Can You Picture It? How to write to video.

Of all the terms you hear in a newsroom, this is the hardest to clearly explain.  Television news is dependent on video for its existence, yet few TV journalists really know how to write to the images on the screen.

Writing to video means taking the images and making them mean something to the viewer.  You are providing perspective and complimenting the video the viewer is seeing.  Let’s start with aerial shots of flames burning up a motel.  In the video you see that the flames are shooting way above the roof.  There seems to be more than one floor.  It is early morning, before sunrise.  The flames are red, orange and yellow and the building is dark black.  You can see thick walls, but seem to be able to see through the building.  This is an aerial shot, so while there’s a lot to look at, the only movement is a pan from one end of the building to the other.  No close ups.  Here are the facts you get from the assignment desk and the crew on the way to the scene:  The motel houses 150 families; Most of the families called this place home, because they cannot afford to live anywhere else; The fire woke them up; Firefighters on the scene are struggling to save even a small part of the building which takes up nearly a city block;  You have the address;  No one is hurt.

Now let’s write to those aerial shots we talked about above.  Most would start off with a breaking news banner or breaking news open and say something like:  “Take a look at these flames in (city name).”  So, you mentioned the fire in the video right away.  For many, that’s writing to video.  Saying the phrase “take a look at these flames” is referencing video.    But it’s not writing to the video.  And, it’s also an overused phrase in news copy.  (see “So cliché”) Writing to video means coming out of the breaking news open or banner and saying “A fire almost the size of a city block is burning right now in (city location).  While you look at these flames shooting toward (helicopter name) consider this:  150 families are watching this same fire knowing all of their belongings are burning up.  This motel on (street name) was home for nearly all of them.  The only housing they could afford.  Firefighters are trying to save some of the building, but you can see what they are up against.  You can tell the fire is stripping this building down to its foundation.  While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel, we want you to know that no one was hurt in this fire.  Even now these flames keep shooting into the sky, lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could. An awful way to wake up this morning, for so many people.

Read that one more time.  All the facts are in this story, and the copy uses images to help compliment and put into perspective what viewers are seeing on the TV screen.  The phrases “this fire,” “these flames,” “you can see” and “you can tell” are all meant to get people to turn around and look actually at the video.  The phrases “lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could” and “While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel” help explain the intensity of the fire for people just staring into a TV screen.  These lines are meant to make the flames lasting images in the mind of the viewer.  Mentioning that this is how the families woke up helps make the video more relatable to the viewer as well.  It makes them think about what it must be like to wake in the middle of the scene playing out before them.

Now I want you to look back at paragraph 2 where I set up this fiery example of how to write to video.  Notice that I described the video before I told you the facts of the story?  That was intentional.  When writing to video, you have to see the images then, write.  This is opposite of what we are taught.  You probably have had it ingrained in your head that the facts are the most important thing.  That is true.   But what you need to consider the video as facts in your story.  Actually, in TV, the images are the most crucial facts.  That means when you start writing a story you need to know your video.  And, you need to be able to boil down your story into one sentence, in a way that puts a picture in your head.  In other words picking a first image is as important as writing a first line.  Luckily when you identify that image, the words will flow naturally as you explain the facts behind the pictures.  (For more on how to flow your stories read “Rule the Word” and “Storytelling on a Dime.”)

Let me give you another example of how to use images to provide perspective.  When we went to war a second time in Iraq there was a visual moment that summed up why the U.S. was there at all.  American and Iraqi troops knocked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.  The head of the statue fell off and Iraqi’s dragged it through the streets.  Saddam’s head was literally handed to the Iraqi people after 24 years of his reign.  This moment was easily summed up in one line and with one image, “American and Iraqi troops join together to topple a key symbol of Saddam.” A powerful image, partnered with powerful facts, burns in your mind.

Now that you know how important writing to video is, I offer a challenge.  Before you write anything, put a shot list in your script to reference.  This goes for all writers.  Even assignment editors should write some sort of list of images that either the crew on the scene or stringer picked up.  It’s another question in a long list I know, but it will help everyone see the worth of a story in terms of television.  TV is writing to video.

If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this.  Video grabs a viewer’s attention for a few seconds.  You have to give the video meaning to last the length of the story.  That is writing to video. Even video as compelling as a huge fire can quickly become a turn off for viewers, if the words don’t support it.  They have other distraction pulling at their attention.  They have the internet to check out later if they are only mildly curious.  Your words have to help bring the video to life, no matter what it shows.  Some of the most compelling lines I have ever heard referenced boring video.  Take the image of the outside of a home where someone was killed.  Write to the video and say: “So and so welcomed company through that front door.  But now (name is gone).”  When I think of the Casey Anthony case two images stick in my mind:  Caylee’s photograph and a still shot of Casey Anthony.  The images burn in my mind because of the meaning behind their repeated use:  This little girl is dead and her mother is accused of killing her.  The point is video (or in this case photos) don’t have to be full of action to be compelling.  It just needs perspective.  Can you picture it?

