Producer driven, doesn’t mean absolute power.

The trend in the TV industry keeps moving more toward the concept that “content is king.”  In fact in the “2011 State of the News Media Annual Report,” trends show that in many markets managers consider newscasts appeal to be the brand more than the anchors.  This means more newsrooms are turning into so called producer driven shops.  Producers are becoming more of a commodity.  With that comes more power.  I even know of newsrooms in recent years where on air personalities took double digit pay cuts, while producers only had pay freezes.  You can hear grumblings, “Yep it’s good to be the producer.”  I also have seen some of those producers develop diva tendencies.

As a former producer it is nice to see producers get some long deserved respect for all the hard work.  The job is a grind with a high burnout rate.  Producers should be rewarded and compensated for taking on such an intense job.  That said, you still need to form smart alliances with your coworkers.  Especially reporters.  In “Hey she got more time,” we explain to reporters how to think more like a producer.  Now it’s time for producers to think more like reporters.  Here’s why:  When news managers decide “content is king” this ups the ante on producers to provide fresh elements in newscasts.  In other words, with more attention placed on what you put into a newscast comes a price.  You, the show producer, need to break news.  You need to have fresh angles while on the line churning shows.  You need to story tell even when the content is not presented in a reporter package form.  (see “Produce it up.”)

Producers, the point is without your reporters solidly behind you, your newscast and you will fail. The crews provide the great nat sound for your local vo/sots.  Reporters and assignment editors provide insight on how to source build if you are clueless.  And don’t think that you won’t be expected to break news because you sit in the newsroom all day grinding a rundown.  I worked in many producer driven shops and, in one of them, I was required to break 3 stories a week as a producer.  Yes, that was on top of putting together my newscast and being unable to leave the newsroom to have lunches and shake hands with potential sources.  How did I pull it off?  I learned from some great reporters and assignment editors.

When content becomes a larger focus than showcasing anchor personalities, producers lose leeway for making mistakes.  Mistiming a show and blowing a meter point can become a fire-able offense.  I worked for one management team that did not allow us to go 15 seconds past a meter point.  15 seconds leeway is not easy to pull off, even when you are a seasoned producer.  This means you cannot afford to have reporters miss slot.  You cannot afford to have reporters turn in packages under or over time without your knowledge.  The weather person cannot go long.  Seeing my point here, yet?  Producer driven shops actually make producers more dependent on other positions in the newsroom performing at a high level, for producers to also keep their jobs.

This leads to a big revelation for us control freak producers.  Life doesn’t flow like a rundown.  Commit that one to memory.  Life doesn’t flow like a rundown.  Time and again I witnessed producers that just could not roll well with change, especially late in their shift.  Reporters were berated.  Anchors were screamed at.  The assignment desk was attacked mercilessly.  You are paid to execute plans.  You are told to make sure certain types of content runs at certain points.  You hold your breath and hope to make the meter point to the second.  On any given day the reality is, you will get about half of what you need to make your newscast sing.

You are paid to make it work even when you are handed a pile of crap. Lashing out at reporters and assignment editors that are not giving you the content you hoped for is a quick way to guarantee they will not go the extra mile to give you content the next day.  If you want a newscast with killer content, and you don’t want to find all of it yourself each day, you need to cut your reporters SOME slack and hear them out when you are told certain angles just aren’t there.  Sure there are some reporters you can count on more than others.  Remember to not burn your stars that try to never leave you hanging.  Those reporters are smart enough to know they are a big asset to you and can start pitching their ideas for other newscasts.  This is especially true in mid to large sized markets.

So how do you think like a reporter?  First have a frame of reference that stories don’t just appear in an hour.  Be cognizant of drive time for field crews for example.  If you want to tease a story that takes 2 hours for the crew to drive to, late in the day, then get creative about the tease and leave the crew largely alone.  Don’t start calling to make sure the angle you want on a story is really happening, two hours after the crew walked out the door.  That is, unless it is a late breaker and you have no choice because you are about to go to air.  Be prepared to be flexible and move reporter pkgs around in the rundown if you must.  Design a backup lead in case yours falls through.  Field crews must be flexible all day long.  Producers need to do the same, as much as possible.  No, this doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards for content for your newscast.  But it may mean you have to turn more of it yourself on a given day, if the crews are struggling.  Do not berate the assignment desk or field crews over story ideas people come in with and belittle them by calling them “stupid” etc.  If you do, expect major backlash!  The thinking is “If you’re so great think of the ideas yourself.”  I have been in plenty of editorial meetings and watched many reporters say, “I have story ideas but you won’t like them so tell me what I am turning today.”  Suddenly you are in a very uncomfortable position.

Lastly, think about what it’s like to be left out to dry as a reporter.  Do not leave field crews hanging, waiting to go live, without any clue when this will actually happen.  Give crews time cues.  If you must float them say “floating you.” There is little worse than standing in front of a camera, ready to go, and just hanging there wondering when you are actually going to be on.  It is excruciating!  I knew producers that would routinely get breaking news, then leave field crews sitting in ready position, for 20 minutes or more, without a word spoken to them.  Then suddenly they would hear, “You’re up!” and the anchor is pitching.”  IFB is going in and out. The field crew is thoroughly confused and caught off guard on camera!  When quizzed about these tight spots the producers would say, “You should just be ready for when I say ‘Go!’”  This is so unprofessional.  It takes no time to say, “floating” or “stand down, need a few minutes.”  Making your field crew hang in the balance feels like the heart pumping wait you endure when a package feeds at the last second before it is supposed to air. You hold your breath. You take a chance and you pray you don’t screw up and pitch to a story that isn’t cued up yet.  Your adrenaline is gushing and it just plain stinks!  You know how that feels don’t you?  No reporter wants to be taken live looking like he/she is clueless to their surroundings.  Just before air, even the most seasoned reporter has his/her adrenaline pumping, ready to go.  Be respectful of what it takes to stand motionless and stare straight into the camera to cleanly go live.  Give updates.  Make sure the crew knows you are ready to go.  Always remember, you don’t have absolute power.  The best leaders respect and build up the people around them.