Producer Page: February
IN THIS ISSUE...
"Many of us don't mind the hours, but do mind being considered
"It's amazing how drunk someone can get and still manage to
dial the correct 7 digits to reach a TV station at 3 a.m."
The early-morning hours present big possibilities for news organizations looking for ways to expand their operations. Three-hour weekday newscasts are becoming more common, and the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers now have to compete with The Saturday Morning Edition.
The only problems with expanding the morning shows is finding the people to make it happen. As discussed in the October issue of The Producer Newsletter (The [Alleged] Producer Shortage), many news directors say they have a difficult time finding the right people to fill their producing jobs. Recruiting morning producers is about five times harder than findi ng evening-shift producers. Let's face it, it's a killer shift.
THE NATURAL REVULSION TO VAMPIRISM
The news directors are calling. We've heard you're a great producer, they say. There's a great opening for you at our station, they say. It's a bigger market, a wonderful opportunity for you. We need a real dynamo to revamp our morning newscast....
Whoa! Stop right there! Mornings? I'm past that, you say. I'm doing weekends now (or noon, or 10 pm). And it's not my idea of a dreamy lif estyle, you say, sleeping every day away, spending the nights gargoyle-eyed and cranky, churning out stories all by myself in a semi-darkened newsroom with only Sam the custodian and his extremely loud vacuum cleaner to keep me company.
But are you missing something by refusing to consider these oppportunities? Perhaps.
"Morning news has been my life for over 15 years," says Ward Koppel. "I'm told I'm one of the first people to produce a local morning newscast in the U.S., and that I have been doing it longer than anyone else."
Koppel started at KCRA in Sacramento in 1980, eventually expanding its half-hour newscast to 90 minutes, and later did the same at KOVR, where he's still working. Koppel says getting the right amount of sleep is crucial to success on the overnight shift.
"The key is to set aside the same hours everyday to sleep. My sleep hours haven't changed to speak of in 15 years: to bed at about 9 am, up at about 5 pm. I can stay up later, but I have to be in be d from about 1 pm to 4 pm. I guess that is my REM sleep time. I convert to a day person on Saturdays and Sundays, except that on Sunday I take a 3 hour nap from about 3 pm to 6 pm," explains Koppel.
Koppel has even found time to get married and start a family, and his odd schedule actually helps. "It is especially helpful to our personal life to have a parent home 24 hours a day to handle doctors appointments, and other responsibilities children bring," he says.
But the shift is clearly n ot right for everyone. Gina Diamante (Gdiamante@aol.com) is now the executive producer at KADY in Oxnard, California, but recalls her early-morning experience at KFMB in San Diego with something less than fondness:
"I launched the early morning newscast -- finally, my own show instead of substituting for someone else. I hated it! The hours killed me. My fiance hated it, because I was always at work or asleep in the hours he was home.
After six weeks, I decided for my own mental health and t he sake of my impending marriage, I needed to get off the morning shift and back to something more normal," Diamante says.
MAKING IT WORK
Phoenix is a tough market these days, and that's where you'll find Rochelle Brookson toiling away on Good Morning Arizona, a three-hour newscast that competes with four other local morning broadcasts.
"I've worked all shifts in the business and the true overnight producer/writer shift (midnight or so until 9 am or so) is not only tough on your b ody; it's tough on your confidence and ability to grow," says Brookson.
Brookson says the Good Morning Arizona team has found the best way to make the shift work is with what she calls the two Fs: Fun and Feedback.
Fun can mean sending a writer out as a field producer on a story, having everyone wear his or her college colors, bringing in free food, or pitching in on a 2 am Domino's pizza delivery.
Feedback requires a real commitment from everyone. "Good Morning Arizona has five writer s and a news producer who fit that true overnight shift. On a daily basis they get feedback on writing, on content, on covering breaking news from both the GMAZ line producer and the GMAZ executive producer. Even though they don't see other dayside managers or staffers often, they're constantly getting input," says Brookson.
