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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Quote of the Day

As you stare at your rundown featuring a weak lead and worse kicker, remember:

"Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right or doing it better."

-John Updike

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Of Cams and Courtrooms

I just read an interesting article about a photographer in court who took a picture of a note that wasn't in evidence. The photographer's paper then used information from that note in a story.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Blow up Your Show for Fun and Promotions

If you want to be a better producer and move up in your newsroom or to another market, nothing will assist you in this more than being able to roll with the punches. You may have created the most beautiful rundown in the world, but if some breaking news comes in at the last minute and you can't figure out how to put it in your newscast, you should seriously consider another career. What divides good producers from great ones is the ability to wing it and fly by the seat of their pants, especially in the control booth. It is the ability to manage chaos, to have everything thrown at you and still manage to have everyone on the same page and the show looking good.

Have a plan for spot news. For example, there's a big fire. Will the reporter be there live by the top of the show? If not, can we get a mast cam and have reporter on the phone? Or a spokesperson from the Fire Department? Or a neighbor from next door? Or will the anchor "tease" the fire at the top of the show, promising a live report later? Can you get a map?

Keep hitting the breaking news throughout the show if it's continuing. Whatever you decide to do, make sure anchors and the crew understand what you want to do. Tell them as early as possible. "I'm going to take Suzie off the top on the fire. If Suzie's not there, Bob will ad lib some info on the fire from the mast cam." Or whatever. Just make sure everyone knows what you're doing and how this impacts their part of the show.

Don't get too fancy. Put spot news in at the top and float everything else down. Change is confusing enough for the director so don't shoot yourself in the foot by getting too complicated.

Talk to anchors (and directors for that matter) in sots, pkgs or breaks. Resist the urge to tell them about stuff while they are reading. Feed anchors the info they need for the next thing they will be doing. Who's at bat, who's on deck? Don't feed too much information from the rest of the show, just feed what they need to know next.

Change is good for you.
Change is good for your show.
Put the best, newest stuff in your show, without exception.
Do this on a regular basis, even with small stories that trickle into the newsroom. Throw in a vo you were not expecting and you'll get in the habit of changing things up. It will make you better prepared to do major surgery to your show, should such an occasion arise. And it will.

Your show should look radically different and have substantially different stories than the show that preceded you. Anything else is the hallmark of a lazy producer.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Making a Graphic Request & Checking it Twice

Just saw a show with not one, but two spelling errors on the same full screen graphic. Please, for the love of humanity--- READ YOUR GRAPHIC REQUESTS OUT LOUD before handing them in. Your ears will catch mistakes your eyes don't see.

Also, consider designating someone, anyone, in the newsroom to look over your graphics requests for obvious errors.
It can be an anchor.
It can be someone on the desk.
It can an intern as long as you get a second set of eyes on them.

For producers who do some of their own graphics through system templates, this is even more important.

Your Face on TV, Every Time

Just had an email discussion with a reporter who's a friend of mine regarding the relative value of standups in a pkg.

I think reporters ought to have their face in every pkg they do. To me, there's no excuse not to have a standup or some kind of reporter presence in each and every story. Otherwise, why not just hire field producers? Or print reporters, for that matter? What you bring as talent to the piece is your ability to connect with the viewer and be their stand-in at the story.

The more faces you get in the show the better. It makes your show look large. I like to have people tape standups for stories... even if it's a reporter who did a pkg in the early and will be off by showtime. Have them shoot a one minute "looklive" from the field and insert a bite and video. Or have front a vosot from the newsroom.

The point is-- this is television. We get to see our reporters. That's why we hire so many good looking folks who can talk.

All I Ever Really Needed to Know about Show Producing... I Learned From Sesame Street

I remember having a discussion with a former boss of mine. I said something like, "Viewers began to have a shorter attention span with the advent of MTV. " The boss disagreed said it started much earlier, with Sesame Street. Watch the program and you'll see what he means. Each segment is fairly brief and when they switch segments, you see something totally different.

When I got my first show, another producer gave me some advice, "You just want each story to look a little different from the last one, so change it up a little bit each time. But of course, you already know all this." I had no idea.

Following his advice, here's what the top of each story in a first block might look like:

2-shot (one anchor reads one graph)
Take Single Cam (other anchor reads one graph)
Toss double box to live reporter (one graph).

2nd story.

3rd story

4th Story

5th Story
((I throw the chroma in because no matter how small your market is, everybody has a chroma key. You may not have a flat screen monitor or video wall, but you have graphics make a chroma and voila- you have a new place to put your anchors or reporter. Make the chroma generic like "Tonight at Ten" or whatever and you can use it over and over.))

