Producer Page: February
IN THIS ISSUE...
By Robert Stewart
Note: Producer Page webmaster Robert Stewart interviewed NBC Nightly News producer Barb Raab at the end of her month-long visit to Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.)
Q: Describe your job.
A: I am one of 2 dozen (that's a guess) people at NBC Nightly News whose business cards say "producer." That can mean many things. In my case, and in most cases, it means going out into the field and producing stories -- setting up and conducting interviews, supervising the shooting of b-roll, doing the reporting, writing the script, and supervising the editing of the final package. I did that for about 3 years. Then I got very sick of traveling; it's hard to have a real life when you never know where you are going to be. Now, I am more of a "day-of-air" producer, and my focus is less on editorial and more on production and promotion. So, for example, I write and produce the nightly news "headlines" every day; that's the highly-produced 30-40 seconds you see at the top of the show telling you what's coming up in the broadcast. It's hard to believe, but producing headlines takes up the better part of a day; the show changes a lot, and oftentimes the video is not in New York, so you have to coordinate with producers in various bureaus. Plus, we try to do a lot of fancy production in editing. Other things I do: I often work with the affiliates to help them promote our stories to their viewers; I occasionally travel to affiliates to offer seminars on writing and producing. Back at 30 Rock, I am one of a group of people who brainstorm and research ideas for stories and/or special series. I guess you could say I've become more of an editorial producer than a field producer.
Q: People get their news from TV and yet they say in poll after poll that they don't like TV news. How do you, as a producer, account for this seeming disconnect?
A: First of all, I think people lie; I think they do like TV news. They may not think it's journalism, but they like to watch it anyway. I think we do a good job -- maybe too good -- of doing things to get and keep people hooked on TV news. We promote, we tease, and we do stories that >are much "softer" than ever before. We make it so easy to watch TV news, in a busy world. People say they don't like it, but it's much harder to get news elsewhere, I guess.
Also, I seem to recall a recent reference to a new Pew Center study showing that people don't hate TV news; they rather like it. I think it was a study of attitudes toward local news.
Done well, TV news can be a relevant blend of hard news and useful features; that's what we strive to do at NBC Nightly News. Do we always succeed? Well, we get the highest ratings, so you could argue that by definition we succeed; I'd say we bat about .600 at doing it the right way.
Q: Does your response differ when considering local news rather than network news?
A: I think my answers would be the same and the formula for success is the same, and, even though you didn't ask me this, I want to mention that in my time in Athens I've become a big fan of WSAZ-TV News. They do what I'm talking about: they do real news, they do true local news, and they do a good blend of feature stories designed to give viewers relevant and useful information. I am not surprised that they get good ratings. I guess in the end I don't know how to account for the disconnect you describe. I hope it isn't the car-wreck theory; which is to say, I hope people are watching news even though they say they don't like it, for reasons that go beyond the irresistible temptation to stare at something lurid. [note: WSAZ is the NBC affiliate in Huntington, WVa., the ADI for Athens, Ohio.]
Q: I remember a student having a network reporter hammer on his "walking stand-ups" a couple years ago for being so "local TV news," yet we see reporters at the network beginning to wander around the TV screen during their stand-ups. Is network news "going local" in its presentation standards, or will there always be a difference?
A: Network newscasts -- particularly network newsmagazines - are definitely stealing what we might call "local news techniques" such as bolder graphics, shorter stories, lifestyle and consumer segments, and yes, the walking stand- up. Still, I think the networks in general draw their lines of how much "show biz" to incorporate, at an earlier point than some local stations. One of the guest speakers in my class was Midwest bureau correspondent Jim Avila, who has a long career in local news and is now one of the rising stars at NBC. He told the class that, whether in local or network, reporters are being forced to do walking stand-ups. Take 3 steps, and then stop, he told them; that's enough walking to satisfy your boss, and to enable you to retain your serious demeanor, according to Jim.
Q: How much power do the network anchors have over the producers for the evening news? Does it vary from network to network, producer to producer, anchor to anchor?
A: Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw have the dual titles of "anchor and managing editor"; you might want to double-check this, but last I looked, Jennings did not. At least where I work, that title is real; Tom has absolute veto power over any and all decisions affecting not only what goes on the air, but also on what gets done and how, behind the scenes. When push comes to shove, Tom's vote is the winning vote. However, what makes Tom so good to work with is that he hardly ever exercises that power; the whole process, every day, is a big messy collaboration, and he is one of the collaborators. Of course, when he speaks, we producers and the senior staff give special weight to his desires and opinions, But he doesn't lord it over us at all. And he's open to having his mind changed. As for Dan Rather, I'm guessing it's the same way in his shop. He recently said as much to Steven Brill, in an interview in Content magazine.
Q: How much creative license do you have as a network producer (vs. How formula-based is the work you do)? How much freedom do you have to experiment with form, for example?
