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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How to Screwup

I find the screwups that are hardest to deal with are my own. Other people? I expect them to make mistakes-- it's my job to have systems in place to catch them and to make sure things go smoothly. But my own slip-ups? I HATE them.

The best thing to do if you make a mistake is to own it. Not just apologize and say it will never happen again, but to truly sit with it for a while. That way, you can break it down and see what went wrong-- and what, if anything, in your performance you could have changed. Is there something systematic that you could put in place to catch the mistake?

Let's use an example: a simple graphics request.

Did graphics receive the request? Does graphics understand the request and do they have questions? Maybe the system change could be, "I will check with graphics an hour after I put a request in to see if there are any issues." Getting questions at three hours before showtime is a lot easier to deal with than a half hour before airtime.

What about spelling and style? I advocate reading and rereading aloud all graphics. Do we do this each and every time we make a graphic or do we think we are too busy and just send it off without double checking it? Sure graphics should catch your spelling and other errors, but that's not their job. And, most times, they are as slammed as you are, so they might be tempted to just cut and paste what you sent them.

Maybe another system change could be asking someone, anyone, to look over your request before you send it up. If you are a reporter or field producer, send it to the show producer. They should be looking at all graphic requests for their show, if not just to check for spelling, but also so that all graphics in the show have a consistent look and feel.

How about after the graphic is made? Is there anyway to see it? Some systems are automated and you can call it up. Maybe someone can email you a rough copy. Or, if the graphics department is in your building, maybe you can walk up there at some point in the day and check it out first hand.

If you haven't guessed, I screwed up a graphic last week and I am still sore about it. What's worse is that if I would have followed up in a few simple ways, it would not have been as painful as it was. Don't let this happen to you! Make mistakes, but have systems in place to catch them!

Friday, October 12, 2007

OCD: Admirable quality for Producers?

Checking the locks on your doors 150 times might be debilitating, but having OCD as it relates to your show is truly a gift. Check everything. Two or three times.

Finished reading that script? About to print? Read it again. Aloud.

How about your supers? We all make mistakes. A lot of systems automatically load supers or fonts into the show. Check them when you're looking at a script. But then, check the fonts, and only the fonts, again. Just go down the rundown, open a script, and see if just the font is ok. Spelled right? Not too many words? No weird abbreviations? Close it and go onto the next one.

Same with full screens or graphics. Some systems have producers or writers creating their own graphics. That's ANOTHER reason for a triple check since it's only your eyes on them. If the assignment editor gets slow at a certain point, have him or her-- or someone, anyone-- look at them just for a second set of eyes. If the graphics aren't available to look at in the system, walk back to graphics or the control room and have them pull the graphics up for you. Nothing's more obvious to viewers than a mistake with words on the screen.

Finally, is everyone on board for the show? Tell your anchors or director if you plan to do anything froggy. Make sure they understand what you're trying to do. In fact, make sure everyone understands what the plan is and what your expectations are, every night. Reiterate them and ask for confirmation.

Producers Should be Pessimists

It would be nice to have a good show. We all certainly don't work 9 or 10 hours hoping to have a disasterous one. But do yourself a favor. Plan for the worst. Expect your lead to go down. Have a backup plan. Or, as a producer Alice Main once said when I worked with her in Cincinnati, "Have a backup plan. Have a backup plan for your backup plan."

Generally if your lead is ok, you can wing the rest of the show. About 10-15 minutes before showtime, I would highly advise you to go back to where liveshots are tuned in and see what's up. Who's tuned in? Who has fed? Any problems with any of the liveshots?

Likewise, go back to editing. What's done? How is my lead? What do I need to worry about? Answers to these questions will help you create a workable backup plan.

The "keep it simple stupid" rule is applicable here. Generally, the best way to go if your lead is MIA is just on to the next story. Don't reinvent the wheel. If it was supposed to be "lead pkg" then a "vosot," just come out to the two shot or however you start the show... and then just go to the Vosot. Don't change anchor reads. Just keep going. If the pkg does come in, DO NOT try to throw it in immediately. Wait till you are in another pkg, a long sot or a break. That way you can tell the anchor, director and everyone else what you're planning. You may have it in your head exacly what you want to do, but everyone else has to be on board too. If you announce these kinds of decisions in a pkg or a break, everyone has a second to adjust and get their head around it.

