Welcome to the PIT List!

I'm a network field producer who also worked in local tv as a line producer and field producer. Over the years, I have had the great fortune to work with super people. Now I'd like to pass along what I know and rant a tad.

"Dear Maggie..." pitlist@gmail.com
I check it sporadically, but I love answering emails, so if you have an issue or difficult person you need help with, don't hesitate to shoot it my way.

Maggie L

Maggie L
One of the rare times I'm in the office

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Jim Cox, Photographer 1970-2007

People wonder why I read obituaries and it's because I want to get a sense of the people who died. I figure I didn't know them while they were alive so the least I can do is read about them now that they're gone on.

So I write this knowing that no matter what I say, you'll never get a full sense of who Jim Cox was unless you met him. Many of you might know him now as one of the people who died when two television news helicopters crashed into each other in Phoenix. But of course he was much more than the tragic end he met.

It is not enough to say that he was a brilliant photographer. He was. He was scary good. You could tell a Jim Cox liveshot just by looking at it-- the reporter would be lit up like a Christmas tree. It was almost as if they were chroma-keyed. And I'm not exaggerating to say that there was never a time when I went out with him on a shoot that I didn't come back with something on the tape that was extraordinary-- a special shot, a way of looking at things, something suprising.

But he also had the biggest heart. He was so kind. When he fell in love, he fell hard and fast. He jumped right in, and I remember urging him not to. I said, Jim, slow down a bit. No dice. He told me- that's who I am. He was all in.

With his life or his work, he put his whole heart into things. He was passionate about news and stories. If you work in news, there's a phrase for it-- to be blunt-- he was balls to the wall. If it was happening, he was on it and there was no other person you'd want with you in a breaking news situation.
He was handy. He had bought an adorable bungalow in an historic district in Phoenix and re-did the house all himself. Then, if that weren't enough, he built an addition. He was going to sell the house. Jim was going to learn how to fly helicopters.
It's fair to say he died doing what he loved. But he has left us, in shock, grasping for words, trying to piece together our memories, and wishing we had had more time with him.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Quick I-News Tip: Control T

I have just learned what "Control T" does and it is fabulous.

Control T puts the current time in your script, like so- 09:18:03. There's your incue. Presser guy says something else, blah, blah blah. Control T again and boom- 09:18:10- you have an out.

Fantastic! The next time you have to log a long, boring press conference as it happens, just have whoever is rolling on it set the timecode to the current time.

Queen of the 3 Question Interview

One thing I've noticed about people just starting out is that they ask a lot of questions in their interviews. Too many questions. When they go back to log, they have an hour and a half of tape to look through. Too much! Especially when you are on deadline! Most of us are not producing documentaries. If you do a 15 minute interview, or even a ten minute one, how much of that are you actually going to use in a minute and a half piece? Maybe 15-30 seconds, tops. So go easy on yourself and only ask a handful of questions. The best ones are the ones where your question is actually shorter than your interviewer's answer. Obviously make them opened ended. I like really broad generic questions to start. Here are my favorites:

What happened?
Tell me about...
What where you thinking? (This is the more polite version of "What were you feeling?") Or, what do you think about all this?
What happens next?

There are some notable exceptions to the short interview rule. One is if you have an emotional or exceptionally nervous interview and you need to ask a lot of questions just to get them comfortable and forgetting the camera. You may need to reask questions toward the end to get what you need.

The second is somebody important. It feels sort of wham-bam-thank-you ma'am if you are interviewing a heavy hitter and you only ask a couple questions-- especially if that person has blocked away a chunk of time for your interview.

The third exception is if your photographer has set up a lot of lights. There again, it feels sort of weird to have an interview last shorter than the time it took him or her to set up the lights. But for your average local politician, cop or mos, a couple questions will be just fine.

There is a time when you want to ask a ton of questions. Off camera. Before you get to the interview-- when you're setting it up, ask a million and take some notes. Also, before and after your interview, ask questions to make sure you have a full sense of the story. But you don't need to use the camera as an electronic notebook.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Front-End Discussions: Good for Producers & Reporters

One of the most annoying things for a producer is to be about an hour from a show, reviewing a script and having the horrifying realization: This script has no relation to the story that was pitched in the meeting or to the story I've been teasing all night. ACK! With no time, and lots of other show issues demanding your attention, it's hard to salvage the piece- and you want to strangle the reporter. Fortunately, there's a solution. And it's called "front end discussions." Meaning check in your your reporters every once in a while. I know you're busy and have a million things to do, but there's no replacement for direct contact with your reporters.

Front-end discussion #1:
Producer: Hey, what 'cha got?
Reporter: Well, we have this guy and that broll.
Producer: Ok, that sounds good. Let me know if anything changes. I've got you in for 1:20 in the first block.

