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

Friday, August 31, 2007

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

If you ever put a phone number in your show and I don't think you should (more later), please do yourself a favor and call the number first. And I don't mean call it from the press release or from the website where you found it, I mean put it in your script and dial the number that's in your script. People make mistakes. It might be the person who wrote the press release. It could be you who transposed a couple numbers. In any case, nothing frustrates viewers more than actually have made the effort to call, only to find out the number you gave them is wrong.

True story. A producer friend of mine had a phone number in their show. They did not call it prior to the story airing. I think the number was supposed to be... if you want to help, call XYZ. Instead, the number connected to a phone sex line. Suprise, suprise, suprise! Many of our station's viewers looked up our number to express their displeasure.

Better yet, dump numbers entirely. I don't think they have a place in your show. Who sits and watches tv with a pen? Do you? Better to drive to the web, as in, "If you want to help, we have that info on our website." Or, create a station hotline so that it's the only number viewers see throughout the show. Repeat the number frequently and update the hotline throughout the day.

Finally, the same goes for websites. Check out the website before you let the address air. And again, I think it makes more sense to drive traffic to your station's website, especially if the web address is even a little complicated.

The Coming Apocalypse

I hate the term "white stuff." It's o.k. to say "snow" four times in your script because that's what it is. You needn't be cute about it. As a show producer, if I ever saw "white stuff" anywhere in the scripts, I'd strike it out and rant at the writer who wrote it. One of my arguments ran like this, "Have you ever, ever in your life heard someone actually say 'white stuff?' No you have not! Because people don't actually talk like that! So don't put it in your script!" Then I'd run off in a rage and drink another Mountain Dew.

Here's how I know the Apolcalypse is coming. The other day I was on a plane and struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. I told him I had moved from Philadelphia to Dallas. He said, "I bet you sure don't miss the white stuff, do you?" AHHHHHHHH!

Don't Keep Your Mouth Shut

Difficult discussions are tough but not having them makes it worse. An example. When I worked as a show producer, there was a reporter who always came in late. Given that I was coming in early, eating lunch as my desk and getting paged during bathroom breaks, watching this person stroll in later and later every day made me hot under the collar. But did I say anything? You bet I did not. I kept my mouth shut and let it build day after day. Then, one day, we needed the reporter to get out on a story right after they got in the door. Instead, they sat down at their desk and started surfing the net. The conversation that followed went something like this:

Me: What are you doing?! You need get out the door.
Reporter: Hello? It's a little thing I like to call research.

And here is where all those weeks of biting my tongue came to bite me in the a^&.

Me: Perhaps we could have done our research if we had decided to show up to work on time. Now, I need you to head out the door.

It was completely inappropriate and I caught hell for it later. Deservedly. Sitting in my boss' office, I still didn't get it.

Boss: So you were upset about the reporter being late.
Me: Yes!
Boss: Did you ever tell the reporter that this was a problem?
Me: I have to tell somebody they're supposed to show up to work on time!?!? Come on!
Boss: If you've allowed the behavior to go on without saying anything, you've created an atmosphere that says it's ok. Then today, suddenly it's not?

I got it. It was an excellent lesson for me to learn. If you have an issue, any issue, whether it's with someone you supervise, a co-worker, or someone who supervises you, you gotta say something. The first day I saw this reporter stroll in late, I should have pulled them aside and said, "I expect you to be here at XYZ time." No big deal.

Ditto with show issues. I find group post-show discussions counter-productive. It's much better to talk with the key person or persons involved, separately, and say "Hey, what happened with XYZ?" and not "Why did you screw up my beautiful show? I was going to send that one out on my resume tape!"

It's hard, but try not to come to these discussions with emotion or judgement. You could be dead wrong about what you think happened. When you listen to what someone has to say, actually hear them. DO NOT EVER have these kinds of conversations when you are ticked. It will be a pointless exercise. It is absolutely ok to put off these talks until you are calm. You can say something like, "I'd love to talk with you about this, but not right now. How about tomorrow, at such and such time?"

It's hard to bring up issues. It can be agonizing to anticipate these discussions and uncomfortable to actual have them. I think women, in particular, swallow their anger and don't say anything. That doesn't help you and it doesn't give the other person a chance to explain and/or correct their behaviour. Most people want to do a good job. If you never tell them something is wrong, you deny them the full opportunity to work well with you.

