How are tv news assignments generated? The important events of the day are sent to the assignment desks as news releases, or are carried on the wires, or are enterprised by reporters with the political beats. Spot news is evaluated in terms of loss of life, loss of property, and quality of the available video.
What about feature pieces and sidebars? In a typical network newscast of 22 minutes, most of the air time is allocated to the lead story and its sidebars, and other major stories. Then there are regular segments involving people, technology, or money, like "Eye On America," "The Cutting Edge," or "In Depth."
That leaves a very small slot for other news. One of the great frustrations I endure as a freelance field producer is sitting on a great story that my assignment editors or executive producers won't let me shoot.
The first hurdle in pitching a story is getting past the big "so what." A story is usually not very good on its own merits, it has to have a significance or a tie-in to another known quantity. If I have a great sports piece, I may connect it to a Hollywood movie. ("This is a Rocky story," "This is a Hoop Dreams but with girls," "This one's a Show Me The Money".)
Next, people always want to confirm that the story will pan out, by seeing it in print. Nobody wants to shoot a story that hasn't already been written in the newspaper, or better yet Time or People Magazine.
I once had a story about a Navajo radio announcer named Ernie Manuelito, who simulcasts NBA and NFL games in the Navajo language for his radio audience in the Southwest. I pitched it several times to ABC News without a response. Eventually Peter Jennings heard the story on NPR, and ordered it up for World News on a Superbowl Sunday. No thanks to me. At least I had already done enough research to know the location of the radio station in Window Rock, Arizona, and was able to get some of the footage he needed.
Once in awhile, a modest little story will be written in a local paper, and picked up on the wires. This happened a few years ago when a man in Artesia, New Mexico hit and killed his dog while backing out of the driveway. He didn't want the kids to see the mangled corpse, so he quickly buried it in the back yard. The next morning, the dog's Mama dug up her pup, who had recovered, except for the loss of one eye.
This would not have attracted the attention of two networks and several syndicated shows, if it were not for the fact that the attending veterinarian encouraged the dog owner to write up the story. "You could publish it in Reader's Digest," he urged. The story was written up in the local weekly, and picked up by one of the Albuquerque papers. It moved on the wire, and caught the attention of someone at CBS This Morning.
By the time I arrived in Artesia, NM to do a live shot with the UnDead Dog and his owners, the phone was ringing off the hook in the small trailer in the middle of nowhere. A feeding frenzy ensued, as several assignment desks jumped on this non-story. By the time we cleared our shot and said our good-bye, we heard the dog owner's saying, "American Journal wants an exclusive, so we can only do telephone interviews any more."
If I had seen that story before it hit the wires, and pitched it to an assignment editor, the reply would have been, "I HATE IT!!"
Hey, I don't make the news, I just regurgitate it.
From a newspuke in New Mexico,
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