Coming out of the black hole, how to make the most out of late news live shots

I’ve been traveling and one market I was in, is really putting heavy emphasis on its late  newscasts.  Competition is tight, a new broadcasting powerhouse just bought a station and it’s ready to make a big play.  Veteran journalists know what this means.  More live, more often, even if it’s in the pitch dark.  So I sat and watched the new competition come in and make it’s presence known.  The takeaway, live shots in black holes.  Live for the sake of being live.  Showcasing that the reporters are everywhere with a simple word, in an upper corner of the TV screen, repeated over and over: LIVE.

As a former nightside EP, I get it.  I remember the countless strategy sessions about the importance of live crew placement.  The incredible marketing involved with people driving by your station’s microwave or satellite truck for hours on end.  Then there’s the promise that you will deliver breaking news.  That means night crews are working out of live trucks no matter what.  You must be ready to jump!

But here’s the thing, shooting a lovely reporter whose face glows in the dark like a street lamp against a pitch black background is not acceptable.  So let’s break down why these live shots happen and alternatives to the glowing head in the black hole.

So, why do those “work you to the bone” nightside managers require you to go live, even when the story is “over” and there’s nothing to see in your background?  For two reasons:  Breaking news and marketing.   Here’s what I mean by that:  If you have two crews, and four counties in your DMA you need to spread everyone out.  If everyone heads back to the station with look lives, you could end up screwed.  That’s when the huge breaker will happen on the outer fringes of your DMA.  You must cover the bases. So if the crew is out in a live truck anyway, you might as well get that live super up.  That’s the thinking.

As for marketing, if your crew is parked in a busy section of town or better yet in a part of the DMA you know brings in a lot of viewers, or is full of opportunities to grow viewers, you want the exposure.  That huge mast or beautifully painted satellite truck is a mobile billboard.  That advertising is priceless.  Billy drives by the truck and calls Bob to say, “Hey channel 8 is here.” Bob calls Sam and so it goes.  The nightside managers task is always to grow audience.  You can bet this is on that managers mind every night.  We ask ourselves “Where can I send the truck that will get the most eyeballs and then new viewers?”  It’s the simple truth.

So now that you know why the nightside crews get “stuck” live all the time in the dark, let’s talk execution strategies.  The crews need to avoid black hole live shots, and the managers need to help.  Yes, that’s right:  The mangers need to help you avoid black holes.

First let’s talk about what nightside crews can do.  I used to get into it with photojournalists all the time for refusing to set up a frigging light on the background behind the reporter.  I get that it’s a little extra work.  I get that it’s just an empty building. Personally, I hate that kind of live shot background image also.  But, if you are in the part of the DMA I’ve been told to increase viewer numbers in and it’s ratings and I have a HUGE lead in, I may feel I have to showcase that we have a crew there RIGHT NOW.  The station is deeming a particular community important.  We are there watching out for you.  And whether you the crew or I hate the dark shot, there are payoffs sometimes.  So get out the light kit and make the effort.

That said, if you don’t have spare gear, or if you have an imaginative look live option, call it in.  Nightside managers, remember you can still have your cake and eat it too. Let the crew feed in the great look live elements.  But keep them parked in the truck during news time.  You get the marketing exposure and the ability to jump on breaking news if needed.  Sometimes it is worth losing the live super to avoid the black hole.  When you really think about it, you could get to a breaker even faster if the crew does not have to break down a live shot.

But, news crews, if the nightside manager gives you this option, that doesn’t mean you “cheat” and head back to the station a little early.  When you get busted, you will ensure yourself a set lot in life:  Live shots in a black hole each shift for as long as you are nightside.  The strategic planning cannot be sacrificed just to make your life easier.