The Producer Page: March 1997

IN THIS ISSUE...

  • Live Shot from Hell
  • Frustrated Morning Producer Gets a Big Response
  • Lots of Producers Ask for Advice
  • Producers on the Move
  • Producer Headhunters
  • Producer Seminar/RTNDA
  • Letters to the Editor



  • LIVE SHOT FROM HELL

    When I was working as the weekend producer at WKRG-TV in Mobile, I had a producer's worst nightmare come true. My live-shot from hell was a live shot that never happened. On the weekend, we had two anchors for news, but one of them also did sports. On this particular weekend, the female anchor was gone and the male anchor was left to solo. So to make things easier on him, we brought in the weekday 6 & 10 sports anchor to do sports. The sports anchor wanted to do his whole sportscast live from across the bay at a pro soccer game. That was fine with me because the soccer team was new and everyone was psyched about them. It's time for the newscast to begin and we are having problems with the live-shot. We have a cystal clear picture, but no audio!

    Engineers worked the entire newscast to get audio, but they were stumped and getting no where. When it was time for the sports segment, I went to a break, and said a prayer the audio would come back. It didn't, so we did the kicker, and took another break. Still no audio. So I bring the sports scripts to Peter Albrecht, my anchor, and tell him, "You'll have to do sports." He said, "Hank, I can't! I haven't looked at the sports wires today. I don't know what Randy has in his show. I haven't seen the video." My reply: "You either do sports or we sit in black for five minutes." Case closed.

    So back in the booth, I get my sports guy on the phone who tells me he can see the newscast on his monitor. So this what we did: The sports guy watched the monitor, gave me play-by-play on the phone, I gave Peter play-by-play in his ear, and Peter said it on the air. WE DID THIS FOR FIVE MINUTES! Peter was flawless and the audience at home none the wiser. Flashbacks of Holly Hunter and William Hurt in "Broadcast News" kept going through my mind.

    When I explained to my news director what had happened, he told me he couldn't even tell. Now that's when you know you're working with a damned good anchor!

    Hank Mendheim

    WGNO-New Orleans

    HMendheim@tribune.com


    RESPONSES TO FRUSTRATED MORNING PRODUCER

    original letter:

      Alice:

      I'm having a problem with my anchors, actually with one of my anchors. It's a problem that I've talked to both of them about, and so far, it doesn't look like there is a solution.

      Here's the situation:

      I produce the 90 minute morning show in X-city and I am at work by one in the morning. When the problem anchor gets in at 4, he asks if I have a certain story in my newscast. For example, when the woman who accused Michael Irvin and Erik Williams was charged, he wanted to know if it was in the newscast. When I told him it was in the sports package, he insisted that I have it later in the show. He began his protest at the time I print scripts.

      I feel I have very good news judgment, and his co-anchor said I have good news judgment too. When I talked with the problem anchor, he said that he's done it with every producer that he's ever had, and that he will continue to do so. Sarcastically, I even asked him if I should call him at 1:30 in the morning to see what he thinks I should have in the newscast. What should I do, and are other anchors like this?


    response #1

    Letting more people have input should make for a better product. It should be encouraged. A 4 AM briefing where you solicit opinions and explain your thinking should give you plenty of time for discussion and changes. Everyone will feel invested and involved in a show if their opinions are heard -- and the show (and you) will look better. Be open to the notion that your anchors CAN have a good idea, and CAN catch mistakes. When they do, thank them. Tell them "good idea ! ". You might have great Journalistic judgement, but over the course of a 90 minute show, there's bound to be opportunities missed. You'll suffer less burnout (I've been on the line 20 years) and have a better working relationship if you don't let pride make you stubborn. Certainly printing scripts early is a good thing for the director, but if you can't print a late script and make a show change at the last minute (and even during the show) you should re-elvaluate your organzational structure. If the crew has the critical info ahead of time (tape, graphics, format, amd talent, then a given script page can be late without creating a serious problem. In other words, don't let the script carry too much of the load. Lay any info you can into the advance rundown. The trick is to be considerate of the crew's needs and ensure those needs are met. If you show them you're trying, they'll be understanding when late changes occur. We've come up with situations and ideas that require a reorganizing the whole show ten minutes or less before air. The trick is having the organization and communications to coordinate changes.

    When I talked with the problem anchor, he said that he's done it with every producer that he's ever had, and that he will continue to do so. That's probably true, and he should continue to do so. Sarcastically, I even asked him if I should call him at 1:30 in the morning to see what he thinks I should have in the newscast. Sarcasm - that's bound to help. If you're show's at 5, a 4:30 printing should be leisurely. Are other anchors like this? I insist my anchors are like that.

