVERSAL
    on nbc4.
    butt to
    MOM
    on nbc4.
    ===============
    cover of crowd watching olympic flame
    SO WHAT CAN YOU DO TO MAKE SURE YOUR FAMILY'S SAFE AROUND THE OLYMPIC FLAME?
    GRAPHICS
    FIRST, REALIZE THAT FIRE IS FIRE WHETHER IT'S BURNING ON TOP OF THE OLYMPIC TORCH OR ON TOP OF THE ROWHOUSE NEXT DOOR. ANYTHING THAT CAN BE BURNED BY REGULAR FIRE CAN ALSO BE BURNED BY OLYMPIC FIRE.
    RVL
    ALWAYS KEEP OLYMPIC TORCHES AWAY FROM FLAMMABLE ITEMS.
    RVL
    IF YOU MUST TAKE AN OLYMPIC TORCH INSIDE, MAKE SURE THE ROOM IS WELL VENTILATED AND THE TORCH IS NOT LEFT TO BURN ALONE.
    RVL
    KEEP OLYMPIC TORCHES AWAY FROM YOUNG CHILDREN. EXPERTS TELL US NO ONE UNDER 5 SHOULD EVER PLAY WITH FIRE.
    RVL
    NEVER LIGHT YOUR CIGARETTE ON THE OLYMPIC FLAME. FRANKLY, IT'S JUST TOO HOT TO GET NEAR YOUR FACE.
    RVL
    AND FINALLY, IF YOU'RE TOO AFRAID TO SEE THE OLYMPIC FLAME IN PERSON, YOU CAN SAFELY SEE IT RIGHT HERE ON NBC4.
    SIG OUT
    ANCHOR TAG
    JUST A REMINDER...THE OLYMPIC FLAME WILL BE SAFELY OUT OF OUR AREA IN THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS SO THE DANGER WILL PASS QUICKLY. BEGINNING JULY 19TH, YOU CAN SAFELY SEE THE FLAME RIGHT HERE ON NBC4.



    MY GM WAS SO CHEAP...
    (Anonymous Contributor, of course)

    My GM was so cheap, he couldn't afford to buy business cards for the producer heading his election coverage... but he could afford to buy them for 3 directors who wanted them to pick up women in bars.



    WHEN THE RATINGS SUCK
    by Deb Stanley (formerly KAMC-TV, Lubbock) now KCNC-TV, Denver

    I went to a wedding in Dallas 2 weeks ago for my former News Director/Anchor in Lubbock. While a group of us TV people were standing around, one guy, from the old days, walks up and goes "Wow, we were all together when we were 4th out of 3." Our 6pm news was behind the CBS, NBC and Star Trek on the Indy in town. But we had a good group of people.

    By the way, the station is now very close to becoming number 1. Hope it's not because we're all gone.

    And one more note, we won not only won a Best Newscast (from AP) while we were there but several other major awards. Maybe that helped us keep going. We were very proud of our work, even if most of the market wasn't seeing it.


    MORE ABOUT WHEN THE RATINGS SUCK
    by John McQuiston

    Between 1988 and 1991 I worked at WMDT-TV in Salisbury, Maryland, a station whose ratings were so low management refused to let us see them. But we all knew that, according to the ratings, we were the fourth place station in a TWO station market!

    WBOC-TV in Salisbury was the first television station on Maryland's eastern shore and remained its only one until WMDT came along around 1980. As you can imagine, changing decades of viewer habits wasn't going to come easily. And it still hasn't happened.

    A great example of how the community viewed the two stations came from a photographer of ours who had grown up in Salisbury. His mother would tell him she had missed something he had shot for our station because she was watching "Salisbury news," meaning WBOC. What were we? Well, whatever we were, we weren't Salisbury's news -- as the ratings told us over and over again.

    We weren't underdog. We were underfoot.

    How did we keep morale up? Several ways.

    First, most of us were young and ignorant. While ignorance may not be bliss, it's sometimes helpful. This was the 160-somethingth market and we were there to learn how to make television news as much as anything. I didn't expect to make a career working in Salisbury and I directed my focus toward improving my skills so that I could get a job in a better market.

    Second, we had a good staff. Our news director at the time Ray Carter (now ND at KSL in Salt Lake City) had an eye for talent and he managed to collect quite a bit of it in our crummy little newsroom. I knew I was working with people who were destined for good jobs in bigger markets. In fact, while I was there we had one producer leave for a job in Tampa and another one move on to Baltimore. Two photographers got jobs in Richmond, Virginia and their replacements later moved to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania market. Stories like these and of other people "getting out" and making it to major markets inspired us to believe that someday, somehow, it could happen to us. That and the competition among ourselves in the newsroom to do the best work went a long way in helping us ignore the beatings we took in the ratings.