 

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Anchor’s Away! How to handle a difficult anchor.

Anchors, the title of this one is strong and may tick you off.  But before you get too upset, read our previous article:  “Throw me a life line, I’m being hung out to dry, AGAIN!”  We are journalists after all and therefore must look at all sides!

As a producer, the largest challenge I faced without a doubt was anchors that “attacked” rather than talked through issues.  It took years of frustration to figure out how to handle this.  Now I want to share what I learned so other producers can relax more.

How to deal with a difficult anchor

  • Know your anchors strengths and weaknesses
  • Remember this person is the face of all that you do as well
  • Establish your role as manager of the newscast
  • If there’s a problem, take the lead and talk it through
  • As a last option, fight fire with fire

I fully admit that a lot of complaints anchors brought to me were valid.  But, because I was being screamed at or worse yet had to listen to the boss tell me that I screwed up, it was sometimes hard to hear the message.   Most of us producers are thrown into the fire without a fireproof suit and are just trying to get out alive every day.  You have to separate yourself from that chaos and listen to the message.  For example, one anchor thought I gave her too many instructions before going to a breaking news story.  Maddening, since producers are often told we give anchors too little information.  I put my frustration aside and asked why.  She explained that she was unable to formulate thoughts to ad lib and felt foolish delivering the facts.  She didn’t like reading scripts cold and preferred I not write breaking news, instead give her a few facts to run with.  Next time we had a breaker, I gave her what she wanted and she did a great job.

Knowing your anchors strengths and weaknesses also means you have to be able to adapt to the anchors needs.  I learned which anchors could ad lib and which needed those breaking news scripts to pull off spot news.   If I had an anchor that could not ad lib, I gave the ad libs to the anchor that could ad lib, then changed anchor reads so the non-ad libber did not feel left out.  I learned who needed compliments in their IFB at commercial breaks.  It is a delicate balance.  It seems like all you do is humor people’s egos.  Frankly, that is a large part of producing a winning newscast.  It’s also something you need to get used to in order to have success at the highest levels.

Which leads to the next point, remember these anchors are the face of all the hard work you do each day.  Your copy will not “sing” unless the anchor can “deliver” it.   Your newscast will be uncomfortable to watch if your anchors are not at ease.  Whether some demands are ridiculous in your opinion, is another matter.  Humor enough of them to calm the anchor down so he/she can perform well.  A key to doing this is to give some compliments even if you never get any in return.  You want to show your anchors that you respect the jobs they do, so they gain confidence that you have their backs.  This is crucial to establishing a strong team on your show.  As the newscast manager this is your primary responsibility, whether you make the most money on the shift or not.

As manager of your show, you do have the right to make the decisions.  If an anchor has a really unreasonable request, you can deny it.  Here’s a common scenario:  An hour before your newscast an anchor comes to you saying their co-anchor has more reads.  You have breaking news, your reporters haven’t fed and you are behind writing.  It is okay to say:  “Today the show airs as formatted.”  Then, after the newscast, take a look at how you divided up the anchor reads that day, as well as a few days earlier.  Anchors usually do not come to you unless they have noticed an issue for a while.  Most people do not like confrontation.  If your reads have been a bit skewed to the other anchor, fix the issue the next day.  Thank the anchor who mentioned it for coming to you.  Also if you don’t know this next trick, use it.  Switch off who leads the blocks every day.  By the law of averages, that means by the end of the week the anchors will have a nearly even number of reads and leads.  If the reads were not skewed, print out a week’s worth of rundowns, highlight the reads in different colors and talk to the anchor that’s complaining.  Do not accuse the anchor of being ridiculous.  Explain what you do to prevent uneven face time, then hand the anchor the highlighted rundowns and ask him/her to look them over and see if there are any issues he/she wants to discuss.  This establishes that you are not a push over, you are conscientious, and you take responsibility for your newscasts.  This simple chat can keep an anchor from lodging attacks.  Thank the anchor for coming to you and let him/her know you are always willing to hear ways “We can make the newscast better.” Again, this will show the anchor that you are the leader of the newscast.

So what if the anchor constantly runs to management to whine about you and never comes to you directly?  Remember, people do not like confrontation.  If a manager comes to you with an anchor complaint, listen, then ask the manager how you should handle the problem.  This shows you are willing to be proactive.  Then, after the newscast ask to speak with the anchor one on one.  Explain that you understand that anchor is upset about XYZ and you will do XYZ to fix the problem.  Then say, “in the future if there’s a problem, please know that I am willing to listen.  The best time for me to talk is right after the newscast.”  Then, walk away.  You want to have this conversation in case the anchor goes to management behind your back again.  At that point ask your direct manager, ideally an EP, to sit with you while you talk to the anchor about the current problem and solution, and respectfully ask the anchor to come to you directly in the future.  You want to let the anchor know you also have a little clout with management to even the playing field.  In many shops producers are becoming more of a commodity than anchors.  There are less people willing to do our job.  You don’t want to abuse that knowledge, but it is helpful to subtly let the anchor know you are a valuable asset as well.  It is also good to include your EP, because this person probably has years of history dealing with difficult anchors and can help diffuse the situation further or divert it to the EP instead of you.