    Skip Wood, KXJB Fargo


    response #2

    Alice:

    I'm a producer with 10 years experience in mid-sized markets, and believe it or not the exact same thing happened to me. My anchor came back late in the evening from a speech he was giving and wanted to know where the Michael Irvin story was. (In fact, my PA thought I wrote the letter in the February newsletter). Yes, I was angry about him coming back so late and appearing to check the rundown for omissions. We did put the story in instead of leaving it to sports. My feeling on anchors is that I feel fortunate that I get to work with good, smart ones. There have been times when I've worked with anchors who weren't terribly bright or interested in news. That leaves a big responsiblity for one person. I do get final say over what we air and where it goes, how much time, etc. But I appreciate hearing from the anchors when they have an idea on how to do it better.

    (Name Withheld)


    response #3

    i have always taken the view that a newscast is not MY show...it is the work of everyone...sports, weather, reporters, editors. photographers, and yes, even anchors. from the tone of your letter you seem to take his additions defensively... as if he is finding something wrong with your line-up instead of adding to it. when he comes in, walk over to his desk, go over the run down with him. ask him if he would like any changes. make him feel like he is part of the producing process. many producers i work with take a "them" and "us" stance. i look at it as---it's their face out there and it's my job to make that face look good. if you feel you can't approach him one on one...leave a slug in your line-up labeled "x anchor story" and whatever he brings up to add, add the slug and have HIM write it. that way you have budgeted for the time and you won't have to write anything late and can concentrate on your show.


    response #4

    Your letter really spoke to me. It was the story of my life for one year. For starters, the best advice is to take a deep breath. Otherwise, it is very easy for you to say something like, "you can produce the show -- if you can stand the pay cut." That doesn't help anybody. Listen to what the anchor is saying and literally say, "Thanks for the suggestion, I'll see what I can do." From that point, it's your call. If you see the point and want to change your rundown, do it. Otherwise, assure the anchor that you're working on it - and by the time you get into the show it will be forgotten. But do listen to see if it is an ego griping or a legitmate oversight on your part. If you are not able to add tape or change the rundown, you can suggest that the anchor toss the story in as an ad lib someplace. That way, you don't have to get editors, directors or writers off track to please the anchor if you can spare 20 seconds. Also, make sure you can back up your decision to the anchor or anyone who confronts you about it. My experience is that the News Director will take your side if you have a solid foundation for the decision you made.


    response #5

    the morning anchor brings up a problem i have been having in my shop... a type of reverse age discrimination. the favorite joke among the vets--- where were you when man walked on the moon? or during watergate? or even when the space shuttle blew up? (my answers by the way 1. teething, 2. going to preschool, and 3. playing hookie from high school). they walk around talking about editing film and how they remember when eng first started, then balk at using a live shot for a story THEY don't feel needs it because that's not how they USED to do it. i have been confronted as not having enough experience because my years in the biz have not reached the double digits. i remember in college we talked about just getting your foot in the door...but it seems like we really have to wait until our heads are gray and faces wrinkled until some "old newsies" will respect us. i try to chalk it up as insecurity, but it can really get in the way of day to day producing. why can't these ornery vets realize that without the "kids" the news business would be stuck with film and cardboard graphics? a good idea can come from a brain that's under 40.


    ADVICE FOR A WANNABE FIELD
    /SPECIAL PROJECTS PRODUCER:

    Ahh-- don't we all want to leave the confines of the newsroom, the daily grind of parking in front of a monitor, a computer and a telephone all day long. The problem is; we all burn out, we all want to do that, and there are precious few field producing jobs. I line produced or assignment edited for ten years before I broke out (I am currently Senior Producer at WJLA-TV in Washington, DC.)

    I suggest you take every chance you get to field produce-- EVEN ON YOUR OWN TIME! Take a photographer on a weekend to do a story you love. Field produce a big live story on your evening off. When you have a tape of GREAT stuff, go to a network or a major market station. That's where most special projects or field producer jobs are.

    Good luck.
    Roger Mellen


    PRODUCERS ASK FOR ADVICE

    LETTER #1

    Here's my scenario:

    According to nearly everything I read and hear, it's a seller's market for producers out there. Good producers, anyway. I've talked to head hunters, industry-watchers, placement specialists .. and they all tell me repeatedly that they can't find enough skilled news and current affairs producers to satisfy demand.

    Here's where (i thought) I'd step in.

    I'm a highly skilled, creative and innovative producer; i guess all the producer's say that, but in my case: the plaudits come from my contemporaries, and the various people I've previously worked for and with.

