I can't believe that aired again! Why anchors complain on the set.

Anchoring, Getting Along With Peers, Political Hotbed Comments Off on I can’t believe that aired again! Why anchors complain on the set.
Jan 072013

This makes many producers blood boil. You toil over a newscast for hours, then during the show, the anchors start complaining about and/or making fun of the copy you worked so hard on.  Complaining on set during the newscasts about the show, is the number one way to create a huge divide between anchors and producers. It creates the “us vs them” mentality that causes so much friction.   But there are two sides to this, and we are going to really delve into both.

That said, many of those anchors are really not trying to just be jerks.  I PROMISE YOU. There are reasons behind the decision, (and it often is a decision) to complain about copy on the set during the newscast.  The biggest reason, FRUSTRATION.  When anchors reach the point of complaining on set, most are usually at their wits end.  From their point of view, they have tried to “talk things through” and the producer/management has ignored the issue.  Many veteran anchors are just tired and frustrated that they constantly have to “train newbies.”  If you step back and really think about it, you can see how this can happen.  One anchor I consulted with on this article says, “Even if you are not normally a complainer, when you get an anchor sitting next to you who is a little immature and starts going off, it can be very difficult not to give into the temptation and complain also.  It is human nature.”  Another anchor mentioned, “I worked so hard to get to this point, I don’t want to come across as clueless or even just plain stupid. Why aren’t we (anchors) protected?”

A key thing to remember, is when the anchors “mess up” and read copy that is factually incorrect or just doesn’t make sense, it isn’t just the anchor that looks stupid.  The entire news operation loses credibility.  Anchors are very aware that they are the poster children for the entire organization.  They understand that if they come across as not credible, their job is on the line, because that lack of credibility undermines the entire station’s standing in the community.  When you separate yourself from the insults, and really think about that, you can see why anchors sometimes “go off.”  It is a lot of responsibility, and yet they give up control of the newscasts to producers.  It is how the system works, except in rare cases.  Anchors are depending on you to get the facts right, so they look credible.  Yes anchors can, and most will, get into the newscast and fact check and rewrite if they notice a potential issue.  But in the morning, and during breaking news that is not always possible.  The anchors need the information to be correct, or at least quickly fixed if there is a problem.

Which leads to the second reason, anchors find themselves complaining on the set over a mistake.  It is absolutely maddening, when they see an issue, raise the issue to the producer and then it is not corrected and airs incorrectly two and three times.  Many anchors say they try to help and bring up an issue with a super, or a misspelled item on the ticker, and then it isn’t changed.  The anchor doesn’t have access, and can only watch the mistake happen again and again.  Remember, credibility for the entire news organization is on the line, anchors are the final gate keepers.

There also are issues in many shops where veteran anchors are told, to just read whatever is there, and let the producers do all the gate keeping.  Anchors are told to stay out of the decision making and that producers rule (see Producer Driven) the roost.  Problem is, often the producers are much less experienced than the anchors.  No matter how smart you are, experience brings a lot of knowledge.  So veteran anchors sit, wishing they could just bang their heads against the wall and watch something they could have prevented play out on the air.  Excruciating!

That said, giving in to human nature and complaining on the set, diminishes respect toward you if you are one of those anchors.  It sends a message that you think you are superior and fed up with the underlings.  And that’s even if what you say is absolutely true.  So this is where things get hard for the frustrated anchor.  You need to find a different forum to vent.  Maybe that’s after the show, on the phone with your co-anchor.  Maybe it is at the gym working out your frustrations.  Maybe it is in a meeting with the EP or AND.  Just make sure you keep the conversation pro-active.  Producers and managers, put ointment on the sting, and look to see if the anchor really does have a good point.  If the anchor feels they have a forum to address concerns, the on set rants will eventually stop.  Chances the quality of the newscast will improve as well.