Feedback, or lack of it, was an issue echoed by Ward Koppel in Sacramento.
"(Morning producers need) the ability to understand what your news director's goals are for y our show without daily feedback. You have to be able to read the mind of a person you see only in passing once a month. Hopefully you have a news director you can be honest and direct with. Your one-on-one communications will be few and far between. So each will be vital to your relationship, and the success of your show," he says.
Janice Houston has been producing the 90-minute early morning newscast at WXIA in Atlanta for the past year. She's produced in other time periods in Birmingham, but A tlanta beckoned not only as a larger market, but as an opportunity for her to learn.
"I'm the manager overnight," Houston says. "It's a good chance for me to take on more responsibility, because my ultimate goal is to work in management."
Jennifer Childree and Sarah Dascanio are the producer and associate producer for "31 NewsMorning" at WAAY in Huntsville, Alabama. Childree, Dascanio and an overnight reporter put the 60-minute newscast together. Dascanio has been a full-time employee since October, hired shortly after her arrival as an unpaid intern in September. She says she'll be happy when she's "paid her dues" and can move on to a different shift, but for the time being she enjoys the work and her colleagues.
"We make the most of our shift by working together and adding nice easy morning things like our producer's new puppy (our unofficial mascot, named Doppler Max), holiday decorations, etc.," says Dascanio.
SUPPORT STAFF: FROM SAM THE CUSTODIAN TO A TEAM OF WRITERS
"A morning news producer is a jack of all trades," says Koppel. "From 11 pm to 7 am, you're the acting News Director, General Manager, Assignment Editor, Community Affairs Director, and even owner ... all while trying to put your show together, listen to the scanners, and deal with viewer phone calls. It's amazing how drunk someone can get and still manage to dial the correct 7 digits to reach a TV station at 3 am."
Koppel says staff sizes for morning news in Sacramento have shrunk in rece nt years. He's alone in his newsroom from 11 pm until 3:30 am, when his writer and videotape editor arrive. At 4:30, he sees the combination photographer/live truck operator, the director, Chyron operator, and stillstore operator.
The anchors and the rest of the technical crew come in at 5 am, 30 minutes before air. A reporter is brought in only for breaking stories.
At KFOR in Oklahoma City, producer Becky Kellogg has a writer, a photographer, and an editor to help her with the Newschann el's Morning Edition, a 90-minute hard-news oriented broadcast that regularly wins its time period. She brings in a reporter a couple of days a week to handle breaking news.
At Atlanta's WXIA, the morning news is also 90 minutes. Producer Janice Houston has an associate producer for most of the night, and a writer who arrives at 4 a.m.
Robin Radin produces the weekend morning news at WLWT in Cincinnati. "I am the only person in the newsroom until 4 am, when the anchors come in. They are a ssigned stories to write, but the newscast is about 90% producer-written. I am also considered the overnight assignment editor, and I am lucky enough to have on-call photogs all over the tri-state, who willingly go out on over-night stories," says Radin.
Jeff R. Field produces the morning news at KCTV in Kansas City. Besides the short staffing, he says, "an added problem is that once we find someone who's good, they're usually snapped up quickly by the 5, 6 & 10 crews, or hired as a full-time em ployee by one of our competitors. The morning shows are constantly seen as "training ground", even though they're longer and more complex than the others. If news managers want to keep early morning producers, they should pay them fairly, and give them enough manpower support so they don't get burned out. Many of us don't mind the hours, but do mind being considered an afterthought," says Field.
Koppel says, no matter the staffing level, the morning producer needs the ability to oversee the rest of the crew. "'Oversee' is the key word here. I firmly believe you should not, and can not 'manage' people. You are working WITH the folks whoput the show you produce on the air, they are not working FOR you. More than any other shift at a TV station, teamwork is critical to a morning newscast. Lets face it, on every given day, at least one of the people you work with is going to be either half asleep (understandable at 5 a.m.), or just plain having an off day. If everyone pitches in, everyon e benefits from a good clean show, and the one or two days a month that YOU are half sleep or having an off day, there are people there to bail your tail out," Koppel says.
