Archive for March 2008

Creative Writing and Video That Leaves an Impression

March 27, 2008

I like a clever play on words.  Some consultants say those who write for TV can be too clever.  Perhaps these are the same people who suggest that those who write for TV write to a grade school level.  I don’t care what those people say, I like writing that makes me think about the reference and makes me think in general.  In other words, I don’t like to be spoon-fed gruel.  I want to bite into the meat of the story and know that I have.  But I digress.   I was watching MSNBC’s Countdown and they were covering (gasp, surprise!!!!) the slugfest between Clinton and Obama and how they are beating each other up.  No surprise really in the coverage.  It was what you would expect.  But the slug at the bottom of the screen was titled “Electile Dysfunction”.  When the story focused on how the infighting by Democrats were helping the Republican candidate, the slug was “McCain Enable”.  Some might think those slugs are juvenile.  As my good friend and former co-worker Robert Laney used to say, “That’s your opinion and you’re wrong. ”  IMHO it is something different and helps set this newscast apart from the other same old, same old.  I challenge anyone in news to be that clever or at least try to.  I do remember something that weatherman Austen Onek from WREG came up with in the early days of that station’s attempts to have a web site.  A-O set up a shot of the News Channel 3 Outdoors crew on the webpage and had the caption “Boyz in the Woodz”.   It lasted until management finally got around the reading the page which meant it was on the internet for several months.

We’ve all seen video on newscasts that’s etched into our memories.  The space shuttle disasters, the attacks of 9-11.  Those are the serious videos.  Then there are those where a shooter happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture some really good video.  The recent shenanigans of the Mayor of Memphis and his desire to return to the city school system as superintendent reminded me of a scandal hizzoner faced while still with the schools.  It seems that an employee filed some sort of legal action against W.W.  That person’s name  (forgive my spelling here ) was something like Mahnaz Barmand.  I think she alleged some kind of sexual liason with Herenton.  If I remember correctly all the stations were on time except for WREG for this news conference where she and her lawyers were going to lay out the case.   I think the shooter for WREG was S-S and he got there late.  But that was okay because he got video of Ms. Barmand walking and man, what a walk she had.  That woman could walk down the center of a school hallway and knock the dust off lockers on both sides with her swing.  WREG ran that video EVERYTIME the story was in the news and the video was so strong that I think her lawyers complained, wanting to know if WREG had to show THAT video so much.  I think the matter was finally settled out of court and WW went on to run for mayor.   The bottom line on video:  You don’t always have to be first to get great video but you do always have to be ready.

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Could ALL of the TV Stations in Memphis Come Together and Work for a Common Cause?

March 26, 2008

The Memphis television market has really become quite competitive.  It’s become a dog-eat-dog world out there as all the stations claw and scratch for a shrinking piece of the audience pie.  But a common cause is prompting some stations in a growing number of cities around the U-S to join forces.  What is this cause?  According to an article in Shoptalk the problem with crystal meth is prompting stations to work in cooperation with each.  That article from the Poynter Institute details how the who thing got started in Reno and the success there prompted stations in other markets to follow suit.  Here’s a paragraph from that article:

A remarkable thing is about to happen in Sacramento, Calif., just as it did in Las Vegas, Reno, Nev., Oregon and San Diego. It will happen again soon in Arizona, Juarez, N.M., and other areas. Practically all the TV stations in those communities will set aside a half hour to air a commercial free documentary about meth. …..in May in Las Vegas, 50 percent of the households tuned in to the documentary, according Nielsen ratings. In August, 25 stations in five Oregon cities broadcast the documentary, and newspaper reports say the toll-free number was flooded with calls. And in December, San Diego stations blanketed the airwaves.

