How to “go big” on national breaking news

Producing, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on How to “go big” on national breaking news
Jan 242013

A producer recently emailed asking about ways to handle big, breaking national stories.  Do you sacrifice local and fill the a-block?  How without offending the viewer who might want a lot of local?  What a great topic, since it is so easy to go online and on cable news and get that national story.  So let’s delve in to ways to do this, without offending local viewers.  Also, I would love to hear your feedback on whether you think going big on a national story, locally, is effective since social media and online news are so relevant now.  Please go to our FB page and talk about it.  This debate will continue to grow as TV redefines its role.  When you discuss it, consider these key points.  They can help you decide how much to do on large scale national stories during your local newscast.

  • Viewers are used to getting news at this time of day, from you
  • Viewers feel a connection to your anchors

 

Both of the points listed above come down to one important point, when deciding how to cover a big national story:  Trust.  Viewers trust their familiar, local, anchors and like checking in that time of the day with those anchors.  They are prepared to see your anchors giving them the most important news at that time.  That’s why so many newsrooms go big, even when the story is not local.

The producer that emailed me specifically mentioned the Newtown school shootings.  This is a different scenario than the fiscal cliff, which is easy to localize.  The day of the shootings, you are still figuring out what the basic facts are, so localizing can be a little more difficult.  Blowing out an assumption, to turn local angles can backfire.  So localize as much as you can but, do not feel you must have a lot of local tie-ins in order to go big.  Large market producers will tell you this is an opportunity to let your anchors own the big story, just like a local breaker.  That means avoiding a national package.  If you are allowed to get a live shot from the affiliate feed, go for a custom and let your anchors debrief the anchors with questions you think your viewers would want answered.  Make sure you have a set up spelling out the basic facts and setting the scene, so the viewer understands the scope.  This can be done with vo/sots, a package you write for your anchors, or a combination of nat sound, vo’s, vo/sots and graphics.  Do what you need to really spell the story out in an effective way for your viewers.  The point is owning the story, instead of seeming to hand it off to a network reporter and moving on.  Handing it off can encourage a viewer to switch channels.  Remember, the viewer has a trust connection with your anchors.  They can tell the story well, and should.

When you can add tidbits of local reaction, do it.  Let your anchors help you find this information out.  It really is an effective technique to have your anchor say something like, “I just called so and so, and that agency would handle a situation like this, the same way.”  Again, your anchor is acting as an advocate for the viewer, let them ask the questions the viewers would love to ask themselves.  Let the anchor “own the story.”  The viewer trusts the anchor and wants to see him/her in that role.

Another solid technique is letting the viewer know about local stories coming up, and when they will see them during this national coverage.  Some mention it as an umbrella lead and some do it with teases off the top of the newscast.  Some just have the anchors mention there is a lot of local news coming up in 5 minutes.  That way, viewers know you are also on top of the “big” local news of the day as well.

The key when determining how much coverage to give a big national story is the potential impact it will have on your viewers.  For example, the Newtown school shootings were so shocking, viewers would crave information.  By not covering it much, you would actually encourage viewers, used to watching news at that time, to switch channels.  The viewer’s gut feeling would be “This is a huge story, I need to know about.”  They want to learn the information from journalists they trust.  You can encourage them to further believe that it is your anchors and reporters they need to trust.  Do not just shove a national pkg off a feed into the a-block and let it go.  Let your anchors ask the questions the viewers want answered.  Continue to build the trust. That way when a big story happens, your viewers will turn to your newscast first, no matter where the story came from.

Suck them in: How to start off teases.

Producing, Survival Kit, Tease Writing Comments Off on Suck them in: How to start off teases.
Dec 102012

How often have you watched a newscast and the teases at the end of a block made you have to watch a little longer?  Be honest.  Chances are you really have to rack your brain to remember a time and a tease.  The reason:  Most teases are horribly written.  They immediately start out on a two shot, with the anchors saying “coming up” or “next on.” Let’s not mince words, that’s an instant fail and a viewer turn off.  Viewers will not stick around.  The viewer thinks, “Cue commercial! Let’s see what the other channel has.” or just turns off the TV altogether.