MORNING NEWS THAT WAKES PEOPLE UP
"Viewers at 5:30 am are NOT watching the picture, they are listening, and only looking at the video when they want to check the time on the chyroned clock, when a story interests them or when the anchors call their attention to video about to be shown that is outstanding or interes ting," Koppel says.
"A big chunk of your audience is naked and brushing their teeth, and they want anchors they feel comfortable inviting into their home, or more likely, bedroom."
So what's the right format for a morning news program? There is no "right format." Morning producers say their programs win because they're strictly hard news, because they're feature-heavy, because they're easy to watch, because the anchors are charismatic, because their weathercaster is funny, because they have sports every fifteen minutes, because there's no sports.
But some producers did share some interesting ideas.
Koppel brings in a stock broker three days a week. "Something that has just gone through the roof is a stock contest we do. Viewers mail in their stock pick, and our anchors and stock broker each pick a stock. Every Friday for three months we do an on-air update, then we close out the contest and send the winning viewer a small prize."
Field says his program introduced "Consta nt Weather" to his market. "It's a bar at the bottom of the screen that runs the current conditions, and the 1 pm and 4 pm forecasts at all times during the program," he says.
Each day of the week Field gives his viewers something different. Mondays, it's 'Bits & Pieces,' a collection of short voice-overs from the weekend feature feeds. Tabloid Tuesday brings headlines from the most notorious of the supermarket rags. Wednesday is a local history piece called 'Betcha Didn't Know.' Thursdays are f or the Highlight Zone, a plays-of-the-week feature which Field writes and edits. And on Fridays, he writes and edits a local preview of all the new movies coming to local theaters.
And then there's what Field describes as his hardest-to-describe semi-regular feature. The morning crew has a plastic cow that they take along on vacation. "Cow Patty" has been to Ireland, the Chiefs/Cowboys game on Thanksgiving, and to Las Vegas. "We used a plastic cow because three goldfish we had on the air all die d."
It's about 15 mintues before air time when the assignments editor yells out "We have a roof collapse at a business in Dallas. There are reports of people trapped and injured."
We go through the usual routine-- chopper is on the way as well as a crew on the ground. The art department makes a locator map. The anchors are briefed about what we know.< br> We wait.
No new info as we get into headlines.
About a :45 seconds before the newscast open... the assignments editors tells the producer in the booth (me) that the chopper has a signal and that we have a witness who can do a phoner. I say fine... and we get ready.
We roll the open and go through the usual motions. "We have a breaking story at this hour. There has been a roof collapse at a Dallas business. It happened a short time ago at such and such address. We have no confir mation of any injuries.. but joining us on the phone is Betty (can't remember her actual name) a clerk at the 7-11 across the street.
Anchors ask Betty what she saw. Nothing, she responds. She just heard a bunch of sirens, looked out the window and saw a bunch of fire trucks and some ambulances.
As anchors question Betty I say to myself.. Gee, I'm having a hard time seeing this roof collapse. It seems like such a tiny hole in the roof, which is what it turned out to be. As it turned out, th ere was no one in the building at the time, no one was injured and this was was far from being a roof collapse.
As these facts start to come to light the Anchors ask Betty what she knows about that business across the street. Betty, live on TV, says "It's an African-American Bookstore. It's where Africans go to buy their books." Anchors thank Betty. We go on to the rest of the newscast.. never to hear about the roof collapse or from Betty again.
