Friday, July 25, 2008

Making TV is Easy!

I've been producing the KJZZ Cafe for about six months now, so I think it's safe to say I pretty much know all there is to know about TV news. With that in mind, I thought it would be very considerate of me to pass on some of my newly-acquired wisdom, in case any of you ever want to steal my job.

What follows is a simple guide for producing a morning TV show, organized into ten easy steps:

1. Arrive early

The thing that sucks about morning news shows is that they take place in the morning. Therefore, in order to get the show ready to air on time, you have to get to the station really early. Really insanely early. Really "isn't this technically the day before?" early. It would be really nice to just write the Wednesday morning show on Tuesday afternoon, especially when the daily headlines are so predictable ("gas prices suck", "Barack Obama is way awesome", "some guy is walking across _____ to raise awareness for _____"), but that whole "timeliness" thing always gets in the way. Meaning, you never know when the Jazz might make a late afternoon trade for a journeyman point guard.

2. Select quality stories

Your main job as producer is to put together a rundown of the stories you'll cover during the broadcast. For a regular news show, this isn't super hard, because you just repeat a basic cycle, such as:

A. Building fire
B. Shooting
C. Weather
D. Building fire
E. Shooting
F. Weather
G. Fat guy at elementary school

But if you produce a current events show, you have to come up with more thoughtful material. You can still repeat a few of the early stories at the end of the show, since only the criminally insane will watch your entire 2 1/2 hour broadcast, but the quality of the stories has to be at a different level. It helps when you have other people to contribute story ideas; then you just have to judge worthiness instead of waste a lot of time clicking links on the Drudge Report.

For example:

Man wrecks semi on freeway = Lame story

Man wrecks semi while dodging group of vegetarian eco-terrorist Ralph Nader supporters holding seance on freeway = News worth talking about

3. Fill down time

If you've planned ahead, you should have a window of time after you've finished the rundown, but before any of the anchors arrive for your editorial meeting. If you haven't planned ahead, you probably dragged yourself into the station two hours late because you figured if you hung around the previous night's party long enough you would get a good chance at getting the blonde's phone number, and you didn't, and you overslept, and now you have to come up with a creative way of explaining to your news director why your rundown looks suspiciously like yesterday's lineup on E! News.

But if you did manage to preserve a window, you have some time to fill. Here are some constructive options:

A. Get a jump on writing your stories
B. Meditate
C. Update your Facebook profile
D. Make prank phone calls
E. Visit the Master Control people on their smoke breaks
F. Jog naked through the cavernous, empty hallways of the KJZZ studios

4. Hold editorial meeting

Once the news director and anchors arrive, it's time to gather everyone together and help them try to wake up. If the majority of your team are non-coffee drinking Mormons, the best way to do this is to provide energy drinks and the latest ACLU itinerary. In the editorial meeting, you present your rundown and make assignments for different stories. Sometimes one of the anchors will suggest doing a different story that they feel passionate about. As producer, it is your responsibility to listen with an open mind to all suggestions, nod thoughtfully, then go ahead with what you planned to do in the first place. If your news director suggests a change, your responsibility is to make a nasty face and obey begrudgingly, thus preserving both your job and your image as a stubborn journalist.

5. Write stuff

Once you've broken down the show and made all the assignments, it's time to get down to business. Here the newsroom becomes a hive of activity as anchors, interns, associate producers and groupies shuffle back and forth around a cluster of low-rise cubicles, printing scripts, running video orders, and deciding what ties look best with blue shirts.

If you've done a good job of making writing assignments, this part of the day should be a lot of fun for you; as producer, you have first call of what you want to write, and thus it's your own stupid fault if you don't give everyone else the crap stories. Your job should consist of writing clever teases, crazy kicker stories, and looking up funny videos on YouTube. Let the anchors write the boring economic stories; that's the trade-off for getting a clothing allowance. At the same time, don't be afraid to challenge yourself. If you can get an anchor to read a gushing praise of Barry Manilow one day, see if you can get them to read a quote from P-Funk pioneer George Clinton the next day.

Since you are not on the air in most situations, this is your opportunity to put your own signature on the show. This can be done in a variety of ways:

A. Insert clever inside catch phrases that will be recognized by family and friends.
B. Reference personal obsessions like William Shatner and "Baywatch".
C. Use running gags, like tagging stories with clips of radioactive spiders and the Bat Child.
D. Have the anchors reference your personal blog on a regular basis.
E. Hang your tasteful oil paintings on the wall behind the anchor desk.