Finally, if you have a really difficult anchor, and no other choice, fight fire with fire.  Tell your EP ahead of time and stand up for yourself.  If you are being hazed, read our previous article:  “Thank you sir, may I have another: How to handle newsroom hazing.”  One anchor of mine, refused to get to the set on time. So, I took her out of the entire a-block and ended up with her screaming at me in the News Director’s office.  The ND told me to include her from then on, and I told them both that I would when she was professional enough to get to the set 5 minutes before the newscast began, not 5 minutes after.  The ND turned to the anchor and said, “ That is a basic request.”  I won a big battle.  The daily attacks stopped.  I also made a weather anchor that constantly ran exceedingly long on weather apologize to the audience for running so long that we could not air a story that was teased the entire show.  He was 30 years my senior.  But, I told him over the studio PA that he needed to take responsibility like the rest of us do each day and he went with it.  We came back from commercial and he offered an eloquent apology.

If you take one thing away from this article, make it this:  When you feel it’s “anchor’s away”, and you are about to be the brunt of a brutal tongue lashing, keep your cool.  Write down the anchor’s complaint and reasoning.  Give yourself a few minutes to breathe and relax and actually look at the situation from the anchor’s perspective.  You may learn some valuable lessons about putting on a better newscast.

 

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Right hand meet your left hand. Now catch! The relationship between producers and directors.

Before you read this article, humor me and ball up a sheet of paper.  Throw it into the air and try and catch it with only one hand.  Then switch hands.  Then use both hands.  Bottom line, you will catch the waded up paper ball more easily, and often, with both hands.  You can catch a ball with one hand, but with both hands your odds increase dramatically.  This is how I like to describe the relationship between a producer and a director.

I was lucky enough to land my first job as a full producer in a top 30 market.  I was a rookie “kid” paired with veteran anchors and directors.  These directors taught me a tremendous amount about “producing” in that first job.  They caught my rookie mistakes and without chastising me, worked around them live on TV.  After the newscast they took the time to sit with me and teach me how to prevent the same problem from happening again.  Soon after, I worked in a top 20 market.  Same scenario:  The directors talked me through any mistakes.  I quickly learned the person I needed to align myself with was my director.

After that, when I interviewed for producing jobs, I always asked to meet the director before deciding on a gig.  If that person and I didn’t click, the job wouldn’t work.  I felt that strongly about the connection of right and left hand.  By requesting to meet the director right away, I also usually gained a loyal ally.  I showed respect even before getting the job.  This went a long way toward establishing a solid relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes had knock down drag outs with directors over mistakes on the air.  But because they knew I had a basic respect for the job they did, we could work through the differences.

Producers and directors have something important in common; they are both responsible for a lot of things they have very limited control over.  If a reporter steps out of a shot just as you take it live, you both get in trouble for taking the pic even if you cued the reporter.  If master control gives you the wrong time for a commercial break and you miss a meter, you are both in trouble.  This is often where producers and directors play the blame game.  Don’t fall victim to this.  Both producers and directors tend to be control freak type personalities.  Sit down and decide who is responsible for what.  For example, once I established IFB, my director would check the live shot, if the reporter did not respond, the director had final say on taking the live shot or going straight to the package.  It was faster that way, since the director had a finger on the button, or control of the TD sitting right beside him/her.  Bottom line, let the director manage the technical elements while you focus on content and timing.  Again, consider the right hand/left hand analogy.  You would not cross one hand over the other to catch your paper ball.  Set up who’s making the call on what, then, support each other.

If you are still not convinced that this is a crucial relationship to establish, let’s talk breaking news.  There are times when breakers happen so fast on live television that you simply cannot tell everyone who needs to know what you are doing in time.  An example: police standoffs.  I was once boothing continuing coverage of a standoff when the SWAT team showed up.  The GM and ND came in to have a philosophical debate over what to show.  They kept interrupting me as I tried to give directions to the production crew and more importantly the anchors.  My director knew how I thought because we talked so much about breaking news and had set up clear roles.  Several times he was able to “take over” while I listened to the bosses.  He literally knew what I was going to say, before I could say it.  If we had not developed a strong relationship, with mutual respect, things would have fallen apart on live TV.  We were consistent with each other, and knew each other’s job needs.  The right hand was able to catch the ball, while the left hand was tied up.  It is a crucial relationship whether playing catch or putting on a live broadcast!

 

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