A: The format for a program like mine is pretty set; there's not a whole lot of wiggle room in a typical 1:45 piece. But, we producers have considerable latitude in what we do out in the field and in the edit room; there's not somebody breathing down our necks all the time. The script approval process can range from simple (minor tweaks) to frustratingly complicated (when everybody from the senior producer to the lawyer to the anchorman wants changes). These things tend to be a function of time available. Also, when I was a field producer, I was lucky: I did most of my pieces for Tom, and if Tom was happy with my draft script, which he usually was (he'd change a thing here and there, but basically he and I were in sync on structure and language and overall "take"), that was pretty much it.
Q: What stories are TV news producers shying away from in the current TV news environment that, if handled differently, could be made to work on television?
A: That's a tough one. One thing that jumps to mind is the absence of real efforts to explain some of the things we report on. Example: the spate of school shootings. Even though there were several, all involving young male shooters. TV news producers and reporters didn't do much to really understand what might be going on. We saw stories with some background about the specific individuals, but no bigger-picture analysis. No sense of context. Same with the murder of Matthew Shephard: what are some of the messages that our society serves up in all kinds of ways, that could lead to this kind of horrible crime? The trouble, of course, is that coverage of "issues" is not as "sexy" or telegenic as coverage of "stories," "yarns," "characters." But there is probably a better, albeit more time consuming and thoughtful, way of intertwining the little stories and the bigger picture. In a world where most local newsrooms are cranking out 4-8 hours of news every day with small staffs that are already stretched to the limit, it's hard to know how to create the "luxury" of that kind of coverage. I'm not sure I have any original ideas about that. I guess I'm somewhat relieved not to be a local news director right now; the imperatives would conflict a lot with my own sense of values.
Q: You've had a few weeks of classroom experience, working with journalism students who are preparing to become producers, reporters, etc. As a producer, what advice would you give to young producers right out of school who still are developing their sense of news values, ethics, etc.?
A: I tell my students to make a true commitment to whatever market they wind up in. Several of our guests have stressed the importance of "paying dues," of understanding the hierarchies you walk into, and going the extra mile to get noticed. I would echo that advice. I have tried to teach students to understand that broadcast news is a business as much as or more than a public service/public trust, and that they should keep that in mind as they go out to "the real world." Sometimes, bosses or co-workers may ask them to do something they are not comfortable with, or may stress ratings over content. That's the point at which they have to ask themselves, or turn to role models/mentors/others and ask the tough questions: what are my values, what are my goals, and would this push those limits too far? As Jim Avila told the class, your body of work will be with you forever; do what you need to do to protect it. Don't let anybody make you do something that you feel is just downright wrong, or humiliating. It's hard to stand up to power, especially when you've gotta pay the rent, and sometimes you may have to choose between keeping a job and losing it -- but if you have a sense of your core values, they will guide you to the right conclusion. Probably easier said than done.
(Editor's Note: Do you know someone who'd make a good candidate for our Star Producer column? Drop me a note at AJMain@aol.com. You can do the interview yourself if you'd like.)
AP/RTNDA/Emerson College New England Regional Convention
Now is the time to apply for the "Producing TV Newscasts" seminar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies April 11-16.
The seminar, which will be taught at the Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one of the topics News Directors tell us their newsrooms needed most.
During this highly interactive week, participants will learn:
The seminar is ideal for producers, executive producers and news directors. The program presenters and guest faculty have decades of experience in local newsrooms. The application deadline is February 10th. For applications or information contact:
Al Tompkins/Poynter Broadcast-Leadership Faculty- email@example.com or Sandra LeDoux/Program assistant firstname.lastname@example.org (phone: 727-821-9494). Or check our website poynter.org for program information and applications.
Last month's letter from Gina Diamante generated several responses, so I've reprinted it for your convenience:
How many producers are living and breathing news to the extent that they have no other life? Could it be a very large number? Could that be why I find nothing of interest in local news anymore?
Since leaving the biz two and a half years ago, I've found that my viewing has dropped further and further down. The LA stations just don't interest me at all. All those breathless teases or just ho-hum. No one is telling me anything I really care about, and no one has been for a long time.
I spent more time watching local news on Election night than I had in the previous two months. Pretty sad.
I know that part of the problem is that I live in a geographic area that only gets coverage if there's a shooting at city hall. The LA market is drawn far too wide. (Note to anyone interested in starting a TV news operation...think Riverside County, CA!) But even when I lived in an area that was covered fairly well, the news just didn't interest me at all. And I know I'm not the only viewer who feels that way.
My thought is this: Would TV news get more interesting if TV news people got to live more like everyday people? Leaving the job behind when they walk out the door each night? Getting time to spend with their families and non-news friends? (I can't remember having a friend outside of my own profession until I left news. Now my friends range across a variety of careers.) Hearing what those non-news friends think about the day's issues and about news...outside of focus groups and sound bites?
The best news producing advice I ever got was, "Live in your community." I didn't do it too well; my job didn't give me the time. How is everyone else doing?
