Amy Bowers
TV Talk

The Price of Journalism

What's wrong with broadcast television news? The expense vouchers. For example, a typical TV crew travels with 10-18 cases of equipment. The "gratuities" allowance for the Sky Cap is $1 per bag. That's not realistic. Forty bucks is more like it. But the networks won't reimburse the $40, so the smart thing would be to take 18 cases to the counter, and wait in line to get a receipt for excess baggage, which they will reimburse.

Depending on the airlines, it costs about $50 for the first excess bag, $75 each for the next two, $100 for the fourth little sweetie, and then it escalates exponentially till it tops out at something like $280 million for the last excess bag. While they're waiting in the line at the airline counter, the crew's car might get towed. But that's allright because the cameraman can get a receipt and put in for it. It takes some extra time, though. Usually overtime.

Another thing that takes some extra time is the take-off roll with those seven hundred pounds of excess. I obsessively time all my take-off rolls whether I'm traveling with a crew with sixteen cases of equipment or not. When my plane to Dallas on a hot day in June didn't rotate after 38 seconds and didn't seem to be accelerating, I knew we were not gonna make it. Having already made my pre-flight petition to the travel angels ("my children need me"), I relaxed my breathing and tightened my seat belt. At 48 seconds the pilots cut the engines and we coasted to a stop. The captain explained the reason for our aborted take-off as we taxied back to the gate. There's no space on the expense voucher for aggravation penalty, so there's no smart thing to do.

If you're in a broadcast union, you can put in for unscheduled flights. You get about forty dollars for each up-and-down in a helicopter or charter plane, with a daily maximum of two unscheduled flights per day. So the smart thing would be to let someone else fly after you've made two trips in the chopper.

Network television news will continue to suffer until it acknowledges the existence of parking meters. If I drop four quarters in a meter, I can't put in for it, without a receipt. So I'm out a buck. If I don't feed the meter, and get a $52 parking ticket, I can put in for it, because I have a receipt. So the smart thing would be to keep my change and take the ticket. I've heard that policy is changing, and some of the networks will no longer reimburse for parking tickets. So the smart thing would be to let the meter expire, have the car towed, get a receipt, and put in for it. I encourage my crews to park on the sidewalk so they don't waste valuable time deciding whether to feed the meter.

One very nice thing about broadcast news is that they reimburse for flowers. I can send flowers to a guest on our morning show and I can buy flowers to decorate a live shot. In August a morning show asked me to produce a live shot with a guest they booked at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho but the show had to cancel, late in the evening. They booked again the next evening, but cancelled again. When they started talking about another live guest the following day, I decided to send flowers to the folks in Public Affairs to let them know we appreciated their efforts. When I got home from Boise, I asked whether I could put in for the flowers. No, I was told, we are being careful about gifts. The smart thing to do would be to send them hats from the bureau, instead.

It's also smart to know what to call your expenses. Years ago, I got stopped by a motorcycle cop in Tijuana for no apparent violation. He said I had changed lanes on an overpass. The cop wanted us to follow him to the police station in our two rental cars filled with tv equipment. I had a bad feeling about this, and asked the cop to pay our ticket for us. He accepted forty bucks and rode away. Obviously, no news organization would want its employee to offer a bribe and certainly would not reimburse for one. Naturally, my request was not a bribe, but a way to expedite our fine. The smart thing to do would be to put in for a "filming permit."

If the news finance managers ever make it easier for the crews to save the networks some excess baggage fees, TV news will start to recover. Money will flow into news budgets and news ratings will improve.

Then we can talk about what's right with television news. "I like to watch the news in the morning," says my friend Kim, who loves to read books but does not subscribe to the newspaper. "I like George Stephanopoulous when
he's on and I like to watch breaking news. I don't like to watch war," Kim adds. "I like to see bear invasions and shark attacks."

And the best in television, according to Kim? "I love to see people's houses floating away. Usually the houses float away in Texas. Everything's always in Texas," she observed.

The smart thing to do would be to go to Texas and put in for the house.

Amy Bowers
Contributing Writer

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