    I have dozens of glowing references, and deep experience. I've spent seven years as senior program producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, four years prior to that as senior writer at CityTV .. one of the most innovative and emulated big city newsrooms in North America. I've helped start up Canada's 24 hour a day news channel. I've produced several live specials, and I teach a course on electronic media literacy at the University of Toronto that I created. I'm an excellent writer, a good leader, a prolific idea generator, a keen administrator and a solid journalist.

    For the past year and a half, I've been producing CBC Newsworld's entry into the Live Talk format. It's daily one hour program ... a very edgy news and current affairs program in a CNN Talk Back style format. (I also co-created the program.) It has great reviews to date. Here's the kicker: I have sent out tapes and resumes and letters to placement agencies, head hunters, consultants, etc .... and I can't get a nibble. Not a return call, not an interview, not a letter. Nada, zip, shinola, zero. I'm really baffled.

    I'm new media functionally literate, I have the right combination of gonzo creativity and sober journalistic fundamentals and practises; I've worked with a dozen on-air people ... from edgy urban hipsters to war-weathered, old-school NBC veterans, and they all give me the highest compliments. I've produced programs and segments focusing on everything from NAFTA, Bosnia, South Africa to opera, cyborg culture, and advertising. I'm broad, I'm deep, I'm curious, I'm energetic. But I can't figure out what I'm doing wrong as I try to shop myself around. Do Canadians/CBC'ers have bad reputations ? Has my current affiliation with the talk format ruined me ? Am I wrong about the current producer's market ? Should I be Fed-X'ing bottles of Chivas around ?

    Any suggestions? Maybe a "Will Produce for Food" sandwich board?

    (Readers: please send responses to me at AJMain@aol.com, and put Letter #1 in the subject line.)


    LETTER #2:

    I just started reading the newsletter back in December and I really enjoy it. I am just 3 months away from graduating from a "J" school I'm sure all of your readers are familiar with. I've caught the producing "bug." Actually, I caught it about a year ago. I am someone who WANTS to produce local news, unlike some of the "kids" an anchor wrote about in the February newsletter. I've produced newscasts and special projects like election night coverage for the student television station. The problem is, I still have a passion for reporting too. When I look for that first job, I don't want to come off as someone who just takes a producing job just so I can get on my way to a reporting position. I would love to produce AND report for a shop that wants someone to do both. Unfortunately, I haven't hear of too many cases where a producer is given a shot at reporting on a regular basis. Are situations like this common or even a good idea? I've had professors and professionals tell me you should pick a track and stay on it. Well, I'm not sure I can be happy being a producer or a reporter exclusively. I would appreciate any input or advice you or your readers could offer. I'm starting the job hunt right now.

    Thanks
    Aaron Wische

    (Readers: please send responses to me at AJMain@aol.com, and put Letter #2 in the subject line.)


    LETTER #3

    Alice:

    I'd like to know what other producers around the country think about the idea of doing live shots solely for the purpose of being live. I produce a 10pm newscast, and just recently our management team has decided that every report our reporter does will be live. No matter if you can see what's behind her or not. No matter if there's nothing going on.

    I'm torn on this, because I've always felt that everything in a newscast should be there for a good reason. On the other hand, lives do add to the "nighttime" feel of the cast and they do make things look more exciting.

    So, what do others think?

    (Name Withheld)

    (Readers: please send responses to me at AJMain@aol.com, and put Letter #3 in the subject line.)


    LETTER #4

    I ran into a veteran reporter the other day who had some choice words about producers, and their inexperience in deciding what is and what is not news in this top 20 market. I'm a reporter turned producer/reporter on a non-commerical news program and had my share of run-ins with inexperienced assignment desk types and producers in the past. This guy works for the number one station in the market, and is often given lead stories because of his skill and experience. Yet, he and his photographer couldn't stop talking about producers with a couple years experience going for fluff stories instead of meaty ones.

    This reminded me when I had to work weekends at a local affiliate and would wonder in amazement when the assignment editor would send me and a photographer chasing some stupid story--all with the blessing of the producer. Here's an example: Two brothers get drunk, argue, one pulls a gun on the other, who escapes by jumping off a second floor balcony and lands face first. I couldn't stop shaking my head as we drove to the apartment complex to track down the brothers. Number one, who cares? Number two, its not that visual. I found the guy who took the nose dive. He talked off camera, but didn't want to be on-camera--who would? No neighbors were around, so we shot some b-roll and left.

    The assignment editor and producer wanted this story so badly, they sent out another crew--who found a neighbor who had just gotten home, but would only give an on-camera interview with his back to the camera. This aired as a VOSOT. Luckly, this was not the lead story, but it was second or third. All of the reporters and photographers couldn't believe it. But management had given these inexperienced people total control, and they would not listen to photographers and and reporters with a three to five times as much experience.