This is a common reality, especially for morning shows, no matter the market size.  Not having the show ready at airtime is a big strain on anchors and producers.  You simply should not be writing content during a live show unless there’s breaking news.  Too much can go wrong.  Producers if you are having problems getting your newscast written in time, look at Bottom’s up.  Another article is coming soon to help further.  This article is going to focus on the anchors.  They have to make up for the fact they will be reading content “cold.”  Here’s how to keep from stumbling and fumbling your way through.

1)      Get very familiar with facts in the stories

2)      Write notes for yourself

3)      When possible dive in and write

4)      Read a block ahead, to fix mistakes

5)      Consider reading copy even if there are minor mistakes, then demand corrections for later hits

Recently an anchor wrote us a great article on the art of adlib, in it he asked the question, how much of a newscast do you really know?  Could you talk your way through with no scripts.  This is very important.  Morning show anchors do have the ability to become familiar with news content, especially since so many of the scripts are rewrites from the night before.  Get comfortable with the facts of as many stories as you can.  That way if you get stuck, you can get by.

Some anchors I’ve worked with wrote notes or outlines of stories that they guessed were not going to be written in time and included them in their scripts.  Think of these outlines like you would bullet points for a live shot.  No, you probably won’t have time to write these outlines for a lot of stories, but even a few can really help if your producer is chronically in the weeds.  The anchors that I would see do this waited until about a half hour before air, then wrote as many outlines as possible.  Look at the rundown, if the producer tends to wait to write the b-block until the newscast starts, try and outline a few of your anchor reads in that block.  At least you have something to lean on.  Look for the big gaps, and throw a little something in here and there to help.

If you are an hour before air and there’re a lot of empty pages in the rundown, dive in and write.  No you should not have to do this.  (That’s another article.)  Bottom line, help yourself so you don’t get screwed.  Just quit writing full story copy in time to proof what is there, so you have sections of the newscast where you feel comfortable.  I recommend keeping a list of how many scripts you had to dive in and write, and when appropriate talk with your manager about the issue.  Also, make sure you give yourself a chance to relax, take a breath and be ready to present.  Too often anchors end up slamming copy until the last second, run to the set and come across as uncomfortable right off the top of the show.  You have to protect your role in the newscast and your role is to be smooth, authoritative and in command.  Stop writing and helping in time to do what you need to do to be comfortable on set.  If you have some outlines and wrote some copy, you will be okay.  Give yourself a chance to be composed and relaxed before stepping on the set.

Once the newscast starts, use commercial breaks, packages and weather hits to read at least a block ahead.  This is the advice talent consultants give all the time.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Unfortunately, when a lot of scripts are written last minute, there are a lot of clarification questions, timing issues and other problems.  Those mean you have to “stop down” and listen to a list of changes during breaks.  Do what you can.

Finally, if you end up having to read copy “cold,” try not to get bogged down changing errors live, as you see them coming up in prompter, unless you are familiar with the story content and know you can do it smoothly.  As counterintuitive as it sounds, it is better to read the bad copy smoothly on-air, then demand a fact recheck and/or rewrite for later hits in the newscast.  This advice applies more to morning shows which are often plagued with strings of script errors that tend to be carried forward from hour-to-hour.  It can be difficult to change a bunch of issues live and “on the fly.”  If you end up stumbling, chances are management will blame you instead of the producer.  It may not be right, but I saw it happen time and again.  It is wrong on management’s part, but its reality and it does happen.  Better to push through, keep your trouble riddled scripts, then go to management after the newscast and show how many errors were in the newscasts.  Change what you realistically can, but stay smooth, authoritative and commanding on-air.  I know this is very uncomfortable and feels wrong, but when you are stuck with a producing team that cannot get its newscasts written in time, you the anchor can only do so much.  Your job is to make the information look good on-air.  That means smooth reads, period.  Management needs to fix the underlying problem so you can do your job better.  If management refuses, you know you aren’t working for a quality organization and need to take steps to protect yourself.

I could not help but smile recently when a producer tweeted and asked for ideas to keep energy levels up during newscasts.  I immediately thought of all the late night football and baseball games I sat through, praying it would just end and wondering if I would fall asleep driving home.  I also thought of my first gig as a morning show producer, where I had to pace around the station just before the newscast so I would be somewhat functional in the booth.