In Love with the Sound of Your Own Voice

So I've be rereading a couple of my old posts and it's been pretty discouraging. Spelling errors! Whole words missing! From a former show producer! What kind of hack am I? A hypocritical one, apparently. Because despite urging everyone to read and reread their copy over and over, I am neglecting to do so.

My favorite admonition? When you finally think your script is finished, read it aloud. Your ears will catch mistakes your eyes will not. Am I doing this myself with every post? No, given the number of mistakes I've caught in my little blog here. Do what I say and not what I do. Be in love with the sound of your own voice and read your copy, one last time, aloud, before you press the save button.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Location, location, location

Ahwatukee, Blue Ash, Matlacha. Chances are, unless you've lived near these places like I have, you have no idea where they are. So why as producers and writers do we assume viewers have knowledge they do not have? In writing about the latest flood, triple shooting, etc., we in news have a tendency to just say the place name without giving people a sense of where it is. Here's a conversation I've had plenty of times over the years.

Me: Hey, on that national story you wrote, where is XYZ, anyway?
Writer: Um, New Jersey.
Me: Jersey's a big state. Can you be more specific?

Take the example of Las Cruces, NM. It does not take long to check mapquest and find out Las Cruces is about 3 hours south of Albuquerque. I know. I timed myself. It took two minutes. But adding a little line to your copy that says, "Las Cruces, which is three hours South of Albuquerque," really adds a level of understanding for the viewer. It takes only a little extra copy time. In this case, adding that line takes exactly three seconds. I know. I timed it.

By the way, Ahwatukee, is a neigborhood South of downtown Phoenix. Blue Ash is about 15 minutes North of Cincinnati. And Matlacha is near Ft. Myers in Southwest Florida.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Depends on what the meaning of "is" is

Lately, I have been frothed up over the sorry state of the verb "to be." Many newscasts are omitting it and I'm having a difficult time understanding why.

"Hurricane Dean is barreling toward the coast."
"Hurricane Dean barreling toward the coast."

The latter is not a sentence, it's a headline and has no place in television news. I hear this "is" omission more and more often and it drives me to drink. I think producers and writers who do this must think it makes their copy more punchy and colloquial.

Here's why they're wrong:

1. Nobody talks in headlines. "Mom! Frederick racing to the airport!" Absurd.
2. Do you really gain that much by dropping one little word? But what you lose is grammatical accuracy, which is already a rare find in TV news.

Perhaps the people who do this are confusing this type of writing with active voice.
A refresher:
Active- "Rescue crews are rushing patients to the hospital."
Not Active- "Patients are being rushed to the hospital by rescue crews."
Just plain bad- "Rescue crews rushing patients to the hospital."

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My Right to Tease Supercedes Your Right to Exist

There's a tough-in-cheek phrase people use in news-- don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. You could modify that and say-- don't let the facts get in the way of a good tease. You know the situation. A reporter calls back and says something like, "This is a dumpster fire with a house about a football field away," only to hear it teased later as, "There's fire raging on the West side. Could homes be at risk?"

While everyone loves a good solid tease, and it can help pull viewers through your show or into it, you do viewers a disservice when you overhype a story. Because as much as you'd like there to be a raging fire on the West side, there isn't, and when you toss to your reporter, he or she is going to say so going to say so and your viewers are going to feel ripped off. Or worse, they don't see even your story and come away with an inaccurate perception of what happened.

Producers: when field crews object to your teases or intros, you may feel like they are parsing words, but it is they who will feel the effects of an inaccurate or overhyped tease. In the fire on the West side example, the fire chief will not complain to you about the tease, it will be the reporter who hears it and looks like the idiot. That's why they're so sensitive about teasing. Backing off or softening up a tease when a reporter asks you to not only makes your newscast more accurate, it's throws goodwill in the bank with your reporter, so that in a situation where you do overrule him, he will have confidence that you actually heard him and may feel better about the decision making process, even if he disagrees with the outcome.