So how do you suck them in?  First of all, get rid of two shots at the top of teases.  You can use a two shot other places, like the story before the tease.  Next, ban the terms “coming up” and “next on.”  You can time reference other ways, and later in the tease.  Instead, think of why you picked the story to tease in the first place.  Is the video jaw dropping?  Is the nat sound awesome?  Is there a surprising twist to the story?  Start there.  Hammer the sell, head on, right away.

Now take some of the compelling video and show it off right away.  Think, VO off the top or NATS VO,  right away.  Play the image twice if it is quick.  Showcase, showcase, showcase!  Just don’t explain every bit of what the viewer sees.  Let’s say a plane makes an incredible emergency landing and you have video of it happening.  You can show the landing, and tease an interesting element, like “What the pilot almost hit going down.” or “Why he/she had to land.” I recently saw a tease about a tattoo parlor.  The producer wove nats of the tattoo needle buzzing throughout.  The needle sound was up full at the start, then lower while the anchor read, and finally up full again at the end.  That alone sucked me in.  The sound is captivating and makes you more excited to see the story.

What if the story is interesting, but you don’t have any good sound or video?  Again, avoid the two shot and play on the human element right away.  If the story is about a family’s brave battle with an illness, show the family and hit on how “Their story may make you want to hug your own children.”  Show a close up of a child doing an amazing thing and say, “You are about to meet Sally, and she is going to teach you a thing or two.”

Now let’s address why so many teases start off with “coming up” or “next on.”  You do need to time reference that the story will appear later, just don’t do it off the top of the tease.  If you work in a shop with graphics that say coming up, either pop them in after the tease is underway, or don’t reference the animation with your copy.  You have to impress the viewer right away.  That is more important than referencing an animation.

A final thought:  Treat the start of your teases the way you would the beginning of an actual story.  Do not put “giveaways” that a tease is coming, like two shots or use old, cliché, phrases.  That alone will help you suck viewers in.

This is the ultimate challenge for tease writers.  Sell the story without making the content into more than it really is.  Truth be told, exaggerations happen every day, in nearly every newscast.  So what’s the big deal you ask?  One word:  Credibility.  Many of us were taught that viewers are not very savvy.  I even had one manager tell me over and over: “People are stupid, remember that.”  Thing is, people aren’t as “stupid” as you might think.  They also have the world at their fingertips now with so many websites to mine through.  Between Twitter, StumbleUpon, Reddit and Digg plus increasingly incredible hyper-local news sites like everyblock.com, it is easy to bypass local TV for your news and even easier to fact check local news.

The second statement is extremely important to keep in mind as you write teases.  If you exaggerate, chances are your viewers will figure out you inflated the story.  If viewers don’t trust you, they don’t watch you.  Teases are a crucial area where you make or break your relationship.

So here are some tried and true relationship builders to consider when teasing.

•             The power of video and sound outweighs any copy you can write

•             Use adjectives sparingly

•             Avoid clichés

•             Look for irony

•             Speak to the viewer without assuming you know what they are thinking

Great video is a must in teasing.  You will hear this over and over throughout your career.  Frankly, that’s obvious.  So let’s talk video in general.  When teasing, all kinds of video can be very effective.  Sometimes when I had to tease a crime story where the scene was cleared… I would still take a live picture of the scene and say something like:  “This looks like a nice neighborhood where children are often at play.  Today you see no one around.  That’s because something happened in this house, the whole neighborhood must deal with. “If a crime happens in a neighborhood everyone there considers it in some way.  It changes the perspective of the neighborhood for a while.  By not saying what the crime was right away, there’s some drama in the tease without exaggerating.  You also can show a person’s photograph and hang on it a few seconds.  Ask the viewer to really look at this person.  Then, describe why the photo is relevant.  Let’s say it’s a professor who developed a medical breakthrough.  You could write:  “This man had an idea that just wouldn’t leave his mind.  Now that idea could change the way you take some kinds of medicine.”  This also works for government stories that viewers should care about, but have trouble putting into perspective. Put a face on it, even if it’s a still shot.

Natural sound is also effective. You can occasionally use silence to make a point.  Let’s take a crime in a shopping center for example.  Sometimes I would show the empty parking lot and resulting quiet and reference it:  “This is normally a bustling parking lot, with people running in and out of stores, now listen (take nats of quiet). So much quiet in the middle of the day.  It’s all because of what happened last night.”  I also used to play up sound of a meeting for a few seconds before describing a significant development.  The natural sound is so different from the anchor’s voice, it draws the ear to help you get the viewer’s attention.  Knowing you caught their attention, can make you less likely to use very strong adjectives to enhance your copy.