    Third, when we did look at the competition, we compared product not ratings. Our station's upper management put almost no effort into promoting our news and didn't even seem to care if more people watched. The fact that they wouldn't let us see the ratings helped us to forget them. We serfs in the newsroom couldn't control whether people watched our news anyway. We could only control what our news looked like. So that's where we directed our attention. Two years running we won the Associated Press award for Outstanding News Operation despite WBOC's massive advantages in staff size and equipment. One year we won the Associated Press award for best spot news coverage even though we didn't have a live truck and WBOC had three!

    My point ("and I do have one" as Ellen Degeneres likes to say) is that you can survive and even flourish working at the "dog" of your market. But you can't worry about the ratings. It's not your job anyway. Your job is to produce an informative newscast that will be interesting enough that someone tuning in will stay and watch. Let the big-bucks upper management people figure out how to get people to tune in.



    PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE

    Todd Mazza, formerly the 5pm and 10pm Producer at WJHG in Panama City has moved on to take over Producing the 6pm and 11pm newscasts at WCTV in Tallahassee.



    LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

    Alice,

    On love and news.

    My husband and I have been in the business for 10 years. We got jobs right out of college at the same tiny TV station in Austin, Minnesota. Home of SPAM. We reported, anchored, shot and edited. It was an exciting time...we made 10-thousand dollars a year...and had more fun than probably legal. We also discovered that as on-air talent goes, we sucked.

    So, we both got jobs KSTP in Minneapolis. Bill as a writer, me as an assignment editor. We spent four years at the station....Bill became the main newscast producer and I became the investigative producer. And one day, after knowing each other for years and years, we fell in love and got married. (how that happened is another story). Being newly married midwesterners, we then did the next logical thing....quit our well-paying, stable, good jobs and move to California.

    Bill got a job as a producer in KXTV in Sacramento and I did some freelance work for KCRA, eventually landing a full-time job. Now, four years later, Bill is the EP at KXTV and I'm Managing Editor at KCRA. It's not always easy, especially with the both of us in management, but we've tried to work out a good balance. Generally, we just don't talk shop at home. We like it that way and our stations like it that way. I think we are lucky....I don't know what will happen in the future...will one of us grow up to be a news director? will both of us? This may sound sappy and cause some of you to gag, but I don't spend too much time worrying about the future. As long as we are together, we'll be fine.

    Angie Dallman


    Alice,

    You might want to let your subcribers know about my page of internet resources. It has links to newspapers, magazines, news wires, international newspapers, political stuff, government pages, weather sites, databases and more. It's located at: http://rampages.onramp.net/~markstep/mest.htm.

    Thanks
    Mark Stepneski
    Special Projects Producer
    KXAS-TV
    Dallas/Fort Worth


    Alice,

    I work as a newscast producer in Tucson, and one of our anchors told me networks often look for regional producers to do freelance work for them. Could you or one of your readers tell me how to find and take advantage of these opportunities?

    Thanks, Name Withheld


    Alice,

    I was wondering if any of your readers have made the jump from daily news producing to documentary producing. I'm would love to make the transition, but I'm finding it difficult to convince people in the documentary world that my writing, visual and interviewing skills are transferable.

    Thanks for your help (please don't print my name; I don't want my current employer to know I'm thinking of moving into another aspect of the field).


    STAR PRODUCER: Marisa Venegas, Chief Medical Producer, CBS Evening News
    by Dana Rogers, Producer, KOTV, Tulsa

    She's been in the business six years. Six years at the network. Marisa Venegas freely admitted she knew nothing about television, when an NBC medical correspondent approached her about her first network producing position. The correspondent said he needed someone with a science background. Venegas' undergraduate degree is in medical anthropology. She worked in medical research for four years until she earned a master's degree in science and environmental reporting. When NBC came callilng, she was working for a medical newspaper with a new owner who was pushing what she calls a "pro-pharmaceutical" slant. That's part of what made the jump to TV seem so appealing. In her six-year TV stint, she's made many more jumps, from NBC to CBS, onto "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung," then to the Evening News as chief medical producer in New York. Her latest leap two months ago landed her in Miami's CBS bureau where she's producing in-depth medical reports. Besides some important personal perks, the move means she's getting more than a minute-thirty air time and more than one regular working day to turn a story.

    Q: Medical news seems to have taken on a whole new form in recent years. Do you think that's true?

    A: I think that people who are concerned with ratings have found over and over people care about two things, and those things are their money and their health. So I think that's put pressure on the various networks and shows in general to do more medical reporting. I mean medical versus science, technology or environment which I find frustrating because I think science especially at the research level is just as important as medical. But they want news you can use and that's why you've seen a proliferation of medical coverage at every level, which can be a very bad thing. When a specialty as delicate as medicine is handled by people without medical backgrounds, they are very susceptible to the various agendas that are rife in this field, from the medical researchers to the pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers, you name it. I find what's so difficult about what I do is, first I have to sift through the political agendas before I can actually even start looking at the research methodology. So I think it's a field everyone wants to cover but very few people have the training to do.

    Q: So give us some tips about common pitfalls.