    That is one of the reasons why I left commercial news. The reporter at the number one station says he and others don't want to leave for other jobs, but see no choice if this trend continues. I'd like to know what other producers think?

    Paul Atkinson
    KAET-TV

    (Readers: please send responses to me at AJMain@aol.com, and put Letter #4 in the subject line.)


    LETTER #5

    I'm in search of advice on market or stations that have previously considered producer/reporter candidates. I'm going to be hitting the job trail in a few months, and find my current job as a producer/reporter puts me in a bind. I feel I do both well, and that the reporting helps my producing...and vice versa. But I know most stations split the two jobs up. I'm hopeful that there are ND's out there who will value skills over job titles, but am a little apprehensive (my current station is a unique set-up...and while all my other jobs have been daily news, this is a weekly newsmagazine).

    (Name Withheld)

    (Readers: please send responses to me at AJMain@aol.com, and put Letter #4 in the subject line.)


    PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE

    Anderson Williams has joined WVTM-TV NBC-13 in Birmingham, Alabama. Anderson leaves WAAY-TV in Huntsville for the move south to the "Magic City". He'll be handling the station's special coverage of education issues and, for now, producing the weekend newscasts.

    Delinda Higinbotham was promoted to Producer of the Morning Edition news (6:00-7:00am) at WFLA-TV (Tampa).

    Todd Mazza has accepted a position as MSNBC Web Site Producer for WVTM - TV, the NBC O&O in Birmingham, Alabama. He'll be responsible for the daily content in the WVTM local section of the MSNBC site.

    He'll also be taking on the responsibility of maintaining the WVTM WWW site (http://www.nbc13.com). Todd is formerly the 6pm and 11pm News Producer at WCTV in Tallahassee, FL.

    Brad Smith, former Acting News Director/Executive Producer at WROC-TV (CBS) and former Senior Producer at WHEC-TV (CBS/NBC), both in Rochester, NY (and former producer at KTBC-TV (CBS) in Austin, TX) is now Acting News Director at 50kw Newsradio 1180-WHAM in Rochester. Also adjunct lecturer in the Department of Communication at SUNY Geneseo, and advisor to WGSU-FM there.

    Jennifer Shack, Executive Producer at KBMT in Beaumont, Texas is moving to Houston, where she will be working as the 6:30am producer at the FOX affiliate, KRIV.


    PRODUCING SESSIONS at RTNDA Spring Training Conferences

    RTNDA is holding Spring Training Conferences again this year, and the dates are coming up fast. Subjects include producing, using the internet for reporting and research (beginning and advanced classes), solutions to talent problems, newswriting for radio & TV, and surviving the mega-radio mergers. The producing session is about making the most of teases & graphics, and working with difficult people. Dow Smith from Syracuse University will lead all the producing sessions, and I'll be helping him in Richmond and Columbus. The brochure will be mailed out shortly with full details.

    You can check their website now at www.rtnda.org/rtnda/

    The cost is $110 for members, and $170 for non-members, if you sign up early. Add $50 for on-site registration. Dates: March 22 in Richmond, April 5 in Austin, April 19 in Portland, OR, and April 26 in Columbus, OH.


    LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

    Alice:

    My 11-year old daughter was watching TV at home with me. Even she picked up on, and understood, the dilemma facing television folks.... stick with OJ, or go to the President? I explained to her that it was an ABC Network decision, that NewsChannel 9 didn't have a choice... but that I sure didn't envy the decision they were facing. "Give 'em (viewers) what they want, or give 'em what they need?" My daughter asked what I'd do.... I didn't hesitate long before telling her my choice would be to stick with Live OJ coverage, but tell viewers "we are videotaping the President's State of the Union," and tell them exactly when we would play it back in it's entirety. Fortunately for the networks, court timing didn't force them to make that decision.

    Richard Simms (rsimms@NewsChannel9.com)
    NewsChannel 9 News Operations Manager


    PRODUCER HEADHUNTERS

    Someone asked me to list "the top producer headhunters" out there. I don't know all of them, but here's a list of three to get started. Send me more of them at AJMain@aol.com, and I'll make a permanent list on my website.

    At Don Fitzpatrick & Associates:

    Her name is Liz Hart and she is Vice President of DFA. They should fax their resumes and one page "news philosophy" and references to Liz at (415) 954-0820. They should follow up that fax with a hard copy verssion of resume, philosophy and references to Don Fitzpatrick Associates, 582 Market Street, 16th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104.

    At Broadcast Image Group:

    Tom Dolan is often conducting a dozen or more producer searches at any given time for his client stations.