I am a total sucker for those sappy TV commercials that come on this time of year. Hallmark has always produced some classics. No slap-job :30 second spots for them. Running up to two minutes or more, these are little micro-dramas are fully intended to produce a little warm spot in the coldest of hearts. The Publix grocery store chain has produced some very nice ones lately, mostly with small children. And this year, Apple has joined the crowd with a really excellent effort. Here are a couple of good ones from this year, and one oldie-but-goldie Hallmark spot from years past.
By now everyone in the world has heard about the colossal screw up last week when KTVU-TV fell victim to a prank and announced fake, racist names of the crew of that crashed Asiana airliner.
While most people are chuckling and asking “How could that happen?” the men and women who run local TV newsrooms should be shaking in their boots. If they have any self-awareness at all, they should be dropping to their knees and praying “Thank God, they didn’t call my station.”
I spent more than 26 years in the local TV news business most of them as a news director, running local news departments. I have been out of the business for more than ten years, but I stay in touch. Many of the problems I saw when I was there remain today, and have gotten worse.
This may not be exactly what happened, but it is a very plausible scenario. A call or email comes into the newsroom. Some junior staffer, probably fresh out of college takes the call and gets excited and yells “We have the names of the pilots!”
Someone only slightly more experienced responds, “Oh my God, we have to get this on the air, NOW!”
Already someone else has called the promotion department to tell them to start working on a promo hyping the “exclusive breaking news.”
The chyron operator (the person who types the letters that you see on the screen) transcribes what is given to him.
Meanwhile, not until the anchor reads the names on the air does anyone actually look at the names and say them out loud.
Supposedly in the KTVU case, someone at the station called the NTSB where an intern confirmed the names. How this happened, I cannot explain.
So why does something like this slip through?
1. Too many stations overemphasize flash and speed over substance and accuracy. How many times have you seen or heard “breaking news,” or “this just in,” or even better “live, late breaking.” On the other hand, how many times have you seen a station brag, “We got it right!” Getting it right may be an assumption, but when it isn’t emphasized, it falls by the wayside. It may only be a dumpster fire, but if it’s live and breaking news, we’ll be all over it.
2. The economics of the TV business are such that there just aren’t as many experienced people left in many newsrooms to actually provide a system of checks to catch mistakes before they air. This was a noon newscast in a major market. You would think there would be some senior people around to call the shots at that time of day. However, when you get to a smaller market, especially on weekends or in the early morning, it is just a handful of inexperienced people processing a high volume of news content. The same young producer or reporter who gathers in the information also writes it and approves it for air. There is no one to give it a second look, or if there is, they are frequently as green as the first person.
3. TV newsrooms are not staffed by rocket scientists. This is a dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about. This is not a blanket indictment of everyone who works in TV news, nor am I saying that TV news people are all morons. For the most part, they all have college degrees, so at least in theory they are literate. And clearly, there are some very sharp people working out there. However, on the average over the past two decades or so, the TV news business has not attracted the cream of the intellectual crop.
It starts in college. If he or she is being honest, a broadcast journalism professor will admit (as many have to me) that the students he/she is teaching are not the best and the brightest. The students who were at the top of their admission class are majoring in subjects that will produce a more lucrative career, like pre-med, pre-law, finance, engineering, and so on. When compared to majors like engineering, chemistry or even nursing, broadcast journalism is a fairly easy major. It is often a second choice or back-up plan for students who couldn’t hack it in the more demanding majors. (In full disclosure, about a hundred years ago, I was one of those students.) Further, it is not at uncommon for the top graduates in a broadcast journalism program to take a look at the starting salaries in the TV business and say, “Screw this. I’ll go to law school or get an MBA.”
4. It’s very sad that a large number of those students/graduates aren’t really interested in journalism or news in general. They want to be on TV. They might be just as happy, or perhaps more so, being a “spokes-model” or a contestant on “Big Brother,” as covering the city council in small-town USA. For most new, young TV reporters, the job of collecting and presenting news is just a means to an end — a way to get on TV. If the stars align in their favor, maybe they get a shot at their true dream, to get off the street, away from the day-to-day drudgery of actually covering news, and become an anchor. As a result, there is very little emphasis what traditionalists might consider real journalism. “How does my writing look?” is replaced by “How does my hair look?”
5. Back to college for a moment, although the salaries aren’t a lot different, there is a contrast between the broadcast journalism students and their academic cousins across the quad in the print journalism department. It tends to attract a different type of student. In print journalism, it doesn’t really matter what you look or sound like. The most fame you will achieve early in your career is a byline and maybe a thumbnail photo. Strangers won’t come up to you in the grocery store and ask you why you changed your hair style. While still in school, you are actually expected to be able to write something longer and with more depth than a tweet.
I wish I had a good conclusion for this post, but I don’t. I continue to watch local TV news here. Mostly I just want to know if it’s safe to go to bed and what the weather will be in the morning. I really don’t care about the “live, late breaking” dumpster fire.
A friend of mine posted this poster card on Facebook. As much as I hate to admit it, that’s a pretty good fit for me.
