If you’re an anchor, it’s one of your nightmares: A producer in over his/her head and constantly providing no instructions during a crisis in a live show. But simply yelling at the producer and then complaining to management doesn’t fix the problem.
First you have to understand the stakes. Producers are hard to come by. The burnout rate is tremendous. Producers also tend to be able to move up in markets quickly with very little experience. Like it or not, anchors are becoming on the job trainers for producers in many stations. Problem is many anchors don’t know enough about the fine points of producing to be a true help.
We want to bridge the gap a little bit so anchors can shine brightly on air, and turn into valuable assets, even without a lot of support. As an anchor, it is crucial that you are considered easy to work with and supportive. Your producer is a key player, so you need to build a relationship even if the person is not that great at their job.
Here are the main things most green producers really need help with, but may struggle to admit to an anchor:
- Knowing how to write the way an anchor speaks.
- Timing the show.
- Handling breakers.
- Making split second decisions in the booth.
Now let’s help you help the producer. When you get a new producer you need to have at least a little patience and give that person a couple of weeks of producing shows. See what the producer does really well. Then compliment the producer on those things. This is crucial because many producers fear anchors are out to get them. You need to begin the relationship showing you will be supportive and fair.
After that conversation you can start to rewrite copy here and there. When you rewrite, let the producer know why you did. But do it after the newscast. The producer is too slammed to pay attention before the show airs and they definitely don’t have time during breaks in the newscast. Do not rewrite everything then hand all the rewrites to the producer to figure out why. One anchor I know would switch the copy into lower case and let the producer know. She then explained she did that so the producer could see some of the phrases she would naturally use in conversation. This is an easy, and non-combative, way to teach a producer your conversational style. If there are a lot of grammatical errors, just let the producer know you are doing some rewrites because the producer seems behind and you want to help. Again, a rewrite in lower case signals what you changed to the producer so he/she can look back later and catch the grammatical errors. If those grammatical errors keep happening, give the producer scripts with the grammatical errors you fixed after a newscast. Tell the producer you know he/she writes a lot, and you just wanted to show common mistakes you are finding so he/she can keep them in mind for the next show. Speaking of help, if you see a script that you know the green producer will mangle or perhaps get the station sued if they write it, either write it yourself and have an EP look it over for legal reasons. You can also ask the EP to just write it and offer to do something the EP usually does.
Now let’s talk timing. This is very hard for producers and in fairness an anchor should not have to worry about it. Unfortunately, many producers learn everything, including timing a newscast, by trial and error. Often the EP’s, who are in charge of monitoring the producers “issues” won’t be able to spot the producers specific timing problems. As the anchor who sees it every day, you can easily spot timing trouble trends. When you do notice your producer mistiming the same spots over and over, let the EP know. This will help them guide the producer and also makes you look like a real team player who is watching out for the good of the newscast.
Handling breakers and the resulting split second decisions is also a struggle for producers. The producer has several people asking (and also telling!) him/her what to do at once. For the anchor, it can be hard to get the producer on the phone because the assignment desk and EP call constantly. So, if you possibly can, use top of screen messages to ask the producer when to do the breaker and how you should do it. (i.e. how long should you talk, is there video or a live shot, or a pitch to a reporter?) Also you can usually print out top of screen conversations later if needed. This can help in several ways. It allows you to show the EP that you are not attacking the producer if that person is particularly thin skinned. It also helps you check with the EP to see if you are phrasing questions in ways that let the producer quickly assess and respond. Finally, if you are ever called on the carpet for performance when these crises arise, you have concrete evidence that shows you were trying to be proactive.
If the producer still doesn’t give you clear instructions, talk about it after the show. Spell out what you need so the producer knows next time. Going straight to the EP may not help. EP’s may not be able to explain what you need as clearly, because they usually are in the newsroom funneling everything instead of in the booth watching the producer. If the EP is in the booth and everything still ends up a mess, ask to talk with the EP and producer after the show and have them explain what was happening on their end. Often talking it out, allows the EP or producer to see where the disconnect happened without you having to spell it out.
Finally, make sure you are very involved in the newscast throughout your shift. That doesn’t mean sounding off on what you think about every single story the whole time. But you should check in with the EP and producer to see if they need any help. Ask to write some stories. Offer to research extra elements that can be added for flavor at the end of a story. Offer to call and check on a reporter or two and see how they are doing. Being an anchor is not just about sitting around tweeting and waiting to read what others write. Those things are important. Preparing to deliver the scripts with breathing exercises and some down time before the show is also important. But it’s not enough. You need to be involved with the newscast and its contents. Bottom line, the more familiar you are the better chance you have to cover up your producer’s inadequacies on while you are on the air. Taking this kind of ownership makes you a key ally for the EP and upper management. It does not mean you will be stuck with a weak producer, it means you will be known as a team player and a leader the newsroom does not want to lose. You also will deliver your copy in a more meaningful and authoritative way because you truly own the newscast. Your hand was in it all the way through. So shine bright!