Taking ownership, from the first line of the anchor intro

Reporters, I know this is a big pet peeve.  The producer writes the anchor intro or rewrites it and steals all of your thunder, just gives away the big surprise or the really good stuff in your package.  That’s why I am writing this article my friends.  Good storytelling begins with the first line of the anchor intro and ends with the last line in the anchor tag.  Notice, I did not say package.  I did not say reporter track.  I did not even say live shot.  It all begins with the anchor intro.

This is an important concept for both reporters and producers to understand and take seriously.  Crafting a story begins with the anchor’s ability to make the viewer want to hear it.  Then the reporter’s video, information and hopefully a surprise element or two (or three, four and five!) will keep the viewer engaged.  The tag line should satisfy the viewer that you (as in the team) truly spelled out the entire story to the best of your ability at the time.  Executing this way enhances the credibility of everyone involved and makes viewers trust the whole news team more.

So let’s talk anchor intros and storytelling.  First I have to point out what NOT to do.  Say the reporter is at a hit and run.  The typical way to pitch to the reporter is to have the anchor give a rundown of what happened, then go the reporter with what happened.  Something like: “Tonight investigators are trying to find a driver involved in a hit and run.  Two women were struck (please don’t say and are fighting for their lives FYI) and traffic is still at a standstill while police piece it all together.  Here’s reporter at the scene.”  Then the reporter stands there looking frustrated and repeats the same information, because it just happened and there’s nothing else to explain yet.  In this scenario you just spit out a bunch of facts.  The anchors stole the thunder from the reporter on the scene by stating everything relevant before the reporter that’s standing there got a chance.  The viewer notices you are being redundant and wonders why the anchors and the reporter didn’t talk to each other before the newscast came on the air.  Yes, viewers really do catch this sort of thing.  They may not be able to spell it out as clearly as I just did, but they are great at getting the point across another way, clicking onto another channel.  You become too repetitive.  The remote is too easy to click.  Never forget that.

So what do you do instead?  Give the anchors a chance to interact with the reporter (we will call him Bob) from the start.  In this breaking news situation the anchor would say something like: “We want to check in with Bob right away for you.  That’s because he’s on First Street in Typical City where some women were hit by a car. (take double boxes here)  Bob, you just told me police are there looking for the driver.   So what do witnesses say happened?”

This gives Bob a chance to tell a story even with just basic facts.  He can walk around the scene and point out anything interesting, and stay engaged with the anchors.  In breaking situations like this, I often had my director keep double boxes handy in case my anchors came up with a question during the live shot.  This way I had the option to take the boxes and have the anchor ask the reporter for clarification etc., and stay engaged.

Now let’s move from story telling, breaking news anchor intro’s to planned out  live shots with a package.  The kind you have time to finesse.  First, understand, as an EP I usually required reporters to turn in anchor intros before getting script approval for their live shots and/or pkgs. Tags were due right then and there as well, unless the reporter was waiting on a specific fact.  In that case I asked for an outline of the tag.  Why require an anchor intro with the script?   It forced the reporter to segment out the information.  It helped the entire segment, from anchor pitch, to live intro to pkg to live tag, to anchor wrap up, all flow better.  It helped avoid the situation above.  Again, so we are clear, that scenario was:  Anchor intro gives away all the facts, then the reporter repeats, then the tag repeats again.  So reporters, how do you write the anchor intro?  You pick out the headline, the what’s in it for me or “WIFM” (if you don’t know what that means read “What is viewer benefit really” first.)  Before you fuss that this is giving the story away, hear me out.  That is NOT your surprise.  The “WIFM” is the hook that will make your viewer want to watch your piece.  It is the connector.  That means your package needs a human element and ah-ha moment and/or a surprise to live up to the viewer’s expectation.  If you need help with those elements read “Storytelling on a dime.”

Producers, do not write anchor intros unless it’s the lead story of the newscast or breaking news.  (By that I mean it happened so late your crew will be getting on the scene during your show, or shortly before.)  Yes, you can copy edit the anchor intros for time and to make sure the sell is in the intro.  If a reporter hands you a 30 second intro with sloppy writing and no WIFM make the reporter rewrite.  Remember, this anchor intro exercise helps the reporter break down the facts into sections so they are not: (a) just repeated over and over until the viewer is screaming “Enough I get it move on!” to the television screen.  Or (b) so wishy washy the anchors seem clueless and uninformed.  Remember, hardworking reporter, you do not get dibs on all the facts.  You must share.

This sharing is especially true if you’re discussing the lead story.  I used to let the reporter I had tagged as the lead know as soon as I could.  This meant we would write the anchor intro together. Yes, we would actually sit on the phone and hash it out.  Why?  I needed the copy to be compelling and accurate.  I needed to make sure that the anchors were able to set the tone for the newscast authoritatively and effectively.  I also wanted the reporter to really shine.  We had to do that as a team, from the anchor intro on.  Yes, that meant my lead package elements were often hashed out earlier than the other stories in the newscast, unless the facts were late breaking.  But even with late turning stories, the reporter knew what the sell was going to be in the anchor intro, so he/she could flow easily to the next fact in the story before air.

Now let’s talk anchor intro rewrites.  Producers, you cannot just copy edit the anchor intro, change the essence of it, switch the pitch line and not inform the reporter.  Simply put, that’s unacceptable.  If you do this, the reporter will (a) stop giving you anchor intros at all (b) call the EP or AND and pitch a fit about you or (c) be caught off guard when you go to him/her and seem uncomfortable.  Treat the anchor intro with a lot of care.  If you cannot wait for a rewrite from the reporter, copy edit then call and read the reporter what you wrote.  Make sure you are not stealing any thunder.  Try not to change the essence of the copy.  Your job is to make the anchors and reporters look like a cohesive unit, not two independent entities that happen to come back to back and talk about the same subject.

Which leads to my final point about why reporters should always begin their stories by writing anchor intros:  It forces you to talk with your copy editor during the day.   You have a responsibility to make sure your idea of the sell for your package jibes with the ideas of the producers, managers and the promotions writers.  Good story telling involves solid sells.  You cannot story tell if you have no point.  The point of the piece is what the anchors need to allude to in the anchor intro.  The promotion is just as crucial and the point of the piece is what is promoted.  You do not want promotions to air a tease that is way off base.  It makes all of you look bad.  Calling in to the producer or a manager with an outline of your piece, including the anchor intro, will prevent miscommunication.  It will make your life easier 90 percent of the time.  It is a true mark of taking ownership and telling good stories.