He Got More Air Time: Decoding The Read Counter

When a producer sent me an email about this issue, I had to shake my head a little.  Been there a couple of times.  I could just see the anchor that used to count the number of stories lecturing me again.  I also could see the anchor that used to count how much time reading she got versus her co-anchor handing me a list that tracked a one week period.  She was shocked when I stared at her in disbelief.  In a week’s time, the cumulative amount differed by less than a minute.  Seriously?  This is what she worried about?

Here’s the deal.  Anchor reads will never be completely even.  It just isn’t possible.  There are tricks to get them pretty darn close though.  I will explain those in a minute.  First I want to talk about this “read counting” mentality.  Read counters, who base their worth on how often they are on the air, versus their co-anchor create all kinds of problems.  The biggest negative impacts: Themselves and other anchors.  Here’s why.  When a producer sees that you spend your time counting the seconds to make sure you get your face time, you are telling that producer that all you care about is being on TV.  That is simply the truth. In fact, my read counter actually said to me, “My audience needs to see me more than my co-anchor.  They count on seeing me.  I just know I am a bigger draw than her.  You must want her to be the draw and not me.”  How does a producer, who cares about getting crucial information out to the viewer place confidence in that mentality?  It made it very hard to trust that if I gave him breaking news, he would use due diligence to make sure the information was correct.  He also was the only anchor in the shop to pitch a fit if he actually had to go “in the field” to turn a story unless he deemed it glamorous.  This example is not unique.  Producers talk.  We love to tell each other who the read counter is.  That’s the person you never hand the big breaker.  That’s the person you avoid at all costs.  That’s the anchor whose critiques often fall on deaf ears.  Fair or not, that’s what happens.  The stigma is there.  You only care about face time, not being a thorough and complete journalist.

Now, let’s address the time counter.  The producer who emailed me gave the example of an anchor saying “ My co-anchor had 1:15 in reads, I had :50 seconds.”  This simply screams, “I love my face time. I need all the face time.  Look at me I’m on TV!”  Look, obviously all anchors like a little face time.  If you hated it, you would not be on TV.  But again, this sends the message that you care more about being recognized out and about town than being a solid journalist.  Not the reputation you want in a newsroom, period.  Time counters are considered petty, arrogant and superficial.  It just makes you look bad.

Now the kicker, for all the other anchors who are solid journalists.  Because of read and time counters, producers often get defensive about reads.  So when there is a legitimate issue, like one anchor being written out of 7 minutes in the a-block, that anchor may not raise a red flag for fear of being labeled “high maintenance.”  There are times, when there are legitimate issues with reads.  Newbie producers often make this mistake until they get enough of a handle on designing the rundown, timing it correctly and making deadlines.  That’s a long wait for the anchors who just don’t want to disappear for big chunks of news blocks.

So here’s the solution.  First, producers should trade off who leads the newscast, and each block.  For example, let’s take Joe and Amy.  On Monday, Joe leads the a-block, Amy the b-block and on down the line.  If you have an hour long show, have Joe lead the a-block Monday, then Amy leads the 30 block.  Switch on Tuesday.  Repeat.  This only takes a second to do, and really helps make the reads appear even.  The second part to creating even reads is to try and make sure the anchor reads change every two minutes or so.  If you have a package that is 2:30, the anchor who introduced it should read the tag.  If it is a long tag, do it on a two shot to re-establish team as long as the next story is not a rough transition.  If you have a rough transition before the two minute time is up, switch then and get back to the other anchor within two minutes.  Of course, you can’t make it every two minutes on the nose, but it is a good approximate time to keep in mind.

So there you have it. That’s why read counters do what they do.  That’s what it means and how to stave it off.  If you are a read counter, and your producer switches block leads and tries to change reads every two minutes or so, stop complaining.  Your reputation depends on it.