So You’d Like to Be A Television Anchor?

The Conventions are blessedly over and you’re thinking, “TV anchor? Way cool!” Well, take it from someone whose seen what’s behind the folks up front, easy it isn’t.

The problem with 24 hour news is that its on 24 hours… As someone who grew up at the knee of one of the greats in American television news production, and has seen the good and the bad and the ugly from inside the production booth, I can tell you that following a crisis or a multi-day major event is crushing. It may seem crushing to watch, but those you are watching and those behind them are journalists acting in a cirque du soliel production. The daily national newscast seems like kindergarten cart wheels in comparison–but it only seems that way.

It all starts with the morning staff meeting, usually around 10 for the 6 or 6:30 pm broadcast. All the team has to do is decide which of whatever is going on at home and abroad will fit into the 20 some odd minutes of actual air time. Once that is decided assignments of stories are made to the reportorial field reporters who then have to get the footage and interviews done in time for them to be edited and ready for air. Sometimes that happens literally at the last minute. While the production team is putting together the show everyone is praying that as the witching hour draws near, nothing happens that so critically newsworthy that it can cause the changing of the order or sometimes the whole structure of the newscast. In such cases the show is produced pretty much on the fly.

Fronting all this chaos is the anchor, often belittled as a news reader. Even on local news, which when brought up on “major league broad casting seems like AA ball, the job is one of mind bending-concentration. Most daunting is the fact that while the anchor is talking to you someone is talking to the anchor, hence the ear piece. Sometimes it’s little stuff, “Wrong camera, look at #3.” Sometimes it’s major. “Don’t go to the next story, go to p.5–now!”

Once upon a time ABC News was experimenting with a 3 anchor system with each anchor being in a different city. It wasn’t unusual during the commercials for one of the anchors to be suggesting changes in the show or suggesting that a co-anchor had screwed something up. In a classic moment, one of the anchors dropped his script during a commercial because he had become furious with a comment made by his fellow anchor. In the production room we could see papers flying every which way. He had but only 30 seconds to get down on the floor, scoop them up, and try to put them in order. At the 10 second mark it was realized they weren’t in order and he’d be leading with a story for which the wrong visuals would come up. With about a nano-second to spare it was decided to switch the order and open with a different anchor and different story meaning that the teleprompter had to be changed and the tapes in the cartridge machine had to be shuffled. The good old days? Today buttons do that. Even so, the tension is unbearable and the language worthy of the navy.

When stuff like that happens no one has a job description. You do what someone tells you to do and you do it with life and death urgency. Such a thing happened one night when I was a guest in the production room for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Walter Cronkite was to news as the Pope is to Catholicism. All I know was pandemonium had begun to reign. Suddenly, my brother yelled at me, “Catch this, run up those stairs, and put it in any hand that is reaching for it!” Next thing i know a VCR tape is flying towards me. I snatch it out of the air (praise the Lord!), spin in my chair, and leap towards the stairs–a wrought iron, spiral staircase suited in width for a WW 11 submarine. Up I went and don’tcha know, there were fingers visible above, i made the relay-race hand-off perfectly, i hear a “here take this and rack it!” command, the sound of something snapping into place, and then the countdown to air hitting “2.” A moment never to be forgotten. A moment i was thanked for after the show by Walter himself, and a moment I’d rather never have to experience again. Why? When I got home I ran the what if’s through my head. Not catch the tape. fall out of the cheap seat it was in, trip on the stairs and smash my face, trip and watch the tape clatter or sail down to the production floor, or miss the relay hand off again seeing in my mind the tape fly off into a space that had no time from which to retrieve it. Thanks for the memories.

So dear dear you can see that since one never knows  what is going to happen in the world, or around the corner, why there are researchers who try to work on a predictive basis and compile research information on all matter of things. Remember, no matter what, the anchor needs to keep talking and only the best can do that sensibly on an ab lib basis and eventually everyone runs out of material, so the researchers pull stuff up for the production staff, the production staff puts it in the pipeline, it goes into the anchor’s ear, to the brain, and out the mouth.

And then there are those things that happen that weren’t predicted. As we say back home, “Oy gevalt!” “Chaotic” doesn’t cover it and remember, the person in front of the camera can’t break a sweat, can’t mutter an expletive, shouldn’t even show facial distress. That’s why they get the big bucks. It’s also why the tradition up to now has been for anchors to have had plenty of field experience, some of which is usually in a war zone or a real political hot spot. The reason is first they have known real pressure and real danger and how to be cool under fire. Secondly, they know what is going on behind or in front of them and in the various outposts feeding into the production team. They have faith born of experience that they don’t have to panic. Anchors often treat the production team the way quarterbacks treat their linemen. And for good reason.

Short of covering in real time a terrorist attack or other major disaster handling a political convention is like handling nitro-glycerin. The work begins weeks before with meetings between the news people and the convention staffers. A broad picture is gotten of what will be the themes of each day and then what each day will look like to carve out that theme.

More often than anyone would like large changes can be made with little notice meaning all the information that is cued up needs to be changed or worse scrapped. Reporters are on the floor to get a story and sometimes they can’t, or haven’t by the time they are supposed to air it. Someone else has to be found who has something to say. It’s infernally noisy. Sometimes what is being said can’t be heard. Everyone is super high on adrenaline. Sometimes people say very unpredictable things, even the reporters and the anchors have to be ready to deal with whatever it is. Then there are the individuals who agree to an interview and won’t talk about what you want them to talk about. Or won’t talk much period, so the reporter  plays dentist trying to pull out information like it were a tooth needing extraction. Or some who just won’t stop talking.

This is why every journalist has a favorite watering hole in most every place he or she works. And this is why some journalists who have been war correspondents or cover high tension, low predictably stories like the White House, Congress can’t adjust when their assignments are changed to “low impact” jobs or they retire. There is a documented syndrome among journalists who have had long term war assignments. They continue to ask for the next hot spot and the next hot spot and the next one after that. They are addicted to danger. Eventually they get wounded or killed, hooked on medications to get them up when they need upping and bring them down when the upping need is over, the either never have families or they families become casualties of the journalist’s addiction.

Like most jobs that take place in front of bright lights, journalism has many dark places behind those lights. Many a good person has fallen into those dark holes, some without notice, some very publicly.

Willy Nelson intoned, “Mothers don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys….” In many cases journalists are cowboys and the range looks a lot easier to deal with in a picture book than when you are actually riding it.




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