It’s the Producer’s Fault

Spinning plates on Ed Sullivan

Producing television really isn’t as hard as it sounds. You’re like the guys spinning plates on The Ed Sullivan show. The plates are what everyone is looking at; it’s your job to keep them spinning. Making TV is the same thing. You have a lot of things going on at the same time; you need to make sure they all happen when they’re meant to.

I was taught there are two rules to producing. One: start and end on time. Two: everything is the producer’s fault. The last one is a non-debatable issue. If you rely on someone else to make something happen, then you really can’t call yourself the producer.

Different newsrooms use different programs to organize and time out a show, but the basics are the same. Lead the show with your best story, and don’t loose them in the commercial break. Organizing which story goes where is called “stacking the show.” Some newsrooms might tell you “if it bleeds it leads.” That is not always the case. The top story is the biggest story; it’s up to you, and your newsroom, to decide which one gets the priority. It’s your show, so be prepared to fight for what you believe in.

Once the lead has been decided, it’s time to move on to the rest of the show.  When you take out the commercial breaks, you have about 20 minutes of content to fill. How will you do that? If it’s a standard newscast, you have an assignment desk to help you figure it out. Decide what the second most important story is, and then the third, and so on. Commercials break up the segments of your show. Usually the first segment is called your “A” block. After the first break, the second segment is your “B” block and so on. The number of commercial breaks you have in a show will dictate how many “blocks” you will produce.

Weather is a reliable staple in any newscast. Depending on your show, you may have a quick weather hit towards the end of the “A” block; a full weather segment in either the “C” or “D” block would follow this. The amount of time you give to weather changes every day. If it’s a slow weather day then maybe no more than 3 minutes, be sure to check in with your meteorologist. If you have a “light” newscast you may need to fill time by using more weather. If it’s a “heavy” weather day, then more time will be needed during the show for weather, which means less time for other stories.

It’s all about timing and talking with people. You need to know what everyone else knows. They need to know what you require of them. Talk with the people involved in your show. Make sure you are clear with them and leave nothing to chance. If you’re unsure, get clarity. Always have a backup plan. If a live-shot goes down in the middle of a report, where will you go next?

As you get closer to show time (and even during a show) you will either be heavy or light. Being heavy means you have too much content and something has to go. If a show is light, then you need to fill time. Each story has a run time.

In every newscast you will hear an anchor set up a reporter’s story. It might sound something like: “Joe Motion has the details.” The details, or the story,  is we what call a news package. A pre-produced story that an anchor will set up, or “toss,” to from the set. You will need to account for how much time is needed to setup the package, the package length time, and the tag, or wrapping up, the package. In a “tag” the viewer would see the anchors back on the news set, saying something like: “That was Joe Motion reporting.”This time needs to be accounted for. All that time will start to add up as more content is put in your show. The closer to air, the more decisions you will need to make. What if a story comes up short, what if it’s longer than you expected? Sometimes it’s best to have stories in the show you know you can drop. It’s also a good idea to have backup stories you can add in, should something fall through or a story comes up short.

You will need to include time for sports. In most newsrooms, the sports anchor will prepare his, or her, own sportscast. Just like weather, let them know how much time you can give them. If the local sports team has a lot going on, you may need to plan for that.

You should also be thinking about how to end the newscast. After reporting doom and gloom, most shows end with what’s called a kicker. The kicker is something good to end the show on. It can range from a package on free comic book day, to a story about fainting goats.

As the clock ticks closer to your broadcast, talk to your director. The director needs to know what you want to do with the show. He, or she, will tell you if it is possible or not. Always give the director enough time to plan for things like a live-shot, a live phone interview, on set guest, anything that might come up. Once again, have a backup plan if something should fail due to a technical problem.

The viewer relies on video; the anchors and crew need scripts and rundowns. The rundown is a lineup of what is in the show, where and at what time. This is the big picture. In one page you can see the story names, times, and when the commercial breaks will hit and for how long. You can see how much time weather and sports get. Everyone on the crew gets a rundown. Everyone looks for something different on it. The director will have assigned cameras positions and where each piece of video is coming from.

The anchors read off of teleprompters, but should the prompter fail or the anchor loose their place, a hard copy of the script is required. The director will have also marked the script with what he, or she, is doing. The scripts hold information, more than just the words to the story. Each script has the name of the anchor that is reading and to which camera. The script also calls for graphics and where they come in. The anchor needs to know as much as you know. Scripts go to the person running audio, the director, and the anchors.

You should have a copy of the scripts too. When you are in the control room, you will be timing out the show, usually with the same computer program you built the show with. As each story passes, you will see how much time is left in the show, how long you are spending on each story, and whether you are heavy or light.

The goal is to get out on time. The show needs to end at 6:28pm every night. Your worst-case scenario is to have the director fade out on time. Normally this is not the case. Once the show starts, the flow will feel natural. You will know what parts of the show work and don’t. The show takes on a life of it’s own. You just need to manage it.

3 thoughts on “It’s the Producer’s Fault

  1. Great job with this post.

    My grandfather lived on Pemaquid Trail and used to own Sherwood Forest Campus Ground in New Harbor.

    Growing up, my dad and I would go camping and I’d bring the TV along to watch the local stations. I remember when WCSH took the “Alive” out of its name.

  2. Brett:

    I think that you’ve been fairly successful in writing a “how-to” on producing a newscast. You write in great detail and that’s important for a subject that is much more complex behind the scenes than it is to the average viewer watching the nightly news.

    My only gentle criticism would be that there are some times when you slip into industry jargon that the average person might not know. For example, you talk about anchors “tossing” to packages that reporters have done. I understand what you’re saying because I studied broadcasting in college and have many friend in television news. But the average person or viewer might expect that the anchors would be physically throwing an object across the set.

    This is one of those cases in which you might have been better off illustrating an example, saying something like, “A throw is when an anchor says, ‘Action News Reporter Dave Smith says there may be more layoff on the way at Bath Iron Works,'”

    Also one other small point. When you talk about breaking the newscast up into blocks, does you typical newscast always have four segments or does the amount of commercials scheduled for a given newscast determine whether there are more or less than four?

    I assume by the fact that you used the letters A through D in your explanation that it’s usually four. But like you say in your newscast producing “how to”, don’t leave anything to chance.

  3. Thanks for catching that. It’s tricky to play with the language and have it make sense to a general audience. The toss is a perfect example.

Comments are closed.