You get the idea. Play with it. There are no hard fast rules except keep it interesting.

Also, change it up in terms of visual elements. This helps with pacing. If you've had a couple vo's, throw in some sound or NATS full just to break it up. Toss an interesting vo or vosot between two pkgs. Again, no hard rules, but try to think about the overall packaging of your show in addition to the content. I like to pick a show I enjoyed watching and then steal ideas. Fox Report on the Fox News Channel has some of the best pacing on t.v. right now. But I may not be completely be unbiased.

Wipe Out!

When do you wipe between stories? When SHOULD you wipe between stories?

Wiping can help pick up the pace of a show, but it can also lend a sense that stories are connected in some way, when they might not be. Something to think about.

*So maybe you have a couple of consumer stories? Wipe yourself out.
*A block of a few national stories? Wipe away.
*Wipe into the next local story that has nothing to do with the last couple stories you've done? Not so much.

Also, keep in mind that you want your anchors to be seen as much as possible. That may keep you from wiping. In the national or consumer stories example... maybe have your anchor extablish at the top... wipe/wipe/wipe and then on cam tag to finish out that chunk of stories.

Stupid Reporter Bag

A friend of mine and fine photographer used to keep what he called a "Stupid Reporter Bag." It had socks, an extra jacket and gloves, etc. The reason was that inevitably, some reporter would come out with him on a story and get stuck, wholly unprepared for the elements.

I like to keep my own version of the stupid reporter bag which changes according to season. If there's even a possiblity of snow or ice anywhere in my region, I pack thermals, good gloves, heavy socks and a couple packs of hand warmers. In the Spring, it's rain gear, a plastic sandwich bag for my phone, mosquito spray, sunscreen, etc. The point is-- imagine the worst case scenerio of what you might be sent out on and then plan accordingly.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Who's Who

Sometimes you get sent on stuff and have no idea what the main players look like. I find this happens a lot with elections. Stations will all but ignore political coverage during the campaign but then expect you to score big on election night. I find google image searches handy for this. Go to:


Type in the name in quotes to search.

For elections, the candidates' websites are also a place to find pics. If you've got a few minutes, make some flashcards for yourself. Print out images of all the candidates and spokespeople you'll need to know and then put a brief summary of info on each one, including the name and cell phone of that candidate's handler. That will help you familiarize yourself with them and be able to recognize them quickly on election night.

Court Cases

Sorry I haven't posted for a while. I've been working on the YFZ Ranch/FLDS story. Which brings me to a new post-- court cases. They can be difficult especially since in local tv, you don't generally get to cover the whole trial, just the opening, closing and verdict. It's really hard to be parachuted in to cover the end of the trial and be expected to get everything when it's the first time you've stepped foot in the courtroom.

Here are some suggestions:

If at all possible, have the same reporter do beginning and end of trial. Let them be in the court as much as they can so they can know the players and chat them up. Sometimes the media is sent into an overflow room-- which is fine, you can still hear testimony, except that I you won't be able to recognize all the main people and develop a rapport with them.

If you can't keep your reporter in the court through the whole trial (and most can't) at least try to have a body in the court. Have an intern who's gathering dust at the desk? Send them and have them make contact with people (daily) and monitor developements. Later, they can hang with the photographer to show them who's who on entries and exits. After the verdict, they can also grab interviews for you.

Having the same photog covering the trial throughout can also be helpful-- for the same reason that they'll know who the players are.

Make friends with the folks in the judge's office. Put requests in early to talk with jurors. Make sure you have a couple names on any contact lists they may have.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Special Events Planning Part 2

There is no set plan for special events. What you do depends on the event. A lot of you will probably have elections stuff coming up. It's never too soon to start planning. Even if it's just talking to people to get a better sense of what kind of time line you'll actually need to get things done. I am a huge fan of "back-timing your life," so once you get a list of all the things you need to get done, arrange it in a manner where the deadline is the event. It's almost like you might plan a party as my cheesy time line below illustrates...

Wed: Pickup Balloons
Thur: Decorate
Fri: Pick up enchiladas from Rosa's Cantina.
Sat/9a: Clean
11a: Put enchiladas in oven
1130a: Set flowers and food out
Noon: Guests arrive

Point being, if you have a master list, you don't have to worry about forgetting things.

At the earliest stages of your planning, talk to EVERYONE you can think of. Find a producer or EP who has planned the event before or done something similar. Call a friend in a different market who may have had experience with it.

