The Logistics and Strategies of Producing

NewsThumbProducing is an exceptionally difficult art. The time constraints are brutal:

a 30-minute newscast contains 8 minutes of commercials, leaving only 22 minutes for news. Subtract 3 minutes for your weather report (19 minutes remain), another 4 for sports (now 15 minutes are left for news), and then another minute for bumps, opens, and closes. Your half-hour of news lasts a mere 14 minutes.

Another problem facing producers is they serve as the final gatekeeper, which is a person who allows or denies a news story to get on the air. The gate keeping process starts with the assignment editor, who may or may not bother sending a crew to cover a story. Gate keeping continues in the field with the videographer remember, any time you point a camera at one subject; you effectively point it away from all others. A reporter filters the news as well, picking one interview over another. The person editing the story then truncates the footage into a manageable running time, excluding excess footage. By the time the story is finished, it still must be approved by the producer.

An interrelated problem for producers is dealing with the personalities of those in the newsroom. The sports reporter may want more time for a compelling local event, whereas the investigative reporter may demand an extra 30 seconds for a lead story. Finally, television news reporters expect to see themselves on the air, and crave the occasional live shot. Producers must deal with these factors constantly, juggling times, deadlines, the competition, and a score of easily bruised egos.

There are basic steps that are universal in newsrooms. The newscasts begin with staff meetings, and then finally go on-air at their appointed hour. While no two days are ever alike, there are steps that make the producing job much more manageable.

The rundown

A rundown is a blueprint of what stories will be presented in a newscast, which anchor reads them, how long the story lasts, and what type of story it is (such as a reader or package). Rundowns also contain detailed information for the technical crew, including which camera is to be used on the anchor, which tape machine has the footage for playback, and how many graphics are needed for a particular story.

A lot of thought must go into the arrangement of stories in the newscast to make it clear and interesting. No two producers are likely to agree on the exact order of the stories in a newscast. If you examined the newscasts produced at stations in the same market on the same night, even the lead stories are often different unless some story completely dominates the news.

Assembling a newscast so that it flows naturally from story to story, engages the viewer, and includes all of the day's news is no easy feat. There are, fortunately, some basic strategies that assist in fleshing out the rundown.

Leads, clusters, and kickers

Let’s assume there are four blocks in a local newscast. The blocks are separated by commercial breaks; thus the newscast flows as A block, break, B block, break, C block (usually sports), break, and then D block. Most producers aren't terribly concerned with the content of C block, as the sports anchor will manage that for them. Of course, the producer is interested in the total running time of C block so it will fit cleanly with the rest of the newscast. Also, if there is a "news" story hidden in sports, that may be of interest. A referendum on building a new football stadium may be placed in C block, although the news angle may warrant that report being moved to A block.

By leaving C block to sports, we're left with A, B, and D. The first block, A, begins with the lead story of the newscast. The format of this news story may be a package, a live shot, or even a reader. Yet the mere placement of it above all others suggests that it is the lead story; thus it is more important to the viewers than anything that follows. Deciding which story is the most critical to the audience is not simple; there are sometimes shouting matches over which story deserves the top slot.

After the lead is decided, many producers cluster their stories into the remaining slots. All health stories may be bundled in B block, while three short statewide readers at the bottom of A block may constitute a "State Round-up." The life or death of stories is decided at this stage, as a precious 20 seconds spent on a traffic jam may erase the 20 seconds needed for a school board update. Also, the weather report may be attached to the end of B block, thus the producer must be very careful about what story to insert before the forecast. A light story on a farming success would be good, but tragic numbers on an increase in child abuse would not.

Unlike A and B blocks, D block does not have the same hard news implication. Instead, D block is home to entertainment news, feel-good pieces on cute kids, and community announcements of upcoming festivals. D block is designed as a kicker block for two simple reasons: first, if the newscast is running over time, it is easy to drop the feature stories from D block without losing the newscast's impact. Second, no anchor wants to end the newscast on a depressing story, only to then abruptly shift gears to saying "Good night, stay tuned for Wheel of Fortune!"

Peaks and valleys

One popular approach to producing a newscast is known as the peak-and-valley format. Although the phrase has been around for decades, many producers use the format without using that name. This format treats every segment, or block, in the newscast as a sort of mini-newscast that can stand on its own. That doesn't mean that each section has weather, sports, and financial news, but there is a good, strong story at the top of each segment, along with some less important stories and, in some segments, perhaps a feature or special report. Each segment ends with a strong story before the commercial.

The concept behind peaks and valleys is that if you sprinkle your most interesting and important stories throughout the newscast, you'll hold your audience. If you place all your top stories in the early part of the newscast, you'll lose the audience because the newscast-and your audience-will fizz out by the middle. Worse yet, the audience will switch to your competition. Instead, you should spread your most interesting and important stories throughout the newscast.

It's also important to remember that weather is the most promotable element in a newscast. Many viewers say that weather is the main reason they watch local news, which is why producers tease it throughout the newscast.

For those producers who make use of the "peak-and-valley" theory, it is extremely important before going to a commercial break to tease not only with the weather, but also with a strong story that has special appeal. The idea is that if you do not hook listeners on the first tease, you may get them on the second. If you do, it will help keep the audience around through the commercial, which is the valley of the newscast. After the commercial, the audience expects another good story at the top of the next segment, and the process begins all over again: a peak and then a valley and another peak and another valley, throughout each section of the newscast.

