11 Deadlines a Day
There are four times a year when the broadcasting industry gears up to buckle down. Writers, producers and designers must find and deliver untapped creativity. News Directors' careers count on Promotions Directors, and Promotions Directors count gray hairs. The hours can get so long that relationships suffer, pets treat you like an intruder, and house plants die. It's a time when vacation is forbidden, and the only excuse to miss work is death: your own.
You know what I'm talkin' about: it's the all-encompassing Sweeps. Book. Ratings Period. Whatever your station calls it, it's the ever-controversial measurement of who is watching your station, and when. It's the number by which life-sustaining sales and advertising rates are determined.
Every morning during February, May, July and November, electronic reports ("overnights") are generated for your market. How your station performed the night before, relative to the competition, can bring a morning of hi-fives and celebratory Starbucks runs - or it can bring a day of moaning, groaning and secret Starbucks runs. (The first step is admitting your addiction.)
It's a time that's planned out months ahead, yet where everything could (and does) change in a moment's notice. And when those changes come down (remember, "stuff" rolls down hill) it's all up to you, the Creative Services Writer Producer, to make it happen. In an already frenetic workday, you now are switching gears and running on adrenaline and fumes to deliver. Within hours.
I recall one of these moments vividly, as it was during my first sweeps month (February ‘07) at my current job, a Writer/Producer at sister stations WJLA, the ABC affiliate, and NewsChannel 8, an all-news station in Washington, DC, both owned by the Allbritton Communications Company. I'd been hired 3 weeks prior but The Creative Services Department was in personnel flux, and I was helping out writing and producing news topicals while that position was being filled.
If you've never heard of topicals promotion, let me break it down for you: if the TV promotions business is war, producing topicals is done from the trenches. You're responsible for the daily promotion of many different stories. You have 10 or more deadlines throughout the day. You depend on reporters and producers (and all their personalities, which sometimes outnumber the actual number of bodies!) for video and sound bites.
You have to accommodate last-minute changes, breaking news, etc. You get script approval from so many people that by the time everyone in charge has put his or her two cents in, your script is back to the way you had originally written it!
Topicals production can sometimes feel like a slow, torturous walk on the plank, but nothing prepares you better for excellence in writing, producing and editing as your career moves along.
So, in addition to my other duties, writing and producing sweeps pieces (the "killer" stories that warrant "killer" promotion), this particular February I was also on topicals detail.
At WJLA, this translates to: writing and producing one promo that begins airing at noon; four promos to air during Oprah; three topical station IDs to air during Oprah; another slated to air during ABC7 News at 5; and two others that promote the 5pm newscast but air on WTOP, the legendary DC radio station.
That's 11 promos. Every day.
The Sweeps Ratings Period is about producing killer promos under pressure, 10 or more times a day.
Recall, I'm also producing the actual sweeps stories above and beyond those 11 promos of the stories. But I can accept the challenge. And one potentially great thing about topicals production is that you meet everyone in the newsroom, because your work involves everyone. I considered it an opportunity to meet my new co-workers. And, I was a seasoned pro at it already, having served 3 years of hard topicals time at Houston's minimum security facility known as KPRC. No sweat. Bring it on.
CUE JAWS® THEME MUSIC
And so it went like that, as smoothly as possible for the month. The last day of sweeps is the big push: that last effort to get the viewers to your station. And I survived the day. And the month. It was 5:00pm. My job(s) were done. Sweeps was over.
Yeah OK, so I was exhausted, but I made it. I proved myself to my new station by braving the topicals and also turning out some excellent sweeps stories. We now had our two new topicals producers hired, in place and almost trained. It was over. Time to exhale.
Or so I thought.
Around the corner, like a dorsal fin through warm ocean water, lurked my boss. And he was looking for me. He opened the sliding glass door to my edit suite. We made eye contact. The he started speaking. "One last favor...news wants to push the 11 o ‘clock show...so-and-so has more information...it needs to air at 7:30pm..."
After this, his sentences all ran together. It was clear that my first February sweeps at my new job in the biggest market I'd ever worked in wasn't quite over.
My first reaction was "You want it when?!#*@?!" Thankfully, the words that came out of my mouth were: "Sure! Let me go find the reporter and see what it's all about!" My boss smiled, told me I rocked, shut the edit suite door, and went back into his own deep sweeps waters.
Too tired to panic, I find the reporter whose piece we want to push for the 11pm newscast. He tells me his story is about eating disorders affecting males. And get this: it's called "Manorexia." Really. It is.
Now, if you're a guy who suffers with it, you aren't laughing.
Being female, I was. I mean, ladies, when is the last time a guy turned to you and said: "Do these jeans make my butt look big?"
