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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
"Huts and Putts, Beans and Weenies!"
Don't you love stuff? You have to if you are a photographer. We carry stuff all day long. We take the most expensive stuff in our TV stations and drive it around town, take it out of the car and essentially show our stuff to other people while we do stuff. Our cross-town competition here in Phoenix touts themselves as "the Place with More Stuff". But how much stuff do you really need when you don't have a reporter to help carry it all?
Look around at your fellow photogs and what they carry on a garden-variety shoot. There are the Minimalists: Camera, shotgun mic with a curly cord for the interview, a tape in the camera and hopefully a good battery. There is the Loaded for Bear Contingency: Camera, shotgun mic with a