The inverted pyramid approach continues in many small markets because it often is difficult even to find just one strong story each night. Too many producers still try to hold an audience by teasing sports and weather. In many communities, of course, sports and the weather are important news, as are college and high-school sports scores. In farming communities, the weather may be the best story of the day, night, and week. But creative producers, even in small markets, should experiment with the peak-and-valley theory that teases other important stories or good features.

Rhythm and flow

Although packages appeal most to the audience, producers shouldn't play one off another. You should place them effectively throughout the newscast, inserting readers or voiceovers between them. The package also serves another important purpose; it gives the anchors a breather and a chance for them, the producers, and the director to get organized for the rest of the show.

Ad-libs, bumps, teases, and tosses
 
In the 1980s, the "happy talk" phenomenon invaded a number of local television stations. As an attempt to humanize the news anchors and make them more accessible to viewers, the fad seemed forced onto the news sets.

Today, most banter is limited to ad­libs, bumps, teases, and tosses. These terms may be used interchangeably in newsrooms, although there are some slight differences. Ad-libs are used when the newscast runs short by perhaps 20 seconds. Instead of cramming in a final reader, the producer will alert the news team to ad-lib.

Bumps and teases are similar to one another, but there is a subtle difference. Say the anchors are ending the A block and are heading to a commercial break. A bump is generic, such as "We'll be back with more. Stay with us." These are handy if the anchor doesn't know what's coming in the next block or, as is sometimes the case, the producer isn't sure if a late-breaking story or last­minute live shot will come through. In these cases, bumps are perfectly appropriate.

Teases are far stronger. They promote a story in the next block, give a peek at the weather forecast, or maybe tease viewers into staying for something much later in the program. Here are examples of possible teases at the end of an A block:

"You may think it's just cold weather around the corner, but Mike has a bone-chilling prediction when we return with his weather forecast."

"If you thought traffic was bad today, wait until you hear what streets will be closed for construction starting tomorrow. We'll have the details in a moment."

"Looking ahead to sports, a blockbuster basketball trade has made one local player very happy, but his teammates are crying foul."

Any of the above is better than the typical "Stay with us." A well-crafted tease is essential for keeping the audience over the commercial break and are vital in holding the newscast together.

A toss is simple. This occurs when the sports or weather anchor is introduced to give their segment. These are unscripted; the teleprompter just reads TOSS TO SPORTS. The anchor finishes the news copy, sees the TOSS order on the teleprompter, pivots to the sports anchor, and quickly tosses the reins over. During the commercial break, the sports and weather anchors give the news anchors an idea of what would make a good toss. Although it's similar to an ad-lib, a toss is an internal transition among the anchors. An ad-lib is more likely used to just fill time.

Producing tips

Television news consultant and former producer Mary Cox provides her "baker's dozen" suggestions for news producers:

• Ask: What's the viewers' benefit?

• Win the lead.

• Put news in every section.

• Make the show video-driven-go from video to video to video. (Most producers disagree on this one.)

• Write tight, to the point.

• Look for live opportunities without going live for the sake of going live.

• Give stories the time they need.

• Don't "force" a package, even if a reporter worked all day on it. If it doesn't work, dump it.

• Tease news at the end of every section.

• Include some of the newscast's best writing and video in the teases.

• Go out strong, with a big finish (generally a package) to keep the audience with you.

• Create a "magic moment" consisting of something memorable, such as great photography.

• Avoid getting locked into local, local, local, national, national, national.

People don't think that way and they don't tell stories that way.


SUMMARY

The best opportunities for young people entering broadcast news are in producing. The expansion of local news and the spread of all-news channels to more cities have created a need for producers of all kinds. There is a high demand for producers because so many young people want to go on the air because of the perceived" glamour" and higher salaries usually associated with such jobs. The competition for anchor and reporter positions is much greater, even though producer positions may be available.

There also are substantial rewards in producing news programs. Certainly, salaries are going to continue to improve as the demand increases for people to produce news. Although producers work behind the scenes, their jobs are exciting and occasionally also glamorous. The excitement comes in the realization that as a producer you are "in control." What you do in the newsroom determines what goes on the air. You are limited only by your own imagination and creativity. As pointed out earlier, in many newsrooms, the producers are in complete charge of the news.

Along with that power comes a lot of responsibility and risk. You will need good news judgment and other skills in many areas. Good writing is essential. Some experience in reporting is also desirable. You will also need to have an excellent knowledge of production techniques-microwave and satellite feeds, computer technologies, video editing, electronic still storage, and emerging technologies.

Another important consideration is stress. It's a tough, emotionally and physically draining position with long hours. But the potential rewards are great if you have any interest in management. Producers are on the best track to the management offices. You must learn how to do just about everything in the newsroom and how to work with and manage a variety of co-workers. Who could be better qualified for the "boss's" job?


BroadcastNewsCover©2010 Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved. "Broadcast News, Writing, Reporting, and Producing, Fifth Ed." by Ted White and Frank Barnas. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit elsevierdirect.com.