Keeping energy levels up during these newscasts is the burden of both the anchors and producers.  Heck, the reporters and photojournalists have to stay awake also.  It’s brutal at times, I know.  But there are ways to energize even when your body is screaming, “Must sleep now!!!”

Energizing newscasts

  • Write how anchors talk
  • Have anchors write some stories
  • Trade reads
  • Add stories, even if there are not any breakers
  • Jokes and music blasts
  • Get up, stand up

In “How to get inside your anchors heads” we list quite a few techniques to help write how your anchor talks.  This is important for anchors to keep their energy levels up.  Sometimes when it all feels forced, and you are tired, it is easy to sort of give up and just muddle through the copy.  Using phrases the anchor likes helps the anchor own it and raises energy levels.

It works even better if you have the anchors write some of the stories they will read.  Producers, look at that line again.  Have anchors write stories they will read.  Sure once in a while you will have to change reads, and the writing won’t work out.  I usually asked my anchors to write stories lower in the newscast where energy levels dipped, and the chance of read changes went way down.  The point is your anchor will deliver the copy better if it is truly “theirs.”  It provides a level of ownership that helps the anchor be more engaged throughout the newscast.  Producers, this can make your job a little easier also.  No, not just because it can ease up the writing load.  This is one of the first techniques I used to raise meter numbers in weak spots.  Often there is a correlation with anchor energy levels and newscast ratings dipping.  Sometimes the answer really is simple.  Get the anchors more involved in that section of your newscast.

Another trick is to mix things up a bit and trade reads if you see the anchors energy levels dipping.  Hit the commercial break, then tell the anchors and crew you are switching reads for the block.  The first few times you might get some complaints, but often doing this hypes up everyone’s energy levels a bit and you get a tighter, more energetic block.  I would not use this technique every day.  But if you have had several slow newscasts, try this technique on and off to keep everyone guessing a little bit.

A producer tweeted that she adds stories throughout her morning show, even if there are no breakers, just to keep everyone sharp.  I have used this technique also.  This is easy to do if you have an AP. If you don’t have one, write a few extra vo’s or vo/sots before the show and have the editors prepare them.  Throw them in the bottom of the rundown after the end break so they don’t whack your timing.  The editors can have these stories cut and ready just in case.  This is also a great way to protect yourself in case a live crew has technical issues.  If your anchors ad lib well, give them a story once in a while on the fly.  This helps keep them in practice for when you get slammed with breakers.

I used to joke with live crews and anchors, when appropriate during newscasts.  Usually I joked around with crews in the commercial break before the block that contained their live hit.  It broke the ice a bit and would perk them up.  Just be tasteful and don’t drag it out.  One liners are great!  A quick blast of a guitar solo in the ifb also perked everyone up.  Again, not a good idea to do to anchors or live crews during the news block.  But many times your crews, you and your audio person have a few seconds during commercial breaks.

When all else fails tell everyone to get up and jump or twist or walk during commercial breaks.  That little bit of movement really does help.  When the lead-in was a sports event I liked scripting more anchor pitches in standing positions if possible.  I used to demand more walk and talks from live reporters as well.  It just helps when you move around.

So next time everyone’s wiped out and its airtime, try some of these tricks.  It might wake everyone up, just in time!

By now you have read plenty about this case.  You may have even written and/or voiced over stories about it.  There are a lot of compelling articles that explain what we TV journalists have done right and especially wrong while covering the Martin shooting.  I am not going there.  Instead I am going to explain why this case can and more than likely will end up defining your career in some way.

This is the type of story and event that truly tests the limits of journalism.  It tests the ability to be objective.  It tests news philosophies.  It tests personal ethics while on the job.  For this reason, I strongly encourage you to keep a file of everything you read, watch and write about the case.  Just file it all away.  Write notes about any conflicts within you and add these thoughts to your file.  Keep copies of your favorite stories you watched, and the ones you liked the least.  Write notes on what you like and do not like about the coverage.  The reason:  As this case plays out, your views on ethics and philosophy will likely change a lot.  So will the critics.  We will talk about how this case was covered for years to come.  Professors worth their salt are already beginning to track and possibly discuss it with future journalists.

