I recently got a message posing this question:  “Why do anchors so often make strange comments at the end of live shots  that are nearly impossible for a reporter to gracefully respond to.”  Examples you ask? Okay, see if these sound familiar.  A live shot ends about something very sad, like a murder and the anchor says: “Great job, Joe Schmo, reporting live downtown.”  What’s great?  Someone died!  Another common scenario:  The reporter tags out with a fact like a vote scheduled in council tomorrow and the anchor parrots the very same fact like this: “You know Joe Schmo, the vote is tomorrow.” Joe the reporter is stuck thinking: “Yeah, idiot, I just said that.” and stares at the screen with a look of confusion.  The final example, Joe the reporter explains an element of the story in the live intro or within the package, wraps up, then on the two shot out the anchor asks about that same element, like it was never addressed.  The reporter is thinking: “Didn’t you listen to what I just said?”  Usually that quizzical look is on his face, on live TV.

So let’s look at why this happens, then try and keep it from happening again.  The “why” is usually tied to one of two things:

  1. The need for the last word, to tie things up and transition.
  2. Questions required in tags, by management, for interaction.

Let’s make it clear, in my experience, the need for the last word is not always an ego thing.  The anchor may not be trying to act all knowing.  Anchors often feel compelled to compliment reporters or reinforce team.  They sometimes just don’t have very good timing.  Hence the “Great job Joe Schmo” comments after a story about a murder.  Instead of focusing on the story, the anchor is complimenting the reporter and it just comes off as weird.  The intentions are good, but it doesn’t make the reporter feel complimented at all and leaves the viewers wondering what just happened.

Often anchors are ordered to make say something out of live shots, while in a double box.  This can be mandated by management or producers who are taught to start and end live shots on double boxes, period.  Sometimes this leads to the anchor getting stuck with nothing relevant to say while trying to transition.  The end result is a weird comment parroting back facts the reporter just said and hoping it sounds different enough that it passes for a real reaction.

While we are on the subject of double box live tag outs, producers take note, scripting “Thanks Joe Schmo” is not always the best route.  It sets up the inane comment scenario.  Suggestion:  Tell the anchor to call the reporter and ask for a factoid they can bring up in the double box.

Notice, I did not say ask for a question.  That call should vary depending on the story and what the reporter knows about the subject.  Often the most uncomfortable moments between an anchor and reporter are during a q and a in a live tag.  Over time, I saw these q and a’s go awry most often when management required a question coming out of every live shot.  I could (and probably will) go on and on about why scripting tag questions every time is bad in a future article.  For now a summary:   Sometimes it makes sense to ask a question, sometimes it is better to share a factoid the anchor can state quickly for emphasis.  Both the reporter and anchor should not be blindsided.  These double box interactions work best if the reporter and anchor can work them out together.  Also, don’t be afraid to end a live shot, then do a two shot transition to a new subject.  You can create team interactions other ways.  Something like this:

((Joe Bob – 2 shot))

Thanks Joe Schmo, Suzie, there’s a similar situation in Atlanta tonight.

((Suzie Q -2 shot))

There is  Joe… and it’s causing problems for a lot of people.

((Suzie turns to 1 shot))

See Anchor’s don’t have chemistry for more on how to work these two shot transitions.

Now, let’s look at more solutions to prevent these “on the spot” moments.  Anchors, it is human nature to want to tie up a conversation with a thank you or a compliment.  Just be cognizant of what the subject is about.  Think about talking with a friend about a tragedy in his/her life, the end of the conversation might be silence.  It might also be a shake of the head.  That is appropriate at the end of a live shot as long as you are really feeling the emotion.  If you are just plain uncomfortable, ask the producer not to script a two shot for that particular tag and explain that you are uncomfortable.  Just remember, if the subject is heavy, that is not the time to tell the reporter “Great job.”  Send a text after the show instead.  Reporters, if the anchor does say great job, nodding your head and saying nothing else is fine.  Reporters also do not have to have the last word.  Let the emotion ride a second in the silence.  It may seem counterintuitive in a business where you are paid to talk, but it is more natural to the way we communicate in the real world.

If the anchor asks about something the reporter just said, it is best for the reporter to briefly summarize with an added tidbit.  You might say, “Yes Suzie, that council vote I referenced earlier will be at 7, and they’re expecting a big crowd, so you might want to come early if you want a seat.”  This lessens the “Huh, he already said that!” blow.  If you cannot add anything when you summarize, just say “That’s right.” and wrap.

Finally, if the anchor says something really out there and you don’t know what to do, just sig out.  Viewers are used to seeing reporters not react to things anchors say and will likely assume you couldn’t hear the anchor or there was a technical difficulty.  That assumption, and slightly tense moment is better than fumbling through a response that just doesn’t make sense and/or being visibly uncomfortable.  Then make sure the producer knows what happened, so everyone can trouble shoot in the future.  Bottom line, there needs to be communication between anchors, producers and reporters to avoid putting a reporter “on the spot” the next night.

 

I recently saw a producer tweeting about his frustration over this predicament.  A reporter on a live shot didn’t call in scripts, then, the live shot died.  That means no backup.  The anchors do not have a little information to draw from and then move on.  So they are stuck saying: “Sorry about the technical difficulty.  We’ll get back to so and so when we can.”  Losing a live shot and having to do a mea culpa is a big deal.  Viewers do not like waiting for something they were promised and then not getting it.  Think about it, neither do you.  It is so easy to hit the remote and never look back.

For this reason many stations have policies that require reporters to turn in complete scripts to the producer before the newscast airs.  This means actual written copy for their live standups.  With Smart Phones, laptops and remote access this should be easy.  But some shops still do not have the technology synched up.