Not long ago, I left the ND office to find that we were one producer short for the day. An un-filled position, a vacation and an ill producer equaled disaster! Except I, news director, tried to fill the shoes of the vacant one. What a learning experience! I'm sure that plenty of the KJRH staffers delighted in my wails at 5:45 pm. "I don't know how to dump the show!" and then "I don't know how to load the 'prompter!" And finally, at 6 :23 pm. "what do you mean, how much time is left?!"
Long-time anchor Jerry Webber commented that the only thing he heard
in his IFB during the whole show was heavy breathing (mine, driven by fear).
Thank goodness for an alert and caring production department, we only clipped
Extra by :02.
Ken Smith, Senior Producer at WKRN-TV, Nashville has been promoted to Executive News Producer at WKRN. Smith was previously a producer at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, Senior Producer at WTVF Nashville and Executive Producer at WFMY-TV Greensboro, NC.
Paul Whitmore, from WHAS Louisville, to 10 pm producer at WDJT (CBS-58) in Milwaukee. That's the new CBS affiliate, with its first newscast scheduled to air March 18th.
I just wanted to add my tale to your growing list of producer stories.
In August of 1994, I quit my job as a sports producer at KTVK-TV here in Phoenix and moved to London. Because my brother lives there, at least I had a place to stay.
In September, during a visit to Rome, I interviewed with Orbit Satellite
Network. I was hired by the sports channel on a six month free lance contract
directing live studio shows and producing a weekly world sports highlight
show. Now all of this may sound easy, but it just so happened that half
of the crew was Italian and the announcers were speaking Arabic. (Becuase
Orbit broadcasts to the Middle East and North Africa.) So there I was half
way around the world , not understand a word my announcers were saying
and using hand and eye signals by the announcers to know when to go to
the tape or the break....
I guess the moral of my story is this, I didn't have a plan, I had a
few contacts, and the rest of it was luck. I got to travel around Europe
and see things that I never dreamed of, all while getting paid more money
than I ever made in America.
This is a thank you for the work you do to compose and send out "The Producer." I truly enjoy it and I share the newsletter with Broadcast Journalism students --- who also enjoy reading it. Keep up the good work!
Francine Podenski, Department Chair
My station (KCCN, Monterey, CA) just got sold... to the same person who owns the major competition (all assets, debts, etc. were sold... but not the license). Anyone out there have war stories from this type of situation??
I am a producer for the NBC News Channel and would like to pass the following note along. The stati ons involved are part of my Great Lakes region and we would like any assistance your readers could offer this family.
Jeffrey Jenkins, WNEM Photog and a WEYI photog were caught in a staged fire last month. If you recall, it was a fire prevention demo where a tree caught fire and trapped the two photogs in the room, burning them badly. Jeff has severe third degree burns, d amaged throat from inhaling fire, and a host of psychological demons that come after him at night (very common in fire victims).
The WYII photog is better, but Jeff is still in danger, in and out of the hospital, therapy, on worker's comp, which is about half his pay. Jeff and his wife have two kids, so the money isn't going very far. Anyway....
A lot of folks from around the country have been sending donations. If you care to contribute:
His spirits are good. That's the amazing part.
Join the NewsProNet team of experts in Atlanta Saturday April 27 and Sunday April 28, 1996 and a unique gathering of news producers, managers and other allied professionals for a weekend of creative idea sharing and inspiration.
It's a May book kick-off--an interactive weekend that will boost the creative energy to be number one!
We'll see and discuss whatís hot on-the- air. Share stories and ideas about techniques that work and some that donít.
Among the sessions included: Active writing and reporting, Newscast producing strategies, Tease writing and techniques, Understanding todayís television audience and Developing winning series and promotion concepts.
The registration deadline is March 15, 1996. Hotel rooms at the Stouffer Waverly Hotel in Atlanta are available at a reduced rate for P roducer Forum attendees. Discount air travel from most cities is also available if you book prior to Feb 29, 1996.
For more information contact: Michael Shoer (Mshoer@aol.com), go to http://tvnet.com on the World Wide Web or call (770) 475-2667.