Front-end discussion #2:
Producer: Hey, what 'cha got?
Reporter: Well, we have this guy and that broll.
Producer: Wow. That doesn't sound anything like what we talked about in the meeting.
Reporter: We got out here and things changed.

Discussion #2 is much easier to have at 4 hours before showtime than 1 hour before showtime. As a producer, be open to what your crews tell you about the story. Nothing is more for frustrating for field crews than to be ignored. An example:

Producer: It's raining cats and dogs on the West side!
Reporter: Well, we're here in the West side and it's bone dry.
Producer: But the weather guy says it's pouring!
Reporter: I'm here and I'm telling you, there's not a cloud in the sky.

That said, we all know reporters who wouldn't know a good story if it sat on them. They will need special attention and a lot of firm hand holding. You may think, gee, this is not my job. A reporter in this size market should be able to do this without my help. You re wrong. It is your job because it is your show. Anything you can do to make your show better is your job. They may be two minutes of your show and 90% of your headaches, but there you are. That's why you get paid the big bucks (note sarcasm).

Front-end discussions are also good for reporters. Reporters! If you producer doesn't check in with you and then rages when your story has changed, cut them off at the pass. Call them. Say, "I know you were expecting a raging fire at the nursing home but we got here and it's just a trash can fire. So it's probably not your lead." A conversation like this may be difficult, and your producer may not want to hear it, but it will save you both heartburn in the end. Also think about calling in with good news, as in, "Hey, we went to this fire and we have GREAT STUFF!" There's some great sot you could probably use in a tease. I also shot a standup you can use in the open." You will have a friend forever.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pkg Advice

I've written a million pkgs. Here's what I've learned:

-Write intro, pkg, tag. In that order. If you write the pkg first, you end up giving your anchors nothing to say.
-Get to it already. The intro should be quick- like a paragraph long. It should say exactly what the story's about. Don't "save" anything for the pkg or "build up to it." Any longer than a graph and you some video, but I say, unless it's a big story or something special, just get to the reporter or pkg.
-Best video first. Always. Just don't "save" your video. Your viewer will be gone by the time you get to it. In fact, if it's great video, use it a couple times.
-No SOTS off the top. Unless somebody's bawling, a sot is not a great way to start a pkg. Nats is a good place to start.
-Use NATS like SOTS. When logging tape, I log NATS like sots. For example, 1:02:34-1:02:36 lawnmower NATS. Use NATS early and often. Don't leave it to your photog/editor to put it. I also like to use NATS to transition from one place to another in a pkg.
-Short SOTS, good: Micro SOTS, bad. Lately, I've been seeing pkgs with soundbites that are so quick you don't have a chance to connect with the person being interviewed. I'm sure some consultant sent out a memo that said: no SOTS over :05 or something like that. What ends up happening is that you have a collection of five second SOTS and inordinately long tracks. I guarantee you your interview said it better than you can. You should aim for an even mix of SOTS and track, but generally, I don't like to go more than a sentence or two without breaking for NATS or SOT. Think pacing.
-Hook into one person. You don't have to do this always, but sometimes it's nice to find one character who is really good and hood the story through them.
-People first, experts second. Experts are nice, but find some people to put in your story. They're usually a better soundbite. Take your story and find who is being impacted by it. That's your people sound. Start with it first.
-Use graphics only when you don't have good video. Graphics can be a pkg killer. You don't want to put many if any numbers in your story, but that would be a time to use a graphic as well. "15 million people voted, " for example.
-Tag should wrap it up, take it to the next step. For example: "They're voting on this next Friday." Or, "The plan costs 5 million dollars."
-Take time out. When you're done with your script and it's 1:30, make it 1:20. If it's slotted for 1:20, make it 1:10. Any script can improve by being shortened because we are all in love with our own voices and tend to be verbose. If you make a habit of shortening here and there, you strengthen your script. A good place to start is the line before a bite. It almost always can be jettisoned.

Sample FAKE story.
Anchor Intro- "Fire investigators are trying to find out what caused a fire that killed four people on the East side. Reporter Shanna Showusall has more."

Take pkg.

NATS-Firetruck sirens. Amazing blazing video.

The fire started this morning.
Susan Senior had just put on her morning coffee.

(Witness:"I looked up from the stove and I like to have died when I saw the flames just shooting up outside my window.")

Senior got out ok, four or her neighbors in the Burning Run Apt Complex did not.
A family of four was found inside their apartment on the second floor.

(Fire Investigator:"When we got here, the complex was fully engulfed. We tried to put the fire out, but unfortunately, it was too late.")

Now fire investigators are trying to find out what caused the fire. People living in the complex say they've been have electrical problems lately, but there's no word on whether that played a part.

NATS-Picking through belongings.

Residents like Senior now must try to pick through their belongings and find a new place to live, a task that won't be easy.

(Witness:"I don't know where I'll go. I've lived her for 20 years. But I'm alive. That's the main thing. Thank God almighty, I'm alive.")