Folks, this is big.  Getting 50-percent of the households in a market (Las Vegas) to tune in is no small feat.  This shows what can happen when television stations turn their collective power to a common goal.  The visuals they share on the tube can help address and perhaps if not alleviate a problem, at least get things started toward a solution.   Granted there will be politicians with agendas who will try to subvert any effort as they grandstand.  There will be some bickering over which stations will do what in putting this things together.  In Memphis, there will be someone who somehow manages to turn this into a race issue (but then isn’t everything in Memphis).  But once, maybe once we can move beyond that and actually get something done in this city.  The really cool thing about this is that IF the stations (and newspapers) can come together and collectively tackle this issue, then maybe the other BIG issues such as CRIME, TEENAGE PREGNANCIES, GANGS, RACE or whatever can be addressed as a community instead of “hey, it’s not my problem”.  Who knows, maybe then Memphis will grow up to be the great city it should already be.

Odds and Ends on a Monday

March 24, 2008

I knew something serious was going on when I heard my wife shrieking from the office.  I’ve been hearing outbursts from my lovely and talented bride for the past few days.  The pups and I came running the first couple of times.  Turns out it’s just madness.  March Madness.  The latest eruptions came Sunday as Memphis appeared ready to lose in the last seconds to Mississippi State.  They held on to win.  Things are calm now.  The good nes is she’s NOT watching four games at once as she had been.  In fact there are NO games on at all right now.  I expect her to go into withdrawal until the next round starts later this week.  Then Newby, Mac and I will go into hiding and stay outside until the crazy woman who periodically takes over the house, ranting about poor coaching, unmotivated players, lucky shots and bad referees morphs back into that sweet, docile woman who has a soft spot in her heart for homeless dogs and  at least one former news anchor.

Speaking of former anchors, I ran across an item last Friday in Shoptalk about a news guy named Virg Jacques who was leaving Channel 5/WTTG in Washington, D.C.  Virg Jacques doesn’t know me from Adam but I remember him from when I was living in Bowling Green, KY wrapping up my studies at Western Kentucky University. (yes, at this writing, the Hilltoppers are still alive and well in the NCAA tournament).  VJ was one of the weekend anchors at WSMV in Nashville.  At the time in the Nashville market there were not too many people of color anchoring.  I think Ann Holt was anchoring at WNGE ( now WKRN) and somebody named Oprah had previously anchored at WTVF.   I always enjoyed watching Virg as he appeared to be a class act.  He eventually left and went north, perhaps to Detroit.  Anyway the item in Shoptalk took me back a few years.  

And finally, speaking of leaving, I remember reading something from the late Lewis Grizzard about transplants to his city of Atlanta.  Too many times people would move to Atlanta and then complain about how people “down here” are backwards and “that’s not how they do things” back where they came from.  Grizzard liked to remind fault-finding Yankees that if things were so good where they came from that “Delta was ready when you are”, referring to the old Delta Airlines slogan.  I thought of Grizzard and Delta when I was washing my wife’s car Saturday and a neighbor from across the alley stopped by.  This neighbor who is a Northern redneck from Pennsylvania (I’m a Southern redneck from Western Kentucky and rednecks know rednecks)  started complaining about the way they do things in Memphis.  He made comments how long it took to get our phone lines back and that they didn’t do a very good job, etc. While I will admit it took longer than expected and they hadn’t cleaned up ALL of the mess from when the big tree fell last week (from his yard, mind you)  I was still happy we had service and I figure the crews will be out in due time to get things wrapped up.  I just found it annoying that this guy was bitchin’ and bellyachin’ about things down south.  I really wanted to tell him “Hey Slick, Delta IS ready when you are”.  I didn’t.  My wife was screaming like a banshee from the house about some aspect of the basketball tournament so I had to go attend to her instead.

What Viewers Want (And Don’t Want) From Local News

March 21, 2008

Local television news operations know what viewers want.  They pay consultants to put together focus groups and do research and share that information with the station management.  Sometimes focus groups are NOT consulted and research is NOT done but hey if the big boy markets are doing it, then it must be good.  That’s why so many newscast across the country are doing the same thing and so many newscasts look the same.  But wait, a newspaper columnist in Pittsburgh, PA asked readers what they expected from local news.  It comes as no surprise that some of this goes against the conventional wisdom of what stations are now doing.

