Anchors, the title of this one is strong and may tick you off. But before you get too upset, read our previous article: “Throw me a life line, I’m being hung out to dry, AGAIN!” We are journalists after all and therefore must look at all sides!
As a producer, the largest challenge I faced without a doubt was anchors that “attacked” rather than talked through issues. It took years of frustration to figure out how to handle this. Now I want to share what I learned so other producers can relax more.
How to deal with a difficult anchor
- Know your anchors strengths and weaknesses
- Remember this person is the face of all that you do as well
- Establish your role as manager of the newscast
- If there’s a problem, take the lead and talk it through
- As a last option, fight fire with fire
I fully admit that a lot of complaints anchors brought to me were valid. But, because I was being screamed at or worse yet had to listen to the boss tell me that I screwed up, it was sometimes hard to hear the message. Most of us producers are thrown into the fire without a fireproof suit and are just trying to get out alive every day. You have to separate yourself from that chaos and listen to the message. For example, one anchor thought I gave her too many instructions before going to a breaking news story. Maddening, since producers are often told we give anchors too little information. I put my frustration aside and asked why. She explained that she was unable to formulate thoughts to ad lib and felt foolish delivering the facts. She didn’t like reading scripts cold and preferred I not write breaking news, instead give her a few facts to run with. Next time we had a breaker, I gave her what she wanted and she did a great job.
Knowing your anchors strengths and weaknesses also means you have to be able to adapt to the anchors needs. I learned which anchors could ad lib and which needed those breaking news scripts to pull off spot news. If I had an anchor that could not ad lib, I gave the ad libs to the anchor that could ad lib, then changed anchor reads so the non-ad libber did not feel left out. I learned who needed compliments in their IFB at commercial breaks. It is a delicate balance. It seems like all you do is humor people’s egos. Frankly, that is a large part of producing a winning newscast. It’s also something you need to get used to in order to have success at the highest levels.
Which leads to the next point, remember these anchors are the face of all the hard work you do each day. Your copy will not “sing” unless the anchor can “deliver” it. Your newscast will be uncomfortable to watch if your anchors are not at ease. Whether some demands are ridiculous in your opinion, is another matter. Humor enough of them to calm the anchor down so he/she can perform well. A key to doing this is to give some compliments even if you never get any in return. You want to show your anchors that you respect the jobs they do, so they gain confidence that you have their backs. This is crucial to establishing a strong team on your show. As the newscast manager this is your primary responsibility, whether you make the most money on the shift or not.
As manager of your show, you do have the right to make the decisions. If an anchor has a really unreasonable request, you can deny it. Here’s a common scenario: An hour before your newscast an anchor comes to you saying their co-anchor has more reads. You have breaking news, your reporters haven’t fed and you are behind writing. It is okay to say: “Today the show airs as formatted.” Then, after the newscast, take a look at how you divided up the anchor reads that day, as well as a few days earlier. Anchors usually do not come to you unless they have noticed an issue for a while. Most people do not like confrontation. If your reads have been a bit skewed to the other anchor, fix the issue the next day. Thank the anchor who mentioned it for coming to you. Also if you don’t know this next trick, use it. Switch off who leads the blocks every day. By the law of averages, that means by the end of the week the anchors will have a nearly even number of reads and leads. If the reads were not skewed, print out a week’s worth of rundowns, highlight the reads in different colors and talk to the anchor that’s complaining. Do not accuse the anchor of being ridiculous. Explain what you do to prevent uneven face time, then hand the anchor the highlighted rundowns and ask him/her to look them over and see if there are any issues he/she wants to discuss. This establishes that you are not a push over, you are conscientious, and you take responsibility for your newscasts. This simple chat can keep an anchor from lodging attacks. Thank the anchor for coming to you and let him/her know you are always willing to hear ways “We can make the newscast better.” Again, this will show the anchor that you are the leader of the newscast.
So what if the anchor constantly runs to management to whine about you and never comes to you directly? Remember, people do not like confrontation. If a manager comes to you with an anchor complaint, listen, then ask the manager how you should handle the problem. This shows you are willing to be proactive. Then, after the newscast ask to speak with the anchor one on one. Explain that you understand that anchor is upset about XYZ and you will do XYZ to fix the problem. Then say, “in the future if there’s a problem, please know that I am willing to listen. The best time for me to talk is right after the newscast.” Then, walk away. You want to have this conversation in case the anchor goes to management behind your back again. At that point ask your direct manager, ideally an EP, to sit with you while you talk to the anchor about the current problem and solution, and respectfully ask the anchor to come to you directly in the future. You want to let the anchor know you also have a little clout with management to even the playing field. In many shops producers are becoming more of a commodity than anchors. There are less people willing to do our job. You don’t want to abuse that knowledge, but it is helpful to subtly let the anchor know you are a valuable asset as well. It is also good to include your EP, because this person probably has years of history dealing with difficult anchors and can help diffuse the situation further or divert it to the EP instead of you.
Finally, if you have a really difficult anchor, and no other choice, fight fire with fire. Tell your EP ahead of time and stand up for yourself. If you are being hazed, read our previous article: “Thank you sir, may I have another: How to handle newsroom hazing.” One anchor of mine, refused to get to the set on time. So, I took her out of the entire a-block and ended up with her screaming at me in the News Director’s office. The ND told me to include her from then on, and I told them both that I would when she was professional enough to get to the set 5 minutes before the newscast began, not 5 minutes after. The ND turned to the anchor and said, “ That is a basic request.” I won a big battle. The daily attacks stopped. I also made a weather anchor that constantly ran exceedingly long on weather apologize to the audience for running so long that we could not air a story that was teased the entire show. He was 30 years my senior. But, I told him over the studio PA that he needed to take responsibility like the rest of us do each day and he went with it. We came back from commercial and he offered an eloquent apology.
If you take one thing away from this article, make it this: When you feel it’s “anchor’s away”, and you are about to be the brunt of a brutal tongue lashing, keep your cool. Write down the anchor’s complaint and reasoning. Give yourself a few minutes to breathe and relax and actually look at the situation from the anchor’s perspective. You may learn some valuable lessons about putting on a better newscast.