You want viewers at home to have no idea anything went wrong. One of the biggest compliments I got was from a boss one time after a show where I did some major surgery. He called and questioned me about the placement a certain story in the show. The show was so smooth, he had no idea we went to that story only because we didn't have something else.

After you work with folks for a while, you will know which reporters you can count on, and which ones will give you heart palpitations. Some stations have a ten minute rule. I don't buy hard and fast rules. Use your best judgement-- it's news, things happen. But if there's a reporter who misses slot without a good reason (breaking news, equipment failure, act of God), you may want to start pestering them at fifteen out. If their story's looking iffy, tell them you'd prefer a clean vosot to a no show pkg. If it's an ongoing problem, try to address it and solve it with them first. As a last resort schedule a meeting for the two of you to discuss with your boss.

Last night's showtape

I think you should try to record your show each day. Here's why:

If someone calls you out of the blue, or you see your dream job on tvjobs.com, you can send a letter and resume tape THAT day. I used to do this when I was show producer. It was great to be able to shoot off a cover letter that says, "Oh yeah, and uh, here's last night's show tape." Meaning, I don't have a good show and hold onto it for four months, I do consistently good work every single night.

So what happens if your show is a debacle? I am not advocating this is every case, but an anchor in Cincinnati once encouraged me to go ahead and send the show anyway. Her point? Any monkey can produce a show when things go according to plan. Great show producers can make a show look smooth even when things are falling a part. Just make sure to include notes explaining what you did and why-- and how you, producer of all producers, were able to save the day.

Example: "I wasn't meaning to lead with the Congo Line live shot, but the lead crashed right before we went to it. I went with my backup plan. You'll note that the anchor didn't miss a beat. That's because just before our show, I always tell my anchor and crew what we'll do if our lead were to go belly up."

Even if you don't send out your "nightly" tape, keep one. That way the first thing you can do when you get to work is watch last night's show with fresh eyes. I know this is painful. I HATED watching my shows because I would see a million things I could have done better. But also, occasionally, you'll think, "Eh, not too bad."

Finally, just knowing that you are recording your show and might possibly send it to someone gives renewed enthusiasm for doing your absolute best on every show.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Field producing

Someone asked about field producers. You can usually find them in mid to large markets, lots of times in health, consumer and investigative units. The job description varies from shop to shop, but basically, if you have some poor reporter or anchor expected to turn segments in several shows, they're going to need some help. I've field produced in three markets, all 30 and higher. In each of them, I acted like an off-air reporter. I'd take stories from start to finish and then hand them off to a reporter or anchor to voice.

It's a great gig. In Cincinnati, I was a weekend producer and weekday field producer. So about the time I'd get fried on show producing, I could break out of the building and just be in charge of my 1:30. It also made me a better show producer. You get a much better sense of what crews are going through and what you can ask of them when you're stuck out there a couple days a week. You also have something to bring to the party in terms of contacts and story ideas. For every story you go out on, you should be looking to bring back at least one story idea culled from the people you've interviewed.

Years later, when I worked in Phoenix, I got burnt out on show producing and I didn't want to go into management. The station management at the time was very kind and wide-minded enough to allow me to field produce full-time. I was assigned to our consumer/investigative unit. It was a great crash course on research and customer service for viewers. I got to be one of the "experts" in the newsroom, a person reporters could come to when they needed a source or if they needed ideas on how to flesh out a story.

While I loved show producing in that you could really impact what people are seeing at home, field producing is also really gratifying. If you'd like to try it out, I suggest volunteering to go out with a photographer on your day off. Do it a few times and you'll get into a groove of how to work with a photographer and how to interview and turn stories. You can also ask your station managers to let you take a "break" by field producing. Maybe ask for a day of field producing after a tough book, for example. Finally, you can find opportunities to field produce on big stories when there are multiple crews in the field. Often, your coverage will go better if you have a producer out there coordinating coverage. I find that show producers often make the best field producers because they get the big picture and can mediate well between field crews and the station.

At the network level, field producer duties run the gamut. I may do an interview, write, do story set up and research or make travel arrangements. I always coordinate live shots, letting New York know what tapes we'll be using and when, as well as making sure those tapes are fed and everything's ready to go. It's not so much to do when you only have a couple live hits during the day, but on breaking stories, we'll have hits on the hour or half hour or more, as well as affiliate hits, radio requests and sometimes the odd liveshot for Sky news.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Meeting video

It's deadly boring. Even if it's a :20 second vo. And it's worse in a pkg. If you have a crew going to the town anyway, why not swing by and spray something the town's know for? The water tower, "Welcome to Dickman" sign, anything that is associated with the town. That buys you some time away from the meeting video.