I spent most of my adult career in TV news, where writing was important, but traditional grammar rules were loosely observed. Punctuation was never a consideration. Ellipses were frequently used by many writers…
Then I went to work in higher-education public relations, and the AP Stylebook became my Bible. That’s not to say that I adhere to it perfectly. All you have to do is read this blog to know that I stumble frequently. (One major fault is I have a very difficult time editing anything I wrote. I just see what I meant to say, not what was actually written.)
I must confess to another serious geek-trait. I took two years of Latin in high school. I didn’t like it. Actually, I hated it. I still can’t explain an “ablative absolute. However, those two years of declining verbs and learning to use five cases of nouns helped me write English better than any English class I ever took.
So for 2013, perhaps this card will be my resolution – to remind me to pay closer attention to how I write. I’d hate to be on the wrong end of my own judgmental nature.
A longer post tomorrow, but in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share this link. One of the funniest TV sitcom episodes of all time was from WKRP in the late 1970s. One season, their Thanksgiving episode featured a promotion of releasing life turkeys from a helicopter. The result was a true TV classic, and one of the great lines of TV comedy. “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
If you don’t have the patience to watch the entire episode, wade through the initial commercials and then fast-forward to around 22 minutes or so. Great stuff!
I’m the only one in our family of five siblings without strong ties to Penn State. Three of my four sibs and one brother-in-law are alums and, pretty much bleed blue and white. They have all been shocked and devastated by the events in State College this week.
The students there aren’t helping the university’s image. This video caught my eye because I spent 27 years in the TV news business. Stories of accidents with live microwave news vans are legendary. They usually involve raising the antenna mast into an uninsulated power line. (My last company had an intensive training and certification program to try to avert just that kind of very dangerous accident.) There are the occasional cases of older vans without a cut-off safety switch where the driver drove off with the mast up and ran under a tree branch or overpass. That is never a good thing. I don’t think I was ever seriously concerned about one of our vans being “flipped” on a college campus.
On the more serious side, here is one good reason this is a really bad idea. Sesame Street is a television program aimed at pre-school children. When I was that age, all I knew about the differences between boys and girls was that boys had short hair and wore pants, while girls had long hair and wore dresses. When my sisters were born, I discovered anatomical differences. However, aside from going to the bathroom, I had no idea of their uses. Maybe I had a stunted childhood but I suspect my view of the world as a three- or four-year old wasn’t unique.
I have posted on this subject before, but after watching my favorite Monday night sitcoms on CBS last night, it is worth another entry. The former “Tiffany network” should really be ashamed of what they broadcast during the early evening hours when children are watching.
I love the comedy lineup — How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. However, I’m an adult. I am very glad I don’t have young children with control of the remote on Monday evening. It used to be you could rely on the major networks to be at least sensitive to young ears and a little respectable during the early evening hours. The adult stuff was saved for later, when the kids were in bed. That is the case no more.
A good example is “Rules of Engagement,” which I dearly love. If I am not home for some reason, I’ll definitely record it. I laugh out loud at some of the jokes. But I no longer have small children who might ask questions about scenes like this.
Engaged young couple Adam and Jennifer are discussing a birthday present Adam just gave Jennifer. She jokingly accuses him of getting the present just so he can get some sex. Adam readily agrees and begins to walk to the bedroom.
When Jennifer doesn’t follow, he turns around and asks her, “You did mean right now, didn’t you?”
Jennifer looks down at her short dress and replies, “Oh what the heck. I AM wearing a skirt.”
I can just imagine the questions an elementary school aged girl might ask her mother about that one.
The following show, “Two and a Half Men,” is nothing but an on-going sex joke, but last night it stooped to a new low for any family viewing. Charlie and his girlfriend, Chelsea, pretty much spent the entire episode naked in bed.
Chelsea and Charlie out of bed
The plot centered on Charlie being unhappy about not being able to give Chelsea an orgasm. It wasn’t just an aside reference. It was the main plot of the program. Much of the episode’s dialogue centered around Charlie’s efforts to sexually satisfy his girlfriend.
“Mommy, what’s an orgasm? Can I get one for my birthday?”
I wonder how many adults CBS thinks are available to watch their programs at 8:30 and 9:00 pm(Eastern) without children around also. Could it be another reason the major networks’ ratings continue to decline?
We used to joke that TV was so backward and censured during the days when Ozzie and Harriet slept in separate twin beds. Maybe that wasn’t so bad.
I am reading a book I discovered in our clean-out project a few weeks ago, CNN-The Inside Story.
I spent more than a quarter century in the TV news business. I never worked for CNN, but I know many people who did. The story of the network’s beginnings is fascinating. It’s neat to run across mentions of people I know (or knew at one time.)
Several passages I’ve read also give me “flash backs” to the fun and perils of live television. Overall, I don’t miss the business. TV news is not the same industry it was in the 70s, 80s and even 90s. It’s gotten entirely too squirrelly for my taste. However, being a part of live coverage of a breaking news story is a rush. Being on the air or calling the shots when all h___ is breaking loose and you are flying live without a script or a clue what might happen next, is exciting, and very satisfying when you pull it off. Reading about some of the CNN adventures does bring back some related memories … many of them good.