TV & Showbiz

The Mailbag: Inside TV


Mika asked a few questions about what happens behind the scenes in TV, so I figured I’d answer a few of them here and a few more in a future post.  I also thought they might answer some questions you’ve asked to yourself as well.  If you have any, leave me a comment or click the “CONTACT” button at the top navbar and email them to me, and I’ll try to answer them in a future post as well.

So here are the first few questions from Mika, after the jump.

Newscasters always have a stack of paper in front of them that they glance at occasionally, yet they appear to read most of the news out of the teleprompters. What is actually written on those sheets of paper?

I’m sure you’ve heard of a guy named Murphy who carries with him, everywhere he goes, the worst luck of all. Murphy loves television studios.

The stacks of paper are printed versions of the same scripts the anchors have in front of them in their prompter. They need the actual scripts for two reasons: the first one is the obvious one: sooner or later, something is going to go wrong with the prompter. The operator is either going to go too fast or too slowly, or a producer is going to do a last-minute switch and the computer running the prompter doesn’t immediately catch up, and the words being displayed aren’t the right ones.

The scripts give them a backup.

The other good reason for having printed copies is so that the anchor can read ahead during a “package,” a pre-taped report filed by a reporter. That way, they can mark their scripts with notes about delivery and pronunciation of particularly difficult words or proper names.

Incidentally, the word TelePrompTer is a trademarked name for a specific brand of prompting devices, but people use the word for a reference to any brand of prompting device, just as people use Kleenex for most brands of tissue, even if they’re using Puffs.

I’ve also noticed that quite a lot of newscasters and others doing similar live shows have this annoying habit that I call the Nervous Newscaster Maneuver: they pick up the stack of papers in front of them with both hands, straighten the stack by touching the bottom of it against the table a couple of times, and then immediately lower it back on the desk. Sometimes they do this twice in a row, and the stack of paper appears to be in pretty neat pile to begin with, so it’s not like they’re doing it out of necessity. Is this a move they are actually taught when they are trained for the job? Is it a nervous habit, caused by feeling uncomfortable if their hands aren’t doing something?

Totally a nervous habit. While anchors love their “facetime,” they hate it when the director stays on a wide shot of the set at the end of the news. They can’t talk because their microphones are off. All they can do while the theme music plays and the copyright notice appears — since almost no one runs credits anymore — is either chat with each other or stack and restack their scripts. And it’s one of those clichés they’ve seen everyone else do for so long that it just seems like it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s another example of the need for something to do: when Bob Barker retired from The Price is Right, he was still using a wired microphone. The following season, when Drew Carey took over, he was using a wireless handheld mic. Barker had claimed for years, when people asked, that he used a mic with a cord because wireless mics didn’t always give a good signal when a performer had to move all around the stage the way he did.

What I truly believe was really the case — since it’s clear from Carey that wireless mics have no problem covering that stage — was that he liked having a handheld mic with a cord because it gave him something to do with the other hand when he was nervous. And believe me: old habits in TV die very hard.

Does the local station air its commercials itself, or does it switch to an outside feed coming from The Mother Station From Space or something when it’s time to cut to a commercial?

It depends. If a local station is in network programming, and it’s a network commercial break, they do nothing. Their network airs the show and then switches to the commercials and then back to the show. Most prime time network shows give their local affiliates one local break every half hour or so, at which point the local station would then switch to its commercial player to air the spots, then switch back to the network for the rest of its show.

The catch is that some stations now have “hubs” where their master control is actually run through a different facility. In this struggling economy, many station groups have tried consolidating its master control functions, so that one station in, say Dallas, may handle the feeds for stations in St. Louis, Detroit and Phoenix. The local commercials are still played out of the individual local stations (in most cases), it’s just that one or two operators in the central location are now making those switches remotely.

Do commercials always air on the predetermined second no matter what, or can a live talk show host say “we’ll hold off on those commercials for just a few minutes” even if the irate producer is waving his hands angrily in the background?

Take a show like The Office or How I Met Your Mother. These are pre-edited shows with predetermined commercial breaks. The network master control operators are given “timing sheets” with the exact times those breaks hit. Those aren’t negotiable.

For a live newscast, the only thing that’s generally non-negotiable is the length of the breaks. Break #1, for instance, might be two minutes long, and break #2 might be three minutes long. In a live show, there’s no real set time that each break must hit so long as it airs during that show, with one minor exception: often, sales departments sell programs within specific timeframes.

Let’s say, for instance, that you buy a spot in a local morning show. The show is two hours long, and the first hour has a better rating than the second. So you buy your commercial for the first hour. The break scheduled with your spot would then have to air during that first hour. If something runs long and the spot gets delayed, the client is either billed a lower rate or a “makegood” occurs to get the spot the additional exposure it would have had if it had aired in the right place to begin with.

When a television station airs a movie, does it play it back from a DVD, or a film roll like what movie theatres use? Or is there a different sort of physical media on which it is delivered? Does a television station keep a local archive of movies it can play if needed, or does each movie get sent in by the distributor and it is sent back right after broadcast?

Over the years, the answer to this question has changed a great deal. Originally, films were played off actual film reels sent from the distributor. After the airing, the station would ship those reels back so that they could be cycled on to the next station. Then those film reels were replaced with videotape. Some stations still air them this way. But nowadays, films — and a lot of other syndicated programming — are recorded from satellite feeds either onto tape or onto hard drive and are played that way.

The station only keeps a copy of the film if they have the broadcast rights to air it a second or third time. Otherwise, the tape (or hard drive) is erased and reused for the next program.

So that’s a few of Mika’s questions. I’ll have a follow-up post next week with more of his questions answered, and I’ll be happy to do my best to answer yours, too.


  1. Another good reason to have physical scripts in addition to the teleprompter: Stories often have to be shuffled around or killed while the newscast is underway. Sometimes, the teleprompter operator has difficulty keeping up with the changes. Each story has a simple code attached to it, like “A4.” With paper copies, a producer can say at the last second, “The live shot is dead… go to A4,” and the anchor can quickly shuffle papers and read the right story from the desk until the prompter catches up.

    1. True. Fortunately, nowadays, a prompter operator can, depending on the system, just double-click on the line for A4 and the computerized prompting system would just pop over to A4 and the lag time for the prompter to catch up would be minimal.

      But I remember running prompter in the days when the scripts were taped together and run under a camera conveyor belt style and having to feverishly rip pages apart and feed them out of order through the prompter. Those were crazy days!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.