There's another problem with teases-- no, or not enough, payoff. Apparently, I am a pretty good tease writer. So good that I got drilled by a news director for it. He had stayed up to watch a story I had been teasing all night. The story was accurate and interesting-- and all of :20 long. You may want to spend as much time on the actual story as you do teasing it. I could have easily made the story longer, or added a sot, or even had a reporter front it from the newsroom to make it feel a little larger-- and less like the throw-away it was, however well teased.

I am reminded of an editorial cartoon by Jim Borgman with the Cincinnati Enquirer. It had several frames, each with an anchor teasing the same story, "Could your socks be killing you? Find out tonight at 11." "Is there something deadly lurking in your sock drawer? We'll tell you tonight." Then in the final panel, when the story airs, the anchor says, "Are your socks deadly? .....No."

((Credit to WLW's Bill Cunningham for the title of this article. On his radio show, he uses the phrase, "Our need to know supercedes your right to exist."))

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Art of the Handshake

When I was 20 years old, a sort of jerky Executive Producer with whom I worked did me a great favor. When I shook his hand, he slapped it away and told me my handshake was too wimpy. I imagine the handshake I gave him was a bit like the ones I have received since, from a variety of people- interns to professionals. Mostly women. Their hand just sits there, limply. It says, I have no confidence, feel free to roll right over me. It is not appealing to shake a hand like this. In fact, during an interview on this subject, a business etiquette expert, Pamela Holland (author of, "Help! What That a Career Limiting move?"), told me potential employers put wimpy handshakes above visible tattoos in terms of reasons not to hire you.

The favor the jerky EP did for me was to show me how to give a proper handshake. Connect with your hands, look the guy straight in the eye and give a shake that's firm, but not enough to restrict bloodflow. It will feel really weird at first and you will be self-conscious for a while, but eventually it will become a habit you don't even think about-- until you are on the receiving end of a wimpy handshake.

One final tip-- and I wish I could remember from whom I received it-- when you're circulating at a bar or party, keep your drink in your left hand so when you shake, your shaking hand won't feel cold and clammy.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

TV Jokes

Feel free to add yours...

"A photographer, a reporter and a producer are walking along a street. One of them kicks a lamp and out pops a genie. The genie says 'You each get one wish.'
The photographer says, 'I'd like to be on a beach with a bevy of babes.' Poof, he's gone.
The reporter says, 'I'd like to be skiing in the Alps with my boyfriend.' Poof, she's gone.
Then the genie turns to the producer.
The producer says, 'I sure wish you'd get those guys back here. We've got work to do.'"

"How many producers does it take to change a lightbulb?"
-One, but they keep changing it and changing it.

"How many producers does it take to change a lightbulb?"
-I don't know. What do you think?

"How many directors does it take to change a lightbulb?"
-It takes one. I mean three. Take two.

"What's a tv news consultant?"
-He's a guy who knows all the positions but has never had a girlfriend.

Arizona's Family-KTVK, 3TV Phoenix

There are a lot of great people who haved worked at KTVK over the years and this past week, I had the good fortune to see many of them. The occasion was tragic-- we were attending the memorial service of Jim Cox and Scott Bowerbank, the photographer and pilot who died when 3TV's helicopter crashed. As we gathered to remember Jim and Scott, those of us who have moved on from KTVK also remembered our time there.

I think all of us who worked for KTVK feel blessed to have done so, especially in the era when the Lewis family owned the station. It was one of the last of the family owned stations. When you needed something, you didn't send it up the corporate ladder to get it approved, you just went to Del and Jewell's office and asked. If you ran into Del in the elevator, he might tell you about his Cadillac that could get clear to Los Angeles without re-filling. And from time to time on the intercom, you'd hear an all building page-- crates of grapes from the Lewis farm were in shipping. There was also the occasional barbeque in the back lot.

A lot of us either learned our craft or honed it at KTVK. One of our bosses said he liked to hire good people and let them do their thing. A lot of corporate wonks SAY that, but few actually do it. Phrases like, "if you go too far, we'll pull you back," were not uncommon.

In television, perhaps more than any other business, people move. A lot of us have moved on since the Lewis years. Some went to bigger markers, some were rational and left the business. But so many came back for the memorial service. I could barely walk a few feet without running into someone. Others wished they could have made it. It's testimony not just to the two fine men who died last week, but to the family that Del and Jewell Lewis built. I think a lot of us realized it was special when we worked there. I just didn't realize how special it was till I left.