When writing teases we are taught that this is the one place you can use adjectives and play up your copy.  While true, you still need to be reasonable when teasing.  Do not overwrite or exaggerate in order to make your copy sound awesome.  It always surprises me how often this disconnect happens.  While an EP, I would quiz producers on why such strong language was used in a tease and would get the standard answer, “It sounds so cool.”  You are not in a creative writing contest.  You are writing things that affect people’s lives.  I am not saying this to preach.  The idea that everything you write can, and does, directly impact people has to be front of mind, especially when teasing.  This is why I would still restrict the use of adjectives when my producers wrote teases.  Sure they got to use them more than when writing news copy.  I just wanted producers to keep in mind that even teases are a type of news copy, especially if you are writing a tease about a crime, a controversial new law or government waste.  If you exaggerate the story with too many adjectives in a tease, you will reduce your stations credibility.  So use adjectives, just consider which ones closely when writing teases about these subjects.

This leads to clichés like: a shocking crime, a startling discovery or a horrific disaster.  These phrases need to disappear from your bag of tricks.  If a crime is truly shocking, describing an element of it will be more effective than saying a “shocking” crime.  When writing teases always look for the human element  (see article “You’re Hooked“)  or if the story is really hard to tease use teasing techniques we described in “ Ultimate Tease Challenge” to help you get around the difficulty in teasing the story.

A tried and true technique that will not offend viewers is the appropriate use of irony.  This technique showcases the emotional side of stories that are hard to tease without exaggerating.  It is an effective way to connect with the viewer without overselling your content and overwriting a tease.  If you need examples, let’s look again to the video of the empty neighborhood where a crime occurred earlier.  “This looks like a nice neighborhood where children play.  Today no one is around.  That’s because something happened in this house, the whole neighborhood must deal with. “Two techniques were used here:  The use of video and some irony.   All of us need quick go to techniques when tease writing under the high pressure of a news day.  Irony is one that is often underused despite being extremely effective.  The key is talking with your crews and learning enough about stories to find the irony.  If you are really under pressure ask your crew point blank, is any element of this story ironic?  It can be a quick way to write a compelling tease under pressure.

Finally, do not assume you know what the viewer is thinking.  Phrases like “You won’t believe” or “This will shock you” need to be eliminated from your bag of tricks.  They are overused and, frankly, talk down to the viewer.  People think all kinds of things.  You cannot “get into heads.”  Use the techniques we listed above and remember that you have no idea what viewers are doing at home when hearing your tease.  This will help you write intelligent teases that enhance credibility and reel viewers in to watch more of your work.

 

 

We’ve all seen them: A tease that grabs you and doesn’t let you go.  You swear at the TV because you will just have to be late to work or get to bed a few minutes late.  You have to know.  Think about that.  You have to know.  Write that phrase on a sticky note to place on your computer.  It is rule number one to excellent tease writing:  “You have to know.”

Before we dish tips, let’s quantify something.  Being a good writer and being a good tease writer do not always go hand in hand.  Writing good teases is an art form.  It is something you need to push to improve upon every day. This goes for producers, reporters, promotion writers, even news managers.  Because teases are so crucial, we will delve into the topic on and off for several articles.  Just like we mentioned in “Rule the Word” attending seminars on Saturdays at the station will not give you all you need.

So let’s start with the phrase “You have to know.”  When you start your shift and stare at a blank rundown keep that phrase in mind.  It is a great way to select stories for key meter points to tease.  As you and news management select where these stories go, mine the content for fascinating elements.  Great video, an interesting fact, and strong viewer benefit are good examples.  We’re talking about the stuff you want to tweet about or top line to someone else.  Those are the elements in stories you need to tease in your newscast.  Take the best elements from these stories and put them in a script at the top or bottom of your rundown.  Then, when a phrase about one of those compelling elements pops in your head, put it into that catchall script.

Now let’s expand on some things great tease writers do each day.