Gina Diamante Former EP/Acting ND ... now a civilian email@example.com
NOW, THE RESPONSES:
First of all, thanks for putting together this newsletter! I love getting it. In the January issue, Gina's letter about "living in the community" struck a chord. I am wary of publicly admitting this, but I do not watch news unless I am in the station producing it. I don't watch the 11. I don't watch on my days off. I only watch what I'm doing.
For the first half of my career, I lived and breathed news. Then I met my husband, and realized there was a whole world out there, of people who could give a rats ass whether two drug dealers blew each other away in an alley. Or could care less about a three car accident that shut down a road they never drive on.
These people, when they find out what I do, always ask me where I "get" the news. Why don't I tell them things they care about? They care about the things we touch lightly.. the budget, money, schools. They don't care about "breaking" news, murders and car accidents. Sure, if they know the people involved, they care.. but these friends of mine want less crime and violence.
So what happens in the morning meeting? The carefully set up story about the impact of federal budget cuts gets blown out of the water so the reporter can race to an abandoned rowhome where there's a dead body. THAT becomes the lead story-- and the viewers click off their sets.
I could log in from home, could read my mail, review scripts. Or I could walk my dog, volunteer in the community, and spend time with my husband doing all kinds of fun things.
I work 50 hours a week. I don't want to work 100. I don't think that makes me a bad producer, I think that makes me a contented human being.
Gina Diamante's comments on what working in news does to people really resonated with me. I have a quote from a Pope John Paul speech to a group of broadcasters. I keep it on my desk as a reminder when I start losing my sanity. Thought I'd pass it along.
"Daily cares oppress you in ways different from those arising in other kinds of work. Your industry reflects the fast pace of the news and changing tastes... It places you under pressure to be successful, without telling you what 'sucess' really is. Working constantly with images, you face the temptation of seeing them as reality... You are more important than success, more valuable than any budget. Do not let your work drive you blindly... In your life there must also be room for your families and for leisure. You need time to rest and be recreated, for only in quiet can you absorb the peace of God."
This is for Gina EX-EP former ND or vice versa... I've been carrying this guilt feeling around ... now that some one else has come out with it ... I can spit it out too... I've been in the biz for the last 2 and a half years and am getting more and more disillusioned by what goes on in the news room. People seem to think reporting community news is fluff ... but honestly that's what everybody really cares about... how many folks wanted to watch the raids over Iraq on the 10 pm show? ... I was sick of it after carrying it on the 5 ... watching the network gurus analyze every micro detail all evening by 10 all I really wanted to know about was what else was going on in town... I refuse to believe there is no news in towns where there is no crime/fire or severe weather ... there's tons going on ... and you can only find it if you nose around the community and become a part of it.
LETTER TO THE READERS
I subscribe to the Producer Newsletter. I'm studying a topic which may be of interest to your readers: Amateur news video!
This tantilizing resource is now regularly broadcast on local TV news. Many times news items that wouldn't warrent a copy story are played high in teases, bumps and news blocks simply because of the supporting video.
I'd like to ask your readers what they think! How do they view amateur news video? How often does it show up in coverage of local news events and in the national feeds? Do stations ever pay for it? Are producers aware of the legal implications of broadcasting it without a proper written agreement with the photographer. Most importantly, does amateur news video represent an advancement for TV news, or a tawdry step toward sensationalism?
This could create an interesting topic. If people contact me via email, I'll be sure to forward what I find out to all who participate. Many thanks!
Steve Jarriel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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For more information, contact Todd Mazza at ResumeTapes.com. You can reach Todd at 205-988-5118, or by e-mail at email@example.com
Freelance Writer/Producer/Director. 20-years experience in TV News, Programming & Production. Currently working on a documentary for the History Channel. Live in the Pacific Northwest. Will travel for special projects, documentaries, etc. AVID & Newstar 3 Literate. Mark Mohr (509) 455-3424 firstname.lastname@example.org
ROGER MELLEN has found there is life after TV News. After 20 years as a producer (Tape editor, Assistant News Director, Assignment Editor as well), most recently Senior Producer at WJLA-TV in Washington, DC, he is now teaching Journalism at American University's Washington Semester Program.
ALAN BAKER moves to executive producer, WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, from producer at WKRC in Cincinnati.
DAVE GONIGAM has traded in the pressures of management for the pleasures of living in his hometown, signing on in January as a staff newswriter at Fox O&O WFLD Chicago. Previously, Dave was Executive Producer at WKBW Buffalo and News Director at WSJV Elkhart (South Bend), Indiana.
ABOUT THE PRODUCER NEWSLETTER
The Producer Newsletter is a free publication for TV news producers worldwide, edited by Alice Main, executive producer at WLS-TV in Chicago. All opinions expressed by me in the newsletter are mine alone, and aren't meant to represent the views of ABC or Disney. The newsletter has been around since 1995, and now back issues have been compiled into book form on the internet (http://www.scripps.ohiou.edu/producer/thebook) thanks to Professor Robert Stewart of Ohio University's EW Scripps School of Journalism. Subscription information is also available online. All submissions should be sent to AJMain@aol.com.