Site survey early! Bring a trusted photog who has done this type of event before and have them walk through the location with you. I think the best way to do things is not to go in with too many preconceived ideas about how the coverage will take place. Have a few ideas and throw it out to the people who will actually make it happen- "This is what I would like to accomplish, how can we make that happen?" That leaves it open-ended and asks people for their creative input. So, for example, I produced a live consumer show from a woman's house. I told the photographer, "I'd like a different look each time we come to our anchor." I didn't specify locations or rooms, I just let him take it from there. Same with graphics. "I'd like something that animates and has this kind of feel." Let the graphics person amaze you. But check in early and often to make sure you're on the same page.

Another key element of site survey is -- Where are we going to put the truck or trucks? Send your trucks out in advance to make sure you can get a signal or reach the satellite. Is it on a busy street? Is parking limited? Are there tall buildings around? Will the truck need to park the night before? VERY IMPORTANT: Will I need special permits to park here? Permits that need to be filed in triplicate three weeks in advance? If there is a police presence, make best friends with the officer coordinating.

With elections, call campaigns early and often about their plans and don't forget to contact the Board of Elections people as well.

Note to Photogs Re: Murphy's Law

When setting up live shots and deciding whether or not to cable across train tracks, consider that the fine police officers who told you, "Oh no, another train won't be coming through for days," might, in fact, be clueless (or malicious) and leave you scrambling to retrieve a dozen or so cables in two minutes or so you have as an impending train approaches.

Note to Self Re: Hotels

When coming to a city for an assignment and one is not sure how long said assignment is going to last, it might make some sense to book the crew's hotel for say, a whole week. The rooms can, after all, be cancelled. If perhaps, one only books for a two days and then forgets to extend-- and the rest of the goofball press arrives and grabs every available room within a 50 mile radius, the crew might find themselves at the Bates Motel with sagging beds and a "massager" that takes quarters. I am exaggerating only slightly.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Small Market Slammin'

I was in a small market newsroom the other day and it reminded me that not every producer has a huge cadre of writers. Or any writers, for that matter. With that in mind, here's some advice for cranking out a show solo.

When you are writing the whole show, you must write really fast. There is no time for dawdling over scripts. Just get a version out and then edit it. I only started paying attention to how fast I wrote after a bad experience when I was a young writer. A producer took a script I was working on and gave it to ANOTHER writer because he thought I'd been working on it too long. I assure you that never happened again-- because from that day forward, I started timing myself on how long it took me to write each script. I gave myself ten minutes for vos, 15 for vosots, etc.

Start writing from the bottom of your show.
Do the things you are least likely to change FIRST. For me, that meant writing the kicker first, then stories around weather and sports and b-block tease-ables. With the rest of the show out of the way, then you can focus your attention on the first block and the stories that are likely to change.

Try to do the easiest stories first.
Nothing gives you a feeling of satisfaction like cranking out a ton of stories. Read everything you can all day and listen to and watch every radio and tv newscast you can. This will make it easier when you sit down to write and also help catch little mistakes when you proofread. Were there three cars in that accident or four? If you've been listening to it all day, you're less likely to miss the mistake. Having all that info in your head also makes it infinitely easier to write a story than if you're just seeing and learning about it.

After finishing the easiest and least changable stories, then you can slow down a little and focus on some items that might take more of your time. Do this in managable chunks, So, for example, I might take my national or international wires back and look at the video for each of them and then come back and crank through those stories. Then I might take my local vos back to editing and look at and write those. Then vosots. And so on. You get the idea. With many newsrooms going tapeless and video delivered to your desktops, writing becomes even easier.

If your anchors write, that's awesome. It might make some sense to let them chose what they'd like to write. Another option is saving them for one big project, like the national story you want to package as a lead or local reporter piece you want to redo into a mini-pkg. Better yet, have reporters who turned the story leave a version for you, even if it's a vo.

NEVER hand off opens and teases. Those are yours and they are some of the most important parts of the show.

The best part of being able to write a show all by yourself is that when you get to a market where there ARE writers, you feel like you've been dropped onto another planet called "the lap of luxury." You may even catch yourself saying something stupid like, "It's just easier for me to write it than to have to read someone else's scripts and change them."

Careful with Video

Be careful using file video for current and possibily litigation inspiring stories. For example, when talking about several baggage handlers caught stealing from luggage, best not to show file video of random luggage handlers. Same goes for any file video where the people in the file might be mistaken for the criminals in your story.