  • Write tease elements all shift long
  • Hide teases
  • Add flash without exaggerating

We just told you about the important catch all script at the top or bottom of your rundown where you can stash potential tease elements.  Again, write as many of these elements as you can in this script as ideas come to mind throughout your day.  Don’t forget the traditional things you are taught about teases.  Look for emotional connections, a viewer benefit, and remember your station’s news philosophy as you write.  Look for unique elements.  As you do this, throw in notes from conversations you are having with reporters about their stories.  Write down what sticks in your head about these elements in your catchall script.  Again, these are the need to know elements you will share with viewers.

A quick note to reporters, you should also mine your stories for great tease elements as you go through your day.  Increasingly reporters are becoming responsible for tease elements being fed into the station for promotions and teases within a newscast.  Make note of great sound and pictures so you can hand them over to a producer or promotions writer quickly.  After all, you want your story played up because it helps you too.  If a cool line about your story comes to mind, share it with the producer or EP.

The other reason producers want to “write” teases all shift long is that the elements you throw in that catchall script can help you shape all of your writing.  Some of the cool video, partnered with compelling phrases might not make it as a tease, but it might become the first line of a vo or vo/sot you write.  Everything a producer writes is designed to draw in audience.  Maybe a phrase you wrote in your catchall will become a transition line between stories on a two shot.

Which leads to our next point:  Hide teases.  Some consultants call this “stealth teasing.”  We are going to take it a little further.  Think of hiding teases in two ways.  “Hiding” teases means:  1) Throwing in tease lines about something coming up in non-traditional places.  2) Using the same kind of tease writing in leads for stories.

The first way producers hide teases is placing a line about something coming up in a place a viewer would not expect.  Take the middle of the a-block for example.  You can write a vo about your 30 lead and give viewers some interesting information, then tease a specific viewer benefit for later.  Another interesting place is within anchor chat.  Have the anchors mention something coming up seemingly “off the cuff” after a similar type story.  A favorite technique of mine is to go directly from a story into a compelling piece of natural sound and video to kick off a tease that is pre-produced with a lot of sound and cool graphics.  Consider it a mini package or a second cold open type deal with several elements.  Make suer you mix up where this appears in your rundown. (i.e. – the b-block one day, the 38 block some other time depending on where your best video lies.)

Now let’s expand on using tease writing in leads for stories.  If a story within, say, the middle of your b-block has great video, segment it out and include a tease type element at the beginning.  This will hook the audience and provide all important instant gratification.  Here’s an illustration:  Let’s say you have a story about a fire where someone was rescued and you have incredible sound from the person saved.  Tease it in the beginning of the story by playing some of the sound.  In other words, reverse the order of the story.  Do the payoff sound first, then showcase the cool elements leading up to the great sound.  It would look something like this:

See this man? (OTS graphic of the man, or take it fullscreen) He could have died in a fire today. (Bite) “I thought I was a goner then I felt someone pulling me by the arm.” Then do your vo. “Here’s the house where it happened…”etc. Finish with a bite from the survivor expanding on the first sound, something like: “I just couldn’t believe that someone braved the smoke to save me.” This makes your newscast more interesting throughout and makes your teases more natural to the viewer when they do appear at the end of a block.  They’ve seen that you will make it worth their while to stick around.  You showed them you deliver with a tease type element, in a segmented part of the show, just moments before.

The example above also gives you an idea of how to add flash to teases without exaggerating.  We will dedicate another article to techniques for avoiding exaggerating when writing teases later.  For now, let’s focus on proper ways to add flash.  One way that is fun for promotions writers and producers who do cold opens is to base graphics and writing style on the lead-in to your newscast. For example, if a court show comes before you and there’s a strong legal type story, start the cold open with sound of a gavel.  Then you can use the same gavel sound to break up each element in the tease.  This is also effective for topicals, just don’t make it a crutch every single time “CSI” or “Law and Order” airs.

Graphics can be compelling if you lack video, but the story has viewer benefit.  If you do this, you have to spell that benefit out on screen.  Case in point, the phrase “saves you money” will get many people to watch in these hard economic times.  Just make sure you can deliver the money saving advice.  Finally, if you can, pre-produce a tease or two in your rundown.  But make sure you vary where you place it and how long it runs.  Edit in cool graphics and quick sound to play up appeal to the eye and ear.  It doesn’t have to be a three element deal like I described earlier.  It just needs to have different elements to engage the senses.  This goes back to one of our recurring themes, engage more than 1 of the senses and you have viewers hooked.  They will just “have to know” what the story is about!

 

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