The Martin case will become a litmus test for many news companies and news managers as they continue trying to shape what television news is becoming.  There are too many hot button issues in it for the case not to become more than a story that simply comes and goes.  Those issues will come up as managers consider newsroom policies on everything from fact checking affiliate copy to social media policy.  For this reason, it will serve as the perfect talking point when feeling out the news philosophy at a station where you are interviewing.  This case is so big, every news management team has likely had to make some sort of ethical call on it already.  It will not be the last time either.  Asking pointed questions about the Martin case to a news director or AND when you are job interviewing will be a good way to feel out their personal journalistic integrity also.  Are you both in sync?

The Martin case is also a good litmus test for you to gauge your own value system and journalistic work.  As you go into difficult scenarios in the future, draw on what you thought was done correctly in the Martin case.  Remind yourself of the ethical issues that arose when coverage was less than thorough.  It is a good reminder to us all that we cannot ever get too comfortable or too numb while covering stories.  There are often many layers.  Do we get to them, or leave them buried?  Do we jump to conclusions?  Have you?  Really asking yourself and current and future news bosses these questions will help you define yourself as a journalist.  It will help you brand yourself.  It will help you weed out stations that may vary too much from your news philosophy.  With examination, personally and as a professional group, the Martin case could help us define what TV News should be, and will become.

You would think asking questions would be the easiest part of a TV journalists job.  We are paid to ask them all day long, so we should be experts, right?  Yet it is nearly impossible to watch a newscast and not see very strange and uncomfortable Q and A’s.  We recently discussed those pesky consultant/management mandates that say you must have the anchor ask the reporter a question going into a live shot (see “What’s with the question”).  Now let’s talk about required questions in live tags.

First a comment to managers and producers that think this must happen after every live shot no matter what:  Is this a cheap copout?  Yes, there is a tone in my question.  There is good reason.  The nature of many news philosophies is to exploit, and I would argue create, tension in Q and A.  We want spirited debate.  We want to expose the swindler.  We want to play out the anger in the situation.  We want to separate fact from fiction.  These are great elements to make great TV, no arguments there.  But what is the point of Q and A between anchors and reporters?  It’s team building.  Here is a wild and crazy idea:  Could these mandated questions actually make it seem like the team is working against each other?

To clarify, I am talking about Q and A out of basic news of the day stories.  I’m not talking about breaking news.  Q and A is very natural and frankly expected by the audience in breaking news.  In this article we are talking about Q and A found at the end of live reports about school budget cuts, ongoing court cases, follow ups to yesterday’s big fire.  These are the stories that can really be bundled up in nice little packages.  The facts are not changing minute-by-minute and therefore do not need clarifying.  In other words, the reporter doesn’t really need the anchor to back them up and make sure the information was clear because new facts are constantly coming in.

We’re talking about Q and A scripted after the event that the reporter is covering is finished.  Stories that give viewers insight into what happened.  In these run of the mill situations, the questions often come across as forced and, if you really think about it, often make either the anchor or the reporter seem clueless about a given fact.

In order to script effective Q and A in the tag to a live shot, you must first really understand the role of both the anchor and the reporter TO THE VIEWER.  The anchor must be more than the “pretty” person sitting on the desk, telling the reporter what to do.  This is how many Q and A’s come across:  The boss (anchor) is quizzing to see if the worker (reporter) did his/her assignment and understands the material.  Is this team building?  What is the anchor to the viewer?