The full article which was posted in Shoptalk can be found at this newspaper website.  It makes for interesting reading even if some of the feedback is market specific for Pittsburgh.    For those of you not interested in going to the website, here are some of the highlights:

Too much news time:“In that short half-hour we were able get a complete rundown of the day’s stories,” McCracken wrote in his e-mail. “Perfect! Now, stations such as KDKA drag out the local evening news for three hours. They either go over the same story over and over again or they ‘tease’ you to stay tuned for another hour for a report that you may be interested in. I am not naive. I understand that the stations are a business and all of this is dollars to them. However, for myself, a half-an-hour summary with no fluff is all that I am looking for.”

Too many teases; too much hype:“We watch the news to be informed and not to be asked questions about a story that is coming up,” wrote Bob Kress, 59, of Wexford. “Please quit telling me over and over what you are going to tell me at 6 o’clock,” wrote H. Lessman, 80, of O’Hara. “Just tell me.” Too much weather:Although I’m sure local stations have reams of research and ratings spikes that prove viewers love weather news, those who responded to my query were almost all annoyed by weather hype:

Too many stories with no relevance to the average viewer:As R. Romagni noted, “News is not a story about someone’s poodle that’s found its way home or a front porch collapsing in Millvale.”Viewers are divided on whether local newscasts should carry national or international news. Some want a broader perspective (“Tell me what is going on in the world. It will help me decide if I want to watch the expanded world news,” wrote Michael Hellman, 51, of Morningside). Others do not, particularly if they believe it has no relevance to Pittsburghers. (“Forget the ’10 dead in a three-car pileup’ promos when the wreck happened in Kansas,” wrote Cheri Cunningham of Brookline).

 Too many references to Web sites:“The phrase that sends me through the roof is, ‘If you want to know more about this subject log on to our Web site …’ Does that mean, ‘You poor slobs who don’t have a computer don’t deserve to find out anything more’?” wrote Carole Berry, 71, of Bethel Park. “The reason I turn on the news is to hear the full story, not to be sent to another source. And is this a good thing for the TV news industry? Perhaps we will just log on to the Web site and not turn on the TV news anymore.”

In fairness to TV stations, I think there is value in offering extra information online. The problem is when viewers feel like they’re not getting the whole story from the newscast. Perhaps TV stations need to find a way to better communicate Web extras to viewers.

I’m sure some manager will defend their research as they are merely giving viewers what research says they want.  I will admit there is no easy answer on this but local TV news is still witnessing viewers slipping away.  And as for the research that creates the perfect newscast, wasn’t it extensive research and focus groups that helped create the perfect car back in the day.  They called that car the Edsel.

Finally, I’m Back in the Saddle Again

March 20, 2008

Nothing like a tree across phone and power lines in the ‘hood to knock a person out of the loop. For someone who depends on the phone lines for a connection to the outdoor world, being “internetless” and “phoneless” for two days was tough. I was in the process of trying to catch up after being gone for a week to Florida for the shuttle launch and now I’m further behind because of my internet outage.

I’m curious about something that I see way too often and IMHO it’s a case of laziness and lack of attention to detail. It has to do with videotape of sunrises and sunsets and how some folks try to get away using one for the other. Okay, that makes no sense so let me explain. Have you ever noticed how someone in a documentary or film or perhaps even a news piece will need something like a shot of a SUNRISE. Instead of getting up early in the morning, someone just shoots a SUNSET and then they just reverse the video. There’s a problem with that though. The sun as it rises travels from the left side of the screen to the right and when it sets, it is still traveling from the left side of the screen to the right. When you reverse the video, the sun is traveling from the right to the left and doesn’t look natural. Of course the shot is rendered useless if a bird is flying or a plane is passing through the shot. I know I’m not the only one who has ever noticed this and I know in the grand scheme of things, there are a few other more important things in life such as “world peace” and “has anyone taken the dogs for a walk” today. Perhaps I’m “gripping things a little too tight” but to me it’s like staging video and not completely honest. And if you’re too lazy or not competent enough to shoot what you need, where do you draw the line. Okay, my wife tells me I’m over the top on this one. I don’t care. See what happens when I have no internet connection for two days.