OK, so the reporter and I shared some laughs at the expense of these body-image challenged men with this disease called Manorexia. I wasn't really buying it, but I sure had to sell it - to everyone watching Ugly Betty tonight. And time was running out. There was a script to write, video to capture, graphics to be created, music to be selected.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: THE SCRIPT
I like to call the script the trunk of the tree off of which everything else grows. So now I have to figure out how to talk to the Ugly Betty audience. I know that they are typically female and 18-35 years old. (It's also my job to know this already, but that's another article.)
I have to sell an audience of young women a story about male eating disorders, in a fifteen second promo. Shouldn't be too hard, but my script really needs to get their attention off the bat.
How about: "You don't have to be a GIRL to HURL!"
No, that wasn't very nice.
Ummm...: "Guys can do anything girls can do better"
No, that was just plain stupid.
This is a serious disease after all, a newly documented medical phenomenon. And guys are dying from it. So after some thought, here's what I came up with:
LONG REGARDED A WOMAN'S HEALTH ISSUE, A KILLER IS NOW CROSSING GENDER LINES.
I read it back to myself, noting that I was indeed talking to my core audience, and that my last line included everyone - no matter who happened to be watching Ugly Betty.
I speed-schlepped my script around to my boss, the reporter and the news director, got three green lights. Yes! Time to make a promo!
I emailed the script to our voiceover guy Roger Thompson. You've definitely heard his voice, on many, many local stations and national networks.
He records our VOs and emails them back to our Washington DC station from his Albuquerque, New Mexico studio. (See how far-reaching this fifteen second promo effort is?) He's so good I knew I'd get it back in a matter of minutes.
In the meantime, I gathered the interviews on tape from the reporter. Now it's my job to digitize the best video to put in my promo: guys working out; guys eating salad; skinny guys, guys checking themselves out in the mirror, etc.
I also needed to find that "great" sound bite the reporter bragged about. Luckily, it was all there, and easy to find. The reporter had even gone the extra mile to get male model advertisements – the ones that reportedly cause young men to have poor body images and plummet into Manorexia.
After digitizing the best clips and stills, I had to figure out what video went over what audio in the promo. Time to see if my audio had been emailed from Roger in New Mexico. It was there and it was nice.
Need to find music. Maybe something that sounds like a club or house tempo. Video Helper has tons of that and I was able to find JUST the right music bed from their "All Your Beats Are Belong to Us" selection.
Check clock. Promo airs in 1 hour. I'll make it, but barely.
GET WATER. REMEMBER TO BREATHE.
Performing creatively under this sort of time crunch brings an indescribable rush. Fatigue gives way to focus. Nothing stands in the way of you and your masterpiece promo getting on the air on time. Nothing.
Except maybe one. There's s no one in the art department to design your piece for you. By "design" I mean make it look really cool with extra graphics or text. Sex it up as we say.
No, those guys were either mired in their work for the 11 O'clock newscast, or they had gone home. After all, sweeps was over for them. The one thing I forgot to do in the mayhem was ask, no beg one of them to stay and whip up some text and graphics for me. I'd be without the services of the most talented group of designers on the eastern seaboard.
This left me to my own very novice graphics abilities and at the mercy of whatever came with Final Cut Studio. Luckily, I had some experience there, so my mistake wasn't going to be fatal. It was going to hurt, but me and my promo were going to survive.
CLOCK STILL TICKING
Forty-five minutes get this on the air.
OK, I can handle this. Let me take a look at Motion. I'd used some Motion templates in a previous job, in similar situations, and I had yet to use it here. And I had one in mind that just might work for Manorexia.
Armed with a bottle of water in the dim ambience of my now locked edit suite, I plugged away. I played with various clips and how they fit into the portions of Motion's "Basic White" template. It has a slick and clean look, as if it were created to package a promo about vanity and body image.
The text portion was easy to figure out and position, and before long, I had a promo on the timeline.
READY FOR APPROVAL
When my boss gave an enthusiastic "Beautiful!" after viewing it, I was almost there. The News Director was the only obstacle between my promo and the Ugly Betty audience.
And I had ten minutes to find him, get it approved, or make the changes he wanted.
Now, keep in mind that News Directors are masters of their craft, but their craft is not creative. They see promotion MUCH differently than, well, creative people. This could be the deal-breaker.
I found him and showed him the spot. He smiled (yes, it happens) and said evenly, "Good." Not as rousing as the reaction from my boss, but you have to understand that in News Director-speak, "good" means "Fabulous! Brilliant! Get it on the air!"
...the day and the month were now over. I'd survived my first sweeps month at my new station in the biggest market I've ever worked. I'd learned the integral topicals producer role of WJLA's Creative Services Department in the midst of my own job description's challenges.
I'd even made some new friends and felt no longer like the "new kid." And I was on my way home to convince my dog that I really am her owner.
Until sweeps starts again in two months and I do it all over again.
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