Confessions of a TV Newswriter
A SCHOOL-BUS ACCIDENT NEAR WATSONVILLE HURT EIGHT SPECIAL-EDUCATION CHILDREN THIS MORNING.(ROLL VIDEO OF ACCIDENT SCENE, AMBULANCES) NONE OF THE INJURIES IS THOUGHT TO BE SERIOUSÉ BUT WE GOT VIDEO AND NO F***ING NEWS JUDGMENT TO SPEAK OF, SO HERE ARE THE PICTURES. REMEMBER WHAT GEORGE BERNARD SHAW ONCE SAID ABOUT JOURNALISM: "NEWSPAPERS ARE UNABLE, SEEMINGLY, TO DISCRIMINATE BETWEEN A BICYCLE ACCIDENT AND THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION."I wrote that TV news script a few years ago. I was about six years into a seven-year stint as a news writer, laboring behind the scenes to put words onto the TelePrompTers and into the mouths of the local anchors at a Northern California station. On this particular day, I'd had more than I could stand of writing meaningless narration to insignificant video footage. But I stashed the draft you just read, submitting (in more ways than one) a more conventional version. It was a disturbing personal trend: I was writing the truth first, then writing the news. "News" is what my bosses wanted written: bland, official, missing the point, and ignoring the key question of why news managers think stories like the school-bus accident are newsworthy. In this case, the station bought the footage from a freelance videographer who makes a living of listening to police and fire scanners and racing to the scene of fires, accidents, crime, and sundry tragedy. He calls it the "meat wagon" beat. Some living, huh? Conventional local-TV-news wisdom can be summed up in the often-uttered expression: "If it bleeds, it leads." (The corollary is, "If it's fire, run it higher.") The school-bus video showed just one kid getting loaded into the ambulance. He wasn't bloodied, but the newscast producer ran the shot anyway. She was afraid our bosses would see it on another local station and ask her why she didn't run it. Why would the bosses be watching other stations? They all do it, all the time. They're supposedly checking out the competition, but they wind up watching so much TV they do little else, and they eventually lose touch with non-TV reality. To be fair, they do spend some time reading. Yeah, they read memos, and they read about TV in trade journals. And they talk...to each other, mostly...about TV, of course. To get "outside" perspective, news directors and general managers and station vice-presidents pay big bucks to consultants. Consultants watch more TV than anyone else, and they read all the TV trades and insider newsletters. That's how consultants know more about TV than mere mortals do. Consequently, consultants know less than anyone else about everything else. Consultants tell their client stations what other stations are doing, so the clients can imitate it. The result is inevitable: TV constantly becomes more and more like itself and less and less like the rest of the world. This is tragic. Television is just too important, too powerful, and too dangerous a medium to be left in the control of people who live for television. Consider another story. The bosses wanted a puff piece about the Blue Angels, the Navy's jet-fighter precision-flying team, preparing for an annual performance. Here's what I wrote first: THEY'RE LOUD! THEY'RE BLUE! AND THEY'RE BACK!(ROLL VIDEO OF JETS, OPENING WITH EARSPLITTING SOUND EFFECTS) YES, THEY'RE THE NAVY'S BLUE ANGELS... REHEARSING THEIR SHOW, TERRORIZING LITTLE OLD LADIES, PUTTING THE EARTHQUAKE BEJEEBERS INTO DOWNTOWN MONEY TYPES, AND OTHERWISE BEHAVING LIKE OVERSEXED ADOLESCENTS WITH NO WAY TO PROVE THEIR MANHOOD BUT MAKING NOISE. WE DON'T KNOW WHY WE'RE SHOWING YOU THIS. IT'S ONLY IMPRESSIVE CLOSE-UP AND FOR REAL, UNLIKE TV. BESIDES, THE PICTURES LOOK THE SAME EVERY YEAR. WE COULD JUST AS EASILY RUN FILE TAPE FROM LAST YEAR... AND YOU'D NEVER KNOW THE DIFFERENCE. SO IF YOU WANT AN IN-PERSON LOOK AT THE NAVY'S BILLION-DOLLAR BLUE PENISES-IN-THE-SKY, TURN OUT TOMORROW... AND REMEMBER, BRING YOUR EARPLUGS!Never made air, of course; didn't even turn it in. Some TV stations sometimes covered the noise angle of this annual story: interviews with angry citizens and such-like bites. And some covered the traffic disruptions caused by highway closures. But year-in and year-out, I never saw a TV news story on the tax dollars the Navy pours into the Blue Angels, or why the Navy thinks those dollars are well spent. Fact is, we could have run the tape from the previous year's rehearsal. TV stations not only imitate each other, they imitate themselves. In TV, there's no news like old news. Profit-conscious news managers