If someone finds my wife, please return her to me.  I really don’t expect to see her around for the next three weeks.  Why?  March Madness that’s why.  She sat through the announcement of the tournament pairings on CBS, filling out the brackets.  I told her she could save some time as they would be on line by the end of the hour long show.  “It’s not the same” she says.  Wednesday night, she told me to fill out the brackets on who I thought would win.  She’s pleased to see that I predicted her alma mater (Vanderbilt) would venture so far in the tournament.  (Can you say sucking up to the boss!”)  As I write this, she has the Direct TV March Madness multiple games playing in the background in the office.  Yes, I figure she will surface in about three weeks.  If you see her between now and then, tell her I said “hey”.

A Newscast IS Indeed a Lot Like A Space Shuttle Launch

March 14, 2008

When you think about it, a daily newscast is a lot like launching a space shuttle. I say this after my lovely and talented and bride and I had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes-tour of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral and watched the shuttle Endeavour launch in the wee hours of the morning March 11th. More on that in just a moment.

Joe, what do mean a shuttle launch and a daily newscast have a lot in common? Well, funny you should ask. First, most people have no idea what goes into launching the shuttle or getting a newscast on the air. Somehow all the prep work just magically gets done for both and the general public has no idea how many people it takes to get both on/in the air. Granted there are a heck of a lot more people working on the shuttle to that get off the pad but the sheer number of folks involved in a newscast surprises non-TV folks.  From deciding what story will be covered, how it will be covered, how it is written, what form it will take (vo, vo/sot, packaged report or reader) who will report, who will read it, etc.  There’s the production side with people operating studio cameras or in some cases working the robotic cameras, the teleprompter (if the anchors aren’t running it themselves).  Then there are the sales people who sell the commercial spots and the engineering staff that keeps the machinery operating and the signal on the air. Hey, ask WHNT how important that technical stuff was on that recent 60 Minutes broadcast. And then, once the broadcast/shuttle is launched, you’ve got a bunch of people scrambling to make sure it’s smooth sailing until the program is over. All that time, you’ve got people planning and making preparations for the next launch/broadcast. Plus, you are only as good as your last effort.  People will tune in to see how things fly and generally you don’t get much feedback unless there is a problem. When that happens you never hear the last of it and the big problems get re-hashed over and over either on You-Tube or the network/cable news.  Granted, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get a newscast on the air but it does take teamwork and a lot of coordination.

As I mentioned my lovely and talented bride and I were invited down to the Kennedy Space Center for a tour and the opportunity to sit through a launch.  (I hesitate to mention on this blog the name of the person who invited us because that person might suddenly get slammed with requests).  Actually, we were first invited to come down in early December 2007 but that was the same time my youngest son decided to get married in Louisville so our visit was postponed.  It turned out that particular shuttle launch was delayed until February 2008 because of technical problems.  We opted not to go for that launch and wait until March.  When our tour group was escorted into the Orbiter  Processing Facility, we found ourselves in a large room with a ceiling only about 8 or 9 feet high.  Turns out that “ceiling” was the belly of the shuttle and you could see all of the heat shield tiles up close and personal and the work being conducted to inspect them.  It was absolutely incredible to be that close to the shuttle.  I won’t bore you with details of the rest of the tour although Bethany and I found the tour FAR from boring.  In fact it was downright incredible.  Fast forwarding to the launch, we watched from about three miles away.  On lift-off, the shuttle lit up the early morning sky (2:30 a.m.) and for a moment it was almost like looking at an arc-welder.  Briefly it was as if the Sun was under the shuttle.  The rumbling of the liftoff vibrated around the viewing stand and it was quite spectacular until the shuttle passed through a very thick cloud layer at 6 thousand feet.  Then the light disappeared as if someone flipped a switch.  We thought we would see the shuttle as it climbed higher but we didn’t see it again.  That was slightly disappointing but it was still an incredible and moving experience to be on hand for the launch.  It also gives even a jaded old news person new respect for those who climb aboard the shuttle and travel into space.  It also gives me a new appreciation for the team that gets that bird in the air and into space.