ANchor TAG: Right now, fire investigators are not releasing the names or ages of the victims. The Red Cross says it will offer help to the people who lived at the complex.

Random script advice

Each producer has his or her take on scripts. Here's mine...

Vos- no longer that :20
Vosots-no longer than :45
Pkg-no longer than 1:20 without prior approval
Minipkgs-(a clean way to put together a teasable national story. Anchor voices) no longer than a minute.

Sample VOSOT:
Anchor/on cam for a graph
Then next graph or two under video.
Sot :05-:15
Back to video or on cam for tag.
Pacing is everything.

Write like you're talking to your Mom. We're natural story tellers. When you talk to someone, you automatically put the most interesting thing first. Hey Mom, did you hear about the guy who... blah blah blah. But for some reason when we write, we have a tendency to muddle it up and make things a lot more difficult than they need to be.

Write to video. With desktop editing systems, it makes it a whole lot easier to look at it. Your show and your scripts will improve dramatically if you keep your video in mind. That said, I'm not a huge fan of shot-for-shot editing instructions. But if you're writing "take a look at this blue car," it might make some sense to throw in a time code for the shot.

No lip flap! (Meaning, don't use a soundbite as broll. It's extremely annoying. And lazy.)

No mindless file! If you use file, reference it. "This is Mariah Carey the last time she was in town..." or, "City council first took up this issue at their last meeting. This is video from that meeting..."

Empower writers to "produce" each script. Tell them to let you know if there's great NATS or SOT that needs to be added. Or if something needs to be dropped.

Only producers make graphics. It will give your show a consistent look and feel. And on the point of graphics, they should say EXACTLY what is in your script. So if you write, "...about 2/3 thirds of people like ice cream," the graphic should reflect that. It's a pain to read one thing and hear another. Also, try to keep graphics slim. Don't stuff everything on one page when two would look better.

Last thing before you print- reread each script aloud. Your ears will catch mistakes your eyes miss.

Contracts: Good for producers?

Are contracts a good deal for producers? I say no way. I have never signed a contract, nor will I. A contract for anchors and reporters is one thing-- they can actually negotiate pay, clothing allowance, etc. For producers, it's just a way to keep us in one place-- and you're generally not getting more money in the bargain. Contracts for producers I think got popular because there's such big turnover. And with good reason. Producers, even bad ones, are hard to find. Hire a good producer and they're likely to get offers to produce in bigger markets or they get promoted into management either at their own or another station.

My take? Don't sign a producer contract. Or at least, never sign anything more than one or two years! You're worth is based on your ability to pick up and leave. It is the only negotiating power you have.

Backtime your show, backtime your life!

This blog is named after a practice I adopted when I was line producer.
Each time I'd learn a new show, I'd create a list and backtime my tasks so that I'd get everything done in time. I'd use the list until it became habit. It's been a while, but here's what one looked like:

130p Check wires/feeds
2pm Meeting
3pm Create rundown
4pm Assign stories to writers. Put web copy/video source in script. Remind writers that they are the producers of their stories. If the story needs and bite and there isn't one, let me know. If there's one there and it's lame, we can zap it.
5pm Write teasable stories/stuff not likely to change. Also pieces anchors can voice before lunch.
8pm Graphics list done
9pm Write pre-produced open/have it voiced.
930p Write teases/recheck wires to changes that might impact scripts.
10pm Print rundown and scripts. Anchors should have looked at scripts by now and made their changes.
1045p Go to editing/make sure lead pkg/other stories are in.
1050p In booth. Have backup plan if lead is in trouble. Communicate backup plan to director/anchors. Then if lead bombs, everyone knows what to do.
11p Showtime

You get the idea. The time's on these were best case scenerio. Obviously, I didn't print scripts every night at 10pm, but that's at least what I'd be shooting for. I'm a big believer as a producer that you should get stuff done early. Your job impacts every one else's. Getting scripts back early gives editors a chance to do their best work, etc. Also, getting things done early means when you do have to fly by the seat of your pants, your crew is more willing to wing it with you.

Producing: Good career move?

Show producing at a local level is an excellent career move. Do a quick survey to prove my point. If you're still in school, ask your colleagues how many of them want to become producers. Probably all of them want to be anchors or reporters. At least that's been my experience with interns at the local television stations where I work. Here's how that translates in the job market: for every reporting opening, news directors get stacks and stacks of tapes. For every producer opening? Maybe 3 or 4. And probably only one of those is actually qualified for the job- the rest are a shot in the dark. That's why many tv stations are "growing their own" producers, meaning you start as a writer and work your way into producing. Producers are also a pipeline into management-- and trust me, it doesn't take long.

Even if you want to be a reporter, getting some producer skills can't hurt. There are plenty of small market postings where they need a producer but they're willing to give you some tv time to fill the position. So you may produce a couple days a week and then report the rest.