    A: The tendency to label research findings as breakthroughs. It is probably the single most problematic thing. Because people don't follow the research over time, they aren't able to differentiate between what is an incremental finding and what is a truly significant finding. Researchers very often want to toot their own horn. They want to talk to us the way we want them to talk to us. They want to reduce and simplify things to sound bites. So they will sometimes overstate the significance of their work and they want research grants and they want to please and they know we complain bitterly about the fact that scientists very often resort to jargon, so I think in some cases they go to the other extreme and I think in some cases we eagerly believe them. In general, I think we aren't sufficiently critical when evaluating medical news or we'll put it all on the end in a single caveat in a stand-up, which is doing a disservice to your viewer because they don't know what to believe. It's problematic because our bosses or our editors very often don't understand the material we've given them and they sometimes want to simplify it or to cut out information which may be critical to the understanding of the piece or to the science or to the background. From the perspective of reporters who don't have a background in medicine, they will very often parrot whatever it is that they're told. They don't do enough research. I find there's a lot of lazy reporting going on out there.

    Q: How do you feel about the public complaint that no one can tell from television what's good or bad for them or make sense of conflicting medical reports?

    A: I think that's a very legitimate complaint because we very often confuse the hell out of the public. I think we do because there's pressure to report on what the journals report and it is the business of medicine to replicate studies. That is the hallmark of good science to replicate studies again and again and again to make sure the results are consistent. What happens is that in us reporting what the journals report, we then mirror that flip-flop in science. There is a very easy way to deal with that. That is for us to use our expertise to say, "this is not definitive, we should not do this story." Instead, what we do is report every story, and then confuse people. We don't know how to sort out certain studies called "Meta Analysis." They look at all the studies that have been done on a give topic and then try and see which of those studies are statistically significant and which of those aren't. That's going to give you a better idea of whether something is good or bad for you rather than if you just look at a handful of people and determine something is bad for you. So by our reporting on every single study, we're making a big mistake. "Meta Analyses" are published in the journals, too. Those are the ones you should pay attention to. I'll give you a clear example of something that came out last week that I didn't report on. There was a story that researchers had identified in rats a nurturing gene. That would have been a terrible study to report on television. Sure, it's very interesting to devote a half page in print to explain how it's relatively easy to manipulate genes in animals, especially in rats, but it would be nearly impossible to tease out a single gene for behavior in humans, since nurturing is (the result of) a complex of biological and psychological factors. You can see if you only had one minute thirty seconds to do that story, and you were only to report the researchers deleted (certain genes in) these mice and these rats and created this aggressive behavior, it sounds very interesting, but you immediately infer then maybe you could do that with people. If you say you can't do it with people, then you have to explain why, but you're out of time. So that's not a good television story to do and I think it would have been irresponsible because it would be so controversial. Not to give it adequate time would be to do a faulty job.

    Q: Then is the solution to hire more people with a background like yours?

    A: I think definitely more people who are interesting in covering medicine should have a background in medicine, some sort of background. I think it's absolutely critical. At the very least if you don't have a reporter with a medical background you should have a producer with that background. We have arguably one of the toughest jobs. We have to keep track of twelve or thirteen journals, on top of what the FDA has approved, on top of what every medical special interest group in the world is doing and it is absolutely overwhelming. I think people need to be prepared to do that. In the case of the FDA, one day they'll be very cooperative on something they want to push that they've done a good job on, and they'll want to muzzle you the next day on something you've found on your own that they don't want you to cover. You need to know the various agendas at the agencies and you need to make very clear decision on what you select to tell your bosses we don't want to cover. That can only come from someone who has a background in the field.

    Q: What do you think of the Center for Science in the Public Interest?

    A: I am very frightened by that group. My tendency is when they do something, to run the other way. Unfortunately, because my colleagues don't run the other way and they tend to cover absolutely everything CSPI does, we then give them more credibility than they deserve. I think they don't always do very careful studies and are very much into hype. A concrete example: One of the last things they did was an analysis of diet groups. In my reporting of that story it emerged that physicians for bariatric medicine were sponsoring part of their press conference. Those are people who are in the business of treating obesity, and they think you should prescribe medicine instead of joining Jenny Craig or the like. I'm not saying you shouldn't be critical of the diet industry, but you have to be careful of not being critical of those who are pushing the CSPI agenda. Those are doctors who want to prescribe medication. Only by having that understanding can you avoid stepping in the land mines.

    Editor's Note: While she's navigating the battlefield of medical reporting, at 34, Venegas is also working to avoid some of the common personal pitfalls of ambition in our industry. She says she's met too many network workers, especially women in their late 40s, who regret not making time for children, marriage, or even more of a social life. Venegas says, "Sometimes you have to put your ego on hold if you're going to try and have any kind of real life." The future for Venegas could include coverage of Latin America for the network. The Colombian-born bilingual believes Latin America will become more important and prominent in our news. If that's the case, she'll be ready. Her advice to other producers is to follow their interests and develop as many sub-specialties as possible. That philosophy has served her well so far.

    About the author: Dana Rogers is a Dallas native who's worked in Texas and Oklahoma. She's been producing at the Belo station in Tulsa for almost six years.