Excuse Me, Will You Watch If I Pay You?, A Technical SNAFU or Deliberate Act to Cover Up Information on TV, and A Lesson on How NOT to Act on TV News

March 5, 2008

Like it or not, giveaways are now an ingrained part of TV news ratings wars in Memphis. I credit a former news director at WREG with really getting the ball rolling on the combination Weathergasms, tabloid news type coverage and giveaways in the Bluff City. There’s nothing like giving away some cars in a watch and win contest to whet the appetite for viewers. The problem is, it doesn’t always work. When it does, it’s kind of hard for the winner to say they won the book on the merits of their news coverage. But then, that’s been a growing difficulty for many news operations across the country anyway. I ran across a story on Shoptalk Tuesday which mentioned Local TV LLC station KFOR in Oklahoma City and sister station WREG in Memphis, which both used cash giveaways and a chance to grab lots of cash to drum up viewers. Here’s part of the story from Shoptalk.

In an old-fashioned “watch and win” sweeps stunt, Local TV station KFOR Oklahoma City gave $500 to 18 lucky late-news viewers last month—with one of those winners randomly chosen for a 60-second romp in a bank vault stuffed with over $100,000 in loose bills. The stunt was also a hit at sister station WREG Memphis. But while WREG’s winner managed to grab around $7,000, Benny Meier walked away last week with nearly $18,000 from KFOR‘s vault. Here’s the good part: he’s blind. But that hasn’t stopped Meier, who’s in his mid 60s, from running marathons (with a guide) or using his lanky frame to gather a bundle of bills.”It made for really good television,” says KFORJim Boyer, who concedes that the vault was stocked with bigger bills than WREG’s. Boyer says he hasn’t seen a ratings uptick from the stunt, a practice generally frowned upon by news critics that can earn stations an asterisk in Nielsen ratings books. But a Nielsen spokesperson says, “As long as they targeted the entire market with the promotion, not just the Nielsen homes, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Note to self: next time bigger bills in vault. Now lets get to work on those sweeps pieces for May.

What supposedly started out as a technical glitch for Local TV LLC sister station WHNT in Huntsville, AL has turned into an inquiry by the FCC. In today’s Shoptalk, the article focuses on the blackout that occurred of a report on CBS 60 Minutes about the imprisoned former governor of Alabama and how he got there. The station said it was a technical glitch that prevented the airing of the report even though it was rebroadcast by the station later in the week (I think twice). Nothing like that kind of publicity to help a station’s credibility factor.

And speaking of credibility, live local TV news can really give you an idea of what goes on behind the scenes. With as many egos as it takes to get a broadcast on, it’s inevitable that those egos clash. Hey, it happens. Having said that, watching this video from New York just made me shake my head. Check it out on this You tube link from this blog in Tampa. Something tells me the two won’t be sitting next to each other at the next station gathering.

This incident reminds me of something I’m told that occurred on the air right after a tornado hit West Memphis, AR in the late 80s.  As I understand it (and please wade into this if the facts aren’t all straight) the storm hit and news crews were dispatched to the scene.  One of the first reporters on the scene with a live truck from WREG was Kathy Thurmond.  She and the videographer were scrambling to put up a live signal  and get something on the air ASAP.  The anchor (not Jerry Tate who was at WHBQ 13 at the time)  Roy somebody I think,  started asking Kathy questions on the air that she couldn’t answer because she had been too busy trying to get a live shot on the air.  This anchor apparently admonished Kathy on the air for not having more information incurring the wrath of news crews at the station and viewers alike.  It didn’t help the anchor that he was not well liked and Kathy (who is still such a sweetheart) was well liked.  I think that anchor eventually went back to Chicago.  Kathy left WREG not long after that and worked around town before finally getting into the insurance business.