How To Execute the 15 Minute Lead Concept

A successful newscast not only retains the lead-in audience, it continues building audience all the way to the end. That is winning. Make no mistake, if you can do this you will keep your job even if you are the 4th place station. Once viewers tune in and stay, a producer and anchor’s job is more secure. If viewers feel the need to “check in” halfway through, you have even more job stability.

Successful veteran producers know that this is done by “spreading the wealth.” Hence, the 15 minute lead concept. The name of this concept is a little misleading though. For less experienced journalists lead means first. That usually becomes, the first story in the news block. Too many times I have seen this lead to a strange design of newscast blocks, that tried to manipulate meters, but actually set producers up for failure.

So let’s redefine the term “lead” for this concept. When you think lead, think “must see”, “can’t miss” and “gotcha!” This is an important distinction for many reasons. First, it helps you “build up” sections of your newscast for the “big moment.” Remember, great newscasts come across as conversations. There are natural lulls and high points in conversation. One producer I know explains it like this: “Watching my shows is like hopping on a roller coaster. You will get moments to catch your breath, but you will also get plenty of stomach churning action.”

Let’s build on that idea. When you get on a roller coaster half the fun is the ride up that first hill, knowing that a big thrill is just over the crest. When you think of it that way those “pacer” stories have a lot more meaning don’t they?  You have to keep building up to the big moment. Teases are a lot more important also.

Too often when consultants and news managers preach about the ”quarter leads” they only want to know what those chunks are. They miss a big part of the concept. Some of these chunks can happen at the end of a block. They cannot all be the same type of big moment. You want a thrill ride to be a stomach tickling, heart pounding, close your eyes and take your breath away experience! Each one has a different feel. Same idea when applying the concept to producing. You can’t just take 4 big stories of the day and throw them in at those meter points.  You must remember you are having a conversation. Distinct types of topics make a difference. Viewers expect different types of stories at different points in their interaction with the anchors.

Case in point, where these “quarter hour leads” play in rundowns and definitions:

• Top of newscast: The first lead is biggest impact story of the day.

• 15 minutes in: Depends largely on your station’s news philosophy. This might actually fall closer to 20 depending on day part and if you have a weak spot in viewer retention.

• 30 minutes in:  Depends on your day part but the story needs to have “today” relevance.

• 45 minutes in: Again depends on your station’s news philosophy and it’s pledge to viewers. Depending on day part, that “big moment” may actually happen closer to 50.

You cannot take throwaway vo’s and slap them in, leading up to that final “15 minute lead.” The viewer cannot sense he/she is on that hill, click-clacking up to the top of a final hill and a final thrill. This is the area I see mis-designed most often in rundowns that follow the 15 minute lead model. The viewer stuck with you for a long time. You need to reward that loyalty. Therefore, each story has to count. This conversation needs to end on a high note. By this I do not mean a water skiing squirrel! I mean something really worth hanging around to see. Something that will make a difference in that viewer’s day. Perhaps it’s a great consumer story, way to save time or maybe a smart phone app that’s going to make their life a little easier. You can also “go human.” Introduce them to someone in your community that will make them proud they live there.

Because of the extra importance of that last quarter hour, how you tease throughout the newscast has to be looked at closely. Too often producers executing a 15 minute lead concept, focus on the next 15 only in their tease structure. You are designing a rundown with a ton of compelling content. So your teases need to scream: “Hang on, we have a ton of great stuff to talk about!” Do not be afraid to tease more than two things. But, your teases need to rock, every line, every time. You are building up a great conversation, full of high notes. Teases cannot be the lulls in conversation. (The “lulls” are occasionally more information-type, perspective moments, where viewers can gain more insight, without emotion tied to it.) A truly well executed 15 minute lead concept, focuses heavily on tease structure. In fact that structure is as important as the design of each lead itself.

Which brings us to one final point. These leads are not just long packages you tease a few times. Showcasing counts! These are areas where you need to think “3 screens.” These are areas where you add extra information so viewers can walk away with valuable nuggets of knowledge. And I’m not just talking about inside the package. You build up the lead, let viewers experience the thrill ride, then reward them for watching. This has to happen 4 times, effectively, to win the 15 minute lead concept. In a sense you are creating sidebar topics, each quarter hour as part of a great hour long conversation viewers won’t soon forget. If that doesn’t smack of “Gotcha!” and also lead to ratings gains, nothing will.