Acronym Inaccuracy

This drives me crazy.
Here are two examples I hear all the time, but there are others.

"HIV virus..."
So there's a human immunodeficiency virus virus?

"ATM machine..."
As in, the automated teller machine machine.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Am I hitting the mark?

I realize everybody comes from different backgrounds so if there is a topic you'd like me to hit, let me know. I want to be as useful to you as possible. I have worked in market 98 to network, been a show producer and a field producer-- and I have opinions about everything. Let me know! Pitlist@gmail.com

Time is Not on Your Side, Part 2

Sometimes you have too much news. Other times, you have 30 minutes of show and two minutes of content.

An email from a producer in a smaller market reminded me not everyone is blessed with writers. With that in mind, here is some advice that might help.

Set priorities.
You can't do everything with the same amount of effort or everything won't get done. Pick a few things you want to knock out of the park (like open, teases, a special graphic) and then crank the rest of it out.

Bottoms up
When I would write a show myself, I would try to knock out the teasable, unchangable things first. Like if there's some consumer or health story on the feed, do a little pkg on it. You are looking at your video anyway, so instead of writing 3 unrelated vos, write one minipkg. The feed pkgs are usually easy to break down and you can shoot that stuff back to editing so they will have something to start working on.

Write the bottom half of your show first so you can forget about it and then focus on the stories in your first couple of blocks.

Double duty reporters

Many times reporters have a second aspect or angle to a story. Have them do a minute hit on it.

If they can't be live in your show, ask for a one minute looklive. Nothing fancy, just them standing in front of the camera jabbering. Then edit can cover with the video they feed back. You may even pop an animation on the top and bottom (if you have them) and just roll right into it out of another story or a break.

Here's another two-fer. Is there a live shot where a reporter is doing something where maybe you could get a guest for a minute of q and a? For example, I am out here in Houston doing immigration live shots, but the county sheriff's pio is in the same building so it wouldn't be too hard to pull him out here, flip the camera around to make it look a little different and ask him about some other pressing issue.

When all else fails, go national

Take national liveshots- but you don't have to take the pkg, which can be boring. Instead, write your own vo into it and have your anchors ask a question or two. Be careful! Keep all q and a quick or it will be dull, dull, dull. Cut some more vo (if you can) and take it full or in a double box during the q and a.

So here's how that might break down into a 2nd block segment. Roll out of the break into your intro vo. Pop up one anchor for the last graph of the intro. Turn to a two shot with a live monitor between them or switch to a double box with the national talent. Ask your questions (quickly) and move on.

Double duty talent

Another way to eat time is have the wx guy front whatever daily weather video there is. Make it a separate story going into wx. Wx guys ad lib anyway so you may not have to write anything.

Or maybe there is something fitness related the sports guy can front. Maybe somebody else in the newsroom wants a little more facetime. The toss to another person makes the story look larger and eats up a little more time, even if you are the one writing it. And more faces in the show is always more interesting.

One final note

For those of you toiling in small markets and on overnights, keep the faith! You won't be there long! Some bigger market, better show will snap you up quickly! As a producer, your future is golden.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Getting the full impact from full screens

A word about full screen graphics. They can be a great tool for your show as long as they are done properly. Sadly, it's not that difficult to find newscasts that contain wordy and confusing full screens.

For starters, words on the screen must match your copy. No exceptions. Change your copy if you have to. When the words don't match the screen, it's really annoying. You keep trying to read but then you are listening to something totally different. Why make things any harder for your viewer?

For all full screens, keep the words on each page to a minimum. For long quotes, break them up! Make several panels. It's not great tv, but if you have to use a quote, try to make it as user friendly as possible. Nothing is worse than seeing a full screen panel with microscopic print that sits up there thirty or forty seconds.

For bullet points, keep each bullet to three or four words tops.Have them add on so there is some visual change. Again, words must match copy exactly.

Who should request full screen graphics? I think it should only be producers so that you will have a consistent look throughout the show. Never let a reporter request something without you at least looking at it. Even though it is in their pkg, you want it to fit in with the rest of your show.

Also, if you can, look at your full screens prior to the show. Chyron operators make mistakes. So do show producers. If you check the finished product prior to air, you avoid unpleasant suprises.