don't want to waste their precious camera-crew time on something that might not make it to air, so they prefer events that have made it to air previously. One quiet Thanksgiving evening at the station, with football games pre-empting the early evening newscasts, we had the late news show written and ready to go by 7:30. I suggested that since we all knew which stories we'd be running the day after Thanksgiving, why not write tomorrow's noon show?Just for the hell of it, we did. One of us wrote about the shopping season starting, with a live shot from the heart of downtown. Another wrote about the local anti-fur protests, with video wipes to similar demonstrations in L.A., Chicago, New York, and Paris. Also on our mock newscast: activists protest against toys made by slave labor in China, consumer group warns about unsafe children's toys, and a different consumer group warns about over-using your charge cards. These scripts never made air, but the actual scripts and the look of the next day's newscast mirrored every one of these stories. Our "tomorrow's news today" newscast even had an exact line about merchants' anxieties over consumer spending. Live reporter downtown says, "Yes, there are a lot of people out here today, but they're all just looking, not buying. You don't see a lot of people in this crowd carrying shopping bags." TV news really is that predictable. Don't TV executives care about their product, then? Of course, they do. But what you see on the screen isn't the TV product. You are the product. You don't pay the broadcasters to deliver programming. Advertisers are paying the broadcasters to deliver you, to get you watching and listening when their commercials come on. The programming is just bait to lure you to the ads.Never mind the public, TV doesn't even serve the audience. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune. TV will do whatever it must to deliver the audiences that advertisers desire. That's why TV is so driven by and defined by promotion. The teases that lead up to newscasts are more carefully scripted and have higher production values than the shows themselves.This is true of the TV in general: just look how much editing and production work goes into the promo for entertainment shows, compared to the shows themselves. It's also true of the news, because TV news is much more TV than it is news. So, during the run-up to a show, if a news writer and a promo producer both need access to the same video or the same VCR or the same skilled video editor, the promo producer has priority. Hands down, no question. So what if the piece that makes the newscast itself suffers as a result? The important thing was to get people to tune in, or to stay tuned. That'$ the name of the game. I sometimes tried to take advantage of that. When the Waco siege began two days after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, I suggested a backgrounder story about religious fundamentalism. We'd go to experts at prestigious local universities and discuss the Muslim and Christian fundamentalism behind the respective events, tossing in a section on Jewish fundamentalist settlers in the West Bank. The only reason I thought my bosses would even consider a think piece like that was, it was so teasable: "The secret link between Waco and the World Trade Center! Tonight at 11. Only on our channel!" I was right. They bought it. Next day, Friday, the reporter who was assigned to the story got pulled to be the second reporter covering a disgruntled worker who crashed his car into his boss's front porch. That was going to be the top story that night, and our rigid format said the lead story always had to have "team coverage," at least two reports. So, the station postponed the fundamentalism story until Monday. But Nightline did it Friday night, and it was Time's cover story Monday morning. My bosses then killed the story, because it had been done already. Get this: they didn't want to look like they were just imitating someone else. We lost a national scoop because of a glorified car crash -- or was it a bicycle accident? You could even argue that the fundamentalism story had "better" video: guns, bombs, and blood. On the other hand, it was yesterday's video. But if TV programming is created just to lure an audience, wouldn't you think TV execs would be worried that using inferior bait would catch inferior fish? No, they're not worried. Perhaps you forgot for a moment that TV is addictive. It's just like any other drug: once you're hooked, this year's stuff doesn't have to be as good as last year's stuff.