6. Visit editing guys

Another dynamic of your job is to keep track of the video assignments and make sure the requested clips are ordered and produced. Video tends to be an important part of a news broadcast, as most people feel that watching the same talking head for ninety minutes straight tends to fall on the boring side, no matter how pretty or surgically-enhanced that face might be. Therefore, it is usually a good idea to wander back to the editing room every half hour or so to check progress. Always be considerate and offer to help the editors with whatever they need. Of course, since you have no idea how to edit, you should also pray that nothing serious happens. And when they do tell you about problems, nod thoughtfully again, then go tell the news director.

7. Get Focused

Producing live television is a serious business. You can't just walk in off the street and expect to be any good at it. It's not like networks just grab random English teachers and tell them to produce the morning news. If you want to be ready for the big time, you need to prepare yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually. A good producer knows how to bring his/her total self into balance and harmony, for even though he/she is not in front of the camera, he/she must perform just the same. The best way to do this is to duck out of the newsroom about a half hour before air time and take a nap on a couch somewhere.

8. Stay awake during broadcast

A typical morning newscast will last anywhere between two hours and three hours, and after staying up all night getting the show ready, there is a high risk of dozing off, even on live television. While everyone on the set is sweating and nervous under lighting systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars, you are cooling your heels in the back room, staring at a wall-full of TV monitors. When these monitors are telling you about a housing crisis at 6:30am, sleep is usually a preferable option. To keep sharp, bring a pocket Yahtzee game for entertainment, or text some close friends about your current relationship struggles. Or you could just keep track of how many times the director swears at the cameramen in sixty seconds.

Once the show goes on the air, the Producer becomes more of a manager, and even more of a timekeeper. It is your responsibility to make sure that the segments finish on time so you can get all the commercials in. You have a big ugly headset that is plugged into little earphones that the anchors wear, so you can tell them to hurry up or to fill time or to stop saying things that are going to get you sued. You can also talk to them while they are trying to read the TelePrompter, then laugh quietly at the funny faces they make.

9. Expect the waste matter to impact the motorized wind circulator

When you're putting together your rundown, you will make a deliberate effort to organize the stories and the timing to produce a broadcast that will be tight and sharp. Special care will be taken to design a show that can run with flawless precision, with stories that flow logically from topic to topic and allow for effective execution behind the scenes. This, of course, will never actually happen.

Plan on encountering at least one obscene catastrophe to occur during each broadcast, along with 4-5 minor catastrophes. One of the toughest, yet most important, responsibilities as producer is to learn to make quick decisions on your feet, because in live TV, you can't just yell "cut" and go for a second take. Well, technically I guess you could, but it would look funny, and you probably couldn't convince your news director that it was a deliberate reflexive postmodern commentary on the self-aware nature of contemporary media. No, it is not a question of whether something will go wrong, it is only a question of when.

Here are some of the crazy things you can expect over the course of a broadcast:

Guest arrives late

On the one hand, having guests on set means you have less to fill in the rundown. On the other hand, having guests on set means you risk some unexpected act of God--like an earthquake or road construction--delaying your up-and-coming psychic romance novelist for a half hour, then an additional fifteen minutes because she couldn't remember whether she was going to be on KJZZ or FOX (whose studio is conveniently located across the street), while in the meantime you juggle half your script and frantically try to rearrange story-specific block teases until she safely arrives for a three-minute interview which your audience never hears because the battery in the guest microphone died thirty seconds in.

Guest wanders into set background and stares vacantly at camera ten minutes before his segment is to air

Not that this has ever happened...

Major tape comes up missing

Sometimes, in spite of the best of efforts, vital video clips and even full story packages will go missing. Orders don't get turned in, orders get misplaced, orders get stolen by magical bearded gnome mercenaries hired by rival networks. Often you will catch these omissions early and give the editing guys plenty of time to re-cut or get a new tape. More often, you will hear the director say something like, "no tape" approximately 3.2 seconds before you are to air said tape.

Here are a few more gems to keep an eye out for:

Tape runs, but includes tasty bit of profanity editors forgot to censor
Peripheral cast member disappears microseconds before cue
Anchor explodes
SWAT team enters building

10. Hold post-mortem meeting/Plan next day

Congratulations! You've made it through the broadcast. Now it's time to gather in all your co-workers and listen to lots and lots of complaining in the post-show wrap meeting. Here you offer constructive criticism, occasional praise, and bribes for anyone willing to sabotage the set so you can have a week off. If you have time, you can also plan for the next day's show, assuming you still have jobs the next day.