At stations where the anchors are very highly regarded, you find that viewers consider the anchor to be their voice, their advocate.  Viewers say, “The anchor looks out for my community. He/she asks what I am thinking.” Reporters are the eyewitnesses that show viewers what’s happening in their town or neighborhood, and demand the truth.  So when you have an anchor ask a reporter a pointed question that can seem adversarial toward the reporter, you lessen the credibility of the reporter a bit.  Then there’s the other common type of scripted question:  the softball.  Since many producers and reporters are under intense time constraints, the mandated questions are often after thoughts.  They become trivial questions that make the anchor look like he/she isn’t paying attention to the issue being discussed.  No, you don’t want the anchor picking a fight with the reporter.  You also don’t want the anchor coming off as having sat in “la la land” for the last 2 minutes and being clueless about the issue.  The viewer assumes the anchor has a clue about the story being discussed.  Remember the anchor is the viewer’s advocate.  So asking, “Hey Joe Schmo when’s the next council meeting if people want to attend?” is a throwaway.  It’s information that’s too basic.  If you are required to script a question, have the anchor ask something like, “Joe, if people really want to speak before council at the next meeting on the 7th, what do they need to do?” This shows the anchor knows there’s another meeting, and is thinking about concrete facts the viewers need to know to have a voice.  Then the reporter, who demands truth, has the answer.  The question is in no way adversarial between anchor and reporter.  Each role is clearly defined in the exchange.

That, my friends, is the key to scripting Q and A in live tags.  First and foremost remember the role of the anchor to the viewer and the role of the reporter to the viewer.  It will help make sure mandated questions do not come off seeming forced as often.  Have the anchor ask questions so that the viewer can gain more control of the situation or move forward with the facts presented.  Have the fact finder, eyewitness reporter, show the viewer the situation or explain the fact.

*Anchors if you are told to “just put questions in” you need to actually call the reporters.  Don’t assume you know the story.  Often you are wrong and the reporter is trying to keep you from looking like a moron. (Check out the Art of ad-lib and On the spot, when anchors put you in uncomfortable positions articles.)

As for producers or managers who mandate these Q and A’s every time, without fail, there are other ways to build team.  And, keep in mind, viewers like variety.  Too much scripting becomes too formulaic and makes your newscast look tedious.  In conversations, there are times to ask questions and times to shut up and just listen to take it all in.  The anchor’s conversations with reporters should reflect how we actually communicate with others in “the real world.”  Sometimes we ask a question.  Sometimes we don’t.

The job description: “You will have the ability to easily and credibly ad-lib during breaking news, unexpected events in your newscast or when your teleprompter crashes.  You will also ask relevant questions of reporters during live shots that add content and help our viewers better understand stories.”

 

As an anchor, that’s a shop where I want to work.  It means management has high expectations of its anchors and believes they should not just be seen, but also heard by viewers.  That takes a lot of work.

 

The art of ad-lib requires good preparation. The best ad-libs are seldom truly spontaneous.  You have to be deeply involved in the content of your newscast.

 

I used to work for a news director who, correctly, prohibited scripted questions because nothing sounds more canned.  So, I would talk with our reporters ahead of time about their story content to see what nugget of information we could discuss on the air unscripted.  That accomplished several things.  It helped me understand their stories better.  If I had to listen to a producer changing the rundown during the live shot, I still had a pretty good idea what the reporter was saying.  Also, a solid expected question gives the reporter a chance to shine with the answer.  She looks good and so do you.

 

The “unexpected” during a newscast comes in many forms, but you can still prepare for a lot of it simply by understanding what could be coming your way.  A few nights ago, a large fight with 400 people involved happened in a tiny town in our viewing area.  Before she went on the air, one of our anchors thought to look up the population of the town so she could calculate the percentage living there involved in the fight.  She was prepared to extend the live shot with our reporter if needed.  Brilliant, because that’s exactly what happened.

 

Your preparation is your responsibility.  Unless you’re working for a network morning show, no one gives you a briefing book.

 

One of the things that helps is to ask the question, how much of this newscast could I really ad lib if I had to?  Not many of us can memorize a newscast, but understanding the content will carry you through a lot when the prompter crashes on the first story…like mine did last night.

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Cameron Harper is an evening anchor/reporter at WPTY, Memphis.  He has won numerous awards and his motto on Twitter is “the teleprompter is only a suggestion.”  Check him out at www.cameronharper.com and you can follow him on Twitter @NewsCam.

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