I get that question a lot. Usually, people seem disappointed when I answer. Most people seem to think that if you work in a television station, you must be on TV. This, obviously, isn’t true. For every personality you see on your favorite channel, there are at least six or seven — sometimes as many as ten to twelve or more — that you never see, working behind the scenes in various capacities, keeping the ship going, so that the personality can shine in the spotlight.
But don’t get me wrong: I’m not bitter. I used to be a reporter. I didn’t like it, and I knew it wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do when I took the job. But, it was the fulltime job that happened to be available at the time, so that’s the job I took. I was a good reporter, if I do say so myself, because I knew how to tell stories. But news isn’t the “glamourous” business many believe it is. It’s tough work. Not nearly as tough as digging ditches, but it’s about as much fun on a bad day.
“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “But what do you do at the television station?”
If you’ve ever seen a movie trailer, you pretty much have a good idea of the kind of work I do. Except that in my case, since I work at the local television level, most of what I do promotes the local newscast.
I can best explain what I do and how I do it by first showing you how a reporter would tackle the same story I’m trying to promote.
What reporters are supposed to do, basically, is to pack as much information into as little time as possible. Sound strange? Well, look at it this way: a news producer — the one who decides which stories will be covered and in which order — must also decide how much time to devote to each individual story. Most stories are about twenty seconds to a minute in length, depending on whether or not a soundbite is included. When a reporter pitches to a pre-recorded report, called a “package,” the length will vary greatly. Packages can bring the total time of a story up to two minutes, and occasionally longer. But that’s still not a lot of time when you have a lot of facts to deal with.
For every story, the reporter and producer have to decide how much time will be devoted to that topic. Those basic journalistic questions, the who, what, when, where, why and how all must be answered — or at least should be — whether the reporter has thirty seconds or three minutes. Of course a three-minute story should contain much much more. But no matter how much time they get, their story should be full of facts, thus the part about cramming as much information into as little time as possible.
I pretty much do the opposite: as a promotion producer, I try to get as much time as I can over the course of the evening, and I use that time to tell you as little as I can about the story. Hopefully, I tell you just enough that you will stay up after prime time to see the rest.
I want as many opportunities to sell you on a story because I know you won’t see them all to begin with. You hate commercial breaks, so you don’t watch them. If you only see two or three commercial breaks in their entirety in a single evening — that means that you don’t pick up the remote and see what else is on for those two minutes — then I’m hoping I’ll have a promo in at least one of those breaks. I’d like to have a promo in all of them if I can, because I know that I have a better chance of getting you to watch if I can “remind” you more than one time in an evening.
So why not just tell you everything I know? Good question. I can’t, for three reasons. First, I don’t always know much more than I write in my scripts. In many cases, I’m writing a promo for a story that’s still being shot. I know what the reporter is planning to do, but not always every element he’ll have. In some cases, naturally, the original promo has to be changed before it can air to accomodate information we weren’t expecting. Rest assured, I’m not making anything up: I do run the finished scripts by a news producer — the same one who’s in contact with the reporter and who knows the story — before I put anything on the air. It’s just that my deadline to get the spots produced is tight, and falls much earlier than the reporter’s deadline. My first spot of the night might hit as early as 7:30pm. The reporter won’t have his work on the air until 11pm.
The second reason I can’t just tell you everything up front is because once you know everything about a story, there’s no real point in staying up late to see the same information again. I’m not trying to deceive…I’m trying to get you to watch my newscast.
You hate that. I know you do. I don’t mean to annoy you while you’re trying to watch your favorite show. But my job is to make you keep watching, even when “CSI” or “ER,” or whatever your favorite show happens to be, is over. Because you’re holding that remote control, your gateway to hundreds of channels that didn’t exist a few years back, I’m a necessary evil.
The third reason is the fact that I often don’t have time to get the “whole” story out there if I did know everything about it. in some cases, I’m dealing with only an ID, a five-second promo whose main goal is to identify the station’s call letters, channel number and city of origin. In the old days, you’d see a giant image of the station’s logo and you’d hear an announcer say, “You’re watching WXXX, Channel 2 in Anytown, USA.” Nowadays, we show that information on the screen visually and tease a story in that night’s news or tease a local program.
So here’s how it works: let’s suppose that there’s a fire. Let’s say that the fire began when a cat started chewing on an electrical cord. The family makes it out alive and firefighters arrive in time to save the home. There is fire damage, but not a lot. It could have been worse.
The reporter will likely be live in front of the house in the late news (assuming there’s not more dramatic news that night) and will try his best to interview the family members. Having been told by the firefighters that they think the cat started it, he’ll try to show the cat. He’ll tell you who in the household first smelled smoke, how they all got out, and how soon firefighters (never call them “firemen”) arrived on the scene. If the family is willing, you might see footage from inside the house where the fire began. A firefighter might talk about how often pets cause fires. If it is unusual (and I suspect it’s quite unusual), he might give a good soundbite like, “I’ve been fighting fires for twenty years and I’ve never seen that happen.” The reporter will likely end with a suggestion or two for what homeowners can do to avoid having this happen to them. Or, he may end his report with the happy news that the cat was uninjured and that, all things considered, everyone feels pretty lucky.
The promotion producer will look at that story and immediately fall in love with that cat…not because we’re glad anyone’s home caught fire, but because of the unusual way it happened. We’re not heartless. We’re glad that if a fire had to happen, everyone made it out safely and the fire caused minimal damage. Contrary to what you may think, we don’t sit around waiting for bad things to happen to good people. But that cat is too good to pass up. We’ll probably air ID’s throughout prime time that say something like this:
“A house fire blamed on the family cat! How it happened, tonight at eleven.”
In longer spots, (most stations will run at least one :10, :15 or :30 in prime time), we’ll give you a few more details, but not many. If the reporter does get that soundbite with the firefighter, and he can feed it back to us in time, we’ll definitely put that on the air!
A longer spot might go something like this:
“A family watches firefighters try to put out a blaze at their home…and the biggest surprise is how it started: (Insert Soundbite here). What firefighters are telling us, tonight at eleven.”
Hopefully, that’s enough to make someone watch. “How did it start?” That’s the question I want you to ask. That’s the question I hope will make you want to watch the news. These are not the greatest examples; they wouldn’t win any writing awards. I just wanted to make up an example that would illustrate my point.
That’s pretty much what I do. There are other kinds of spots, of course, promoting many things other than that night’s newscast. But I hope this gives you at least a hint of what it is I do at the television station.