Behind The Camera In TV News

 July 20, 1997 | Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)

 | Page: K1 | Section: K1
2462 Words | Readability: Lexile: 1080, grade level(s): 8 9

"Fifteen seconds," warns the floor director. "Stand-by." The news music rolls, the opening tape is played and the carefully groomed anchor says, "Good evening." Outside the studio, a production assistant races down the hall, bounces off a co-worker on a tight turn, spins off and skids into master control, handing over a just-edited videotape. As the anchor reads the introduction, the tape is cued and played on the air with scant seconds to spare. Welcome to the world of local TV news, where what you see on the air is often nothing like what's actually going on behind the scenes. Do you take for granted that the weatherman is actually standing in front of a map of Alabama when he's showing that storm system? In the studio, he's really watching the maps on a TV monitor, while standing in front of a plain, green wall. The news anchor informing you about a string of bank robberies seems knowledgeable, so you believe he has surely researched this story well. Actually, a producer researched and wrote the script. On a good day, the anchor reads it over quickly before going on the air. On other days, when a flurry of telephone calls, make-up or hair repair take too much time, the anchor will see the story for the first time while reading it to you on the air. "One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that the anchors do everything. They think our anchors decide if your story will get coverage, write all the scripts and even get the pictures," says Larry Mack, assistant news director at WDEF, Channel 12. "People don't realize that by the time a news program goes to air, at least 35 people behind the scenes have put their fingerprints on it. The anchors are actually involved in 10 percent or less of the preparation, but that's not their job. Their most important time is when they are actually on the air, delivering the news we've all worked to put together." So who does make the decisions about what news we see each evening? How do stories make it on the news while others go unreported? We decided to spend a day visiting WRCB, WTVC and WDEF to see what really goes on behind the scenes. Here's what we found:

9:30 A.M. It's what reporters call a "slow" news day; no fires, no scandals, no bank robberies, no major crimes. The occasional squawk and squelch of the police scanners yield nothing of interest: a call for an officer to assist a motorist in a disabled car, a neighbor's dog barking, not the stuff of which headlines are made. In three television newsrooms across the city, assignment editors have spent the early hours scratching their heads, trying to come up with a "lead," the big story of the day. At Channel 9, reporters drift in for the morning meeting and gather around the assignment desk. Stacks of videotapes, a few half-filled cans of stale Coke and cut-up copies of day-old newspapers litter the surrounding desks and spill onto the faded and stained dull red carpet. Rusty Lanier, who normally produces the station's 6 p.m. newscast, is sitting in as assignment editor today. What is he looking for in a lead story? "The two "I's,' " he says. "What will interest the viewer and what is informative? Some stories have one without the other, but the best have both." Stephen Ruf, a former Chattanooga TV news reporter, now teaches journalism at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale. He says the competition between stations is positive because each has a different style to approaching news, and if the viewer doesn't like one, he can channel surf to another. But he says he's disappointed the stations all too often prefer "easy" stories, rather than exploring in-depth community issues. A tendency referred to as, "if it bleeds, it leads." Stephen says other factors also influence how stories are chosen. "If there are no pictures, for instance, the story won't be used, even if it's important," Stephen explains. "If someone has a great story to tell but won't talk on camera, the story will be killed. A lot of stories are done simply because of ratings or research." On this particular news day, there are three potential lead stories in the works at Channel 9. The first: a man severely injured in the March tornadoes is now recovered and may talk about his harrowing experience. A reporter and photographer are assigned to track the story down. A second potential lead: A Trenton, Ga., man who stopped a robbery on his property by shooting at the perpetrators. "He says he only wants to talk to the media one time," a reporter volunteers. "Let's hope the one time is today, and to us," Rusty notes. The third story for consideration is a look at the explosive growth in population in Catoosa County. There's extra incentive to pursue this story. Ratings and research show that viewers in Catoosa County are overwhelmingly loyal to a competing station. That can mean rating points, which translates into advertising dollars. So Channel 9 has been looking for Catoosa County stories to appeal to those viewers. Over on Broad Street, Larry Mack is handing out assignments at Channel 12. "This is a "make-it-up' news day," he explains. "We're covering real stories, but they're ones we have to go out and find because there's no immediate news happening." Larry decides to follow-up on a story from the previous night's police blotter: officers had to remove a group of teens hanging out outside a business across from Warner Park. "That's not much of a story by itself, but there is a good angle to follow," he explains. "Everyone has kids, or grandkids, or hates having to walk past kids who are hanging out. Even when kids mean no harm at all, they can be intimidating to business customers, especially older people. "Where can they go to hang out? What's available for them? Those are some questions we'll ask." On the other side of the city, the assignment desk at Channel 3 has a news tip that may turn into the lead story. The station had previously reported on a car accident that claimed the life of a 10-year-old boy working at his father's fruit stand. A sad and tragic story. Today, a source provides new information for a follow-up: The driver in the crash has a story of his own. Reportedly, the 19-year-old almost lost his life in a wreck not too long ago, and spent months in a coma while Chattanoogans prayed for his recovery. Managing Editor Deb Cary says stories like this appeal to people in Chattanooga.