In every station where I worked several reporters fought this tooth and nail.  If you want to get on a producer’s bad side, this is the way to do it.  In a breaking news situation everyone understands reporters are just trying to make air.  Producers gladly take the risk and go to you without a script.  But when you are just doing day-to-day news, providing your script should be doable in some form.  I used four techniques as a producer to eliminate the problem of not getting them.

Getting reporter backup scripts

  • Email script for copy paste or transcription
  • Backup vo/sot required
  • AP writes backup from earlier show
  • Staggered script deadlines

In some stations where I worked the reporters were turning two packages on two different subjects every day.  If they could not just write in the rundown, I would give them the option to email me the approved script so I, or my AP, could move it over.  I understood every second counted for these reporters.  They can’t help if the technology was such that there was no way to write directly into the rundown.

In cases where the reporter had one package a day, I required a backup vo/sot be written and sent to my AP.  That way if the package didn’t make it, or we had to push it aside for a breaker, we had something to go to.  For my feisty reporters that didn’t appreciate being asked to do that, I had the nightside producer or morning show producer call and request a vo/sot.  The reporter wanted to get home and would usually write it up quickly.  The other producer got a vo/sot they may or may not ever use and I got a backup!

If the reporter is turning several packages, he/she is legitimately too swamped to turn in backups for producers.  In that case I had my AP write backups from earlier newscasts, just in case.

Finally, if reporters were willing to send in backups, I was willing to be more flexible on feed deadlines.  I would stagger when pkgs were due, then let the reporter voice before turning in a final approved script and/or vosot backups.  I wanted to give reporters more breathing room and a chance to focus on their  packages.

Reporters, if you really want to befriend a producer, provide your live scripts every day.  If the technology makes this nearly impossible, then at least call into the producer or AP with a sound bite so they can try to write a backup.  You will make a loyal ally.  Scripts and potential backups are in the best interest of the show and everyone’s credibility.

 

It was early on a Saturday morning. But weekday anchors up and down the East Coast were in their respective newsrooms waiting on a big story to arrive named Hurricane Irene.

As I waited for my on-air shift to begin, I was multitasking as usual: reading over the scripts the producers had written, watching a stream of storm updates cascade down Tweetdeck, and listening to a friend’s broadcast over the internet as he prepared the viewers in his market for what was to come.

Then it happened — that cringe-worthy moment all of us anchors dread. The voice on the phone stopped talking. But my friend was caught off-guard and had no idea what the man had been saying. Producers were talking in his IFB at the time and he was caught with his proverbial pants down on live TV.

What’s worse is that all that chatter over the IFB prevented him from doing his #1 job in a time of crisis: being a reporter. Yes, he was chained to the desk. But that phone was his — and his viewers’ — lifeline to late breaking information about a story that was changing minute-by-minute.

If an anchor isn’t able to hear a phoner or a reporter on a satellite shot in a breaking news situation, he quickly falls behind. In subsequent ad-libs, he can sound disconnected, out-of-touch, and out-of-date.

Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence even on network television. And it’s just as likely to happen during a satellite interview any day of the week.

There are no easy answers for how to make sure the magic happening behind-the-scenes doesn’t intrude on the viewer who’s just trying to find out what’s going on and whether her family is threatened.

But let me throw-out some ideas:

Bring in the interns! It’s the excitement they’ve been waiting for anyway. All those mornings of filling-up the printers and opening the lobby doors for studio guests should at least have this payoff. For goodness sakes, let’s ask them the day before if they’d be willing to help us with our breaking news coverage. I bet they’d love it. (And if they don’t show much enthusiasm they should find another career.)

Use them as runners. To reduce the amount of chatter producers engage in over IFB, I say go old school. Station at least one intern right next to the producer in the control room. Arm them with a stack of paper or a small dry erase board. Have them run routine messages (like the names and titles of guests coming up or the latest statistics on the story you’re covering) to the anchor desk. As an anchor, I want my mic to be hot so I can interrupt or question the person on the phone or the reporter out in the field at any time. So I can’t talk. And I really need to hear what’s being said over-the-air. But I’ve still got my eyes and my hands. When I see I’m off-camera, I can look at what the intern is presenting me, write down any questions or concerns I have for the producer, and send the intern back into the control room.

If your station doesn’t usually have interns, consider an associate producer or the news junkie on the sales staff for this role. If the breaking news comes out of nowhere and you had no time to plan for it, consider the options below.

Text messaging over teleprompter. It’s breaking news. Your anchors aren’t using the teleprompter all that much anyway. Write a message at the top of the story that’s currently cued-up. “***GM has canceled ALL breaks. Stretch. Ad-lib at will! ***” It’s especially useful when you need to quickly convey street closures. “City closing these streets: Broadway from 3rd Ave to 9th Ave & Water Tower Road from Main to Robinson.” Most of us in television are visual people. We digest information easier if we see it rather than if you’re trying to tell us the details over IFB — especially if we’re in the middle of an interview.

And anchors, don’t be afraid to write down this information on-camera as you’re delivering it. The viewers know it’s an extraordinary time and you’re trying to make sure the information is accurate. So write it down. Set it aside. You’ll need to come back to it throughout your coverage. (And your producers have a lot more important things to do than regurgitate information they’ve already given you once.)

Instant messaging/“Top lining.” We have ENPS at my station and my producers are great at doing this. If my co-anchor and I are busy talking and interviewing people on-air, they’ll send us information in an instant message, which appears as the top line in ENPS.

Anchors, the judges will not deduct any points for reading detailed information off of ENPS on the computer screen on your desk. Again, it’s breaking news. They’ll understand.

Any more tips for creating smoother communication during breaking news coverage? Be sure to let us know by commenting below.

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Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor and investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.

 

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