NOON Channel 9's Rusty Lanier is wolfing down a plate of french fries and chicken fingers at an area lunch spot when his cell phone rings. Bad news: two potential lead stories have died. The tornado victim's mother convinced him not to talk on camera. The commissioner from Trenton isn't making this the one day he'll talk. Rusty pays the bill and heads back for the station.

2:30 P.M. Producer Collins Parker slides a tape into a video recorder in Channel 12's newsroom, and sets it to record stories sent via satellite from other CBS affiliate stations. Several newsroom staffers become distracted by an unusual story sent from a sister station. It features an elephant suffering from tuberculosis that needs to take 500 pills a day, but refuses to take its medicine. Meanwhile, Collins prints out a tentative "rundown," a list of the stories that will fill the evening newscast, the order in which they will appear and the length of time allotted to them. In TV news, each reporter's taped story must come in at 90 seconds or less. A VO, a story with pictures that an anchor reads over, is generally 15 to 30 seconds. A VOB is a story that lasts about 45 seconds, and includes some pictures followed by a short sound bite from someone interviewed on camera. Andy Warhol was wrong when he spoke of people earning 15 minutes of fame: in TV news, the average sound bite provides only about 15 seconds of fame. Collins studies the rundown of stories and sighs. "I'm for leading with the elephant story," he says wryly at the station's afternoon news meeting. "More people will talk about that than anything else we have going on here."

3 P.M. David Carroll, anchor of the 5:30 news on Channel 3, stands in front of his photographer outside the new Hamilton County Schools complex, preparing to record his stand-up. That's the part of a recorded story when the narrator, or reporter, is shown speaking on camera. On TV, it looks like that 10 or 15 second piece would take no more than, a minute to record. But sometimes, that short stand-up can be enough to make a photographer roll over and cry. A reporter will try over and over, each time tripping over a word or phrase, and requiring various "takes." "I once shot for a reporter who took up a whole 20-minute field tape," groans Steve Lewis, Channel 3 photographer. "But the worst one was a story about a ferry. "The idea was to have the boat operator steer the ferry behind the reporter as he was talking. But the reporter kept making mistakes and here's this ferry operator having to go back and forth, back and forth. Eventually the light started fading, it took so long. Other times, a reporter will finish a really complicated stand-up, then mess up his own name at the end. Now that's frustrating."

5 P.M. At all three stations, the race has begun. Reporters finish writing their stories and send them to producers for approval. They print out the scripts and record a voice track, which the news photographer will edit together along with pictures and sound bites into a finished 90-second package. The cardinal sin is for that edited package to "miss slot," and not be ready in time for its place in the newscast. At this time of day, tempers run shorter. Machines eat tapes. A great interview can come out with perfect lighting -- but no audio, thanks to a broken microphone. Photographers scramble for edit machines. Sometimes, shouting erupts. Tears flow. Scripts or even chairs may fly across the newsroom. The more pressure, the rougher the language may get. Computers can crash. Lightning may threaten the safety of a live truck and crew. In the middle of the last-minute rush are production assistants, like John Guice, who face stress many times greater than the salaries they earn. They must edit tapes for local stories and from network feeds, and make sure every single tape for the entire newscast in turned in to master control. The tapes must be in order and on time or the newscast will turn to chaos on the air. "It gets really hectic, but I love it," John says, as he runs a last-minute tape down the hall. Professor Ruf says it's one of the challenging things he must prepare his college students to face. "They hate that I make them write under pressure, but that is what it's like in the real world," he says. He still remembers vividly the one time he missed slot on a lead story for the 6 p.m. news at Channel 12. He watched helplessly as the photographer tried to finish the piece as seconds ticked by. "I was sweating, pacing, yelling," he recalls. "It was terrible. My fellow reporters told me to get out of the edit booth because I was just making things worse." As 6 o'clock ticks closer, the show producers at each station scramble to make sure all scripts are in and printed out in seven copies, the TelePrompter and graphics systems are working and live shots are set up. "My worst nightmare is when you're 30 seconds into a show and you lose your live or satellite shot and the reporters are suddenly just not there," says Gina Bennett, producing the 6 p.m. news this night for Channel 9. "You learn from experience to al ways have a back-up story ready. When things go wrong it can make you crazy, but that's the excitement of it, too. I like living on the edge of my seat." Dealing with daily crises and equipment failure is "not an insignificant part of the job," says Bill Wallace, news director at Channel 3. "Artistically, every shot may not be as well lit as we'd like, the audio may not be great, but we do this dozens of times everyday and just the fact that we are able to sustain live news programming every day is important." "Sometimes, I think about what we did today, and I feel like we've pulled rabbits out of a hat," says Larry Mack at Channel 12. "Sometimes it's amazing we get what we do on the air." What's a news director's greatest fear? "That we won't cover an important story, a big story, and give people all the information they need," says Steve Hunsicker, new news director at Channel 9. "People depend on us, and they trust our anchors to tell them what they need to know." Steve says earning that trust is one of the most important jobs of local TV stations. "People don't feel as comfortable about the people who bring them national news," Steve says. "You won't run into Peter Jennings in the grocery store, but you can run into Neal Pascal or Bob Johnson at the corner store because they live here, they are part of the community we serve."

6 P.M. In the booth at each station, a director gives a countdown to the studio: 30 seconds, 15 seconds, stand-by. Three different lead stories hit the air. Channel 3 was able to confirm the tip about the driver in the fruit stand accident. Channel 9 has led with its Catoosa County story, with a reporter discussing the area's growing pleasures and pains from a live shot. Channel 12 begins the newscast with the teen hang-out story, looking for answers to a community concern. Producers in each booth watch the clock closely. The next 30 minutes must time out perfectly, so the local stations can hit network news at a precise time. Not every moment is perfect. Weather maps get stuck during one newscast. In another newsroom, a tape is mislaid ... panic ensues ... then it's found. "Where are you? I can't find you," a frustrated producer shouts in a two-way radio as he tries to bring in the signal from a live shot. The photographer radios back his location. The live shot appears, first scratchy and full of snow, then gradually clearing. During sports, a microphone begins to scratch and hiss. "We just got that one back from the shop," the audio board operator notes with disgust. At 6:30, the closing music ends and the television screen fades to black. The bright lights in the studio are switched off and piles of scripts are swept into the trash. Across the Tennessee Valley, viewers have chosen to receive their local news from Bill and Cindy, or Bob and MaryEllen, or Heidi and Bill ... and from many more people behind the scenes, whose fingerprints may be invisible, but whose decisions, sweat, mistakes, triumphs and even tears, leave an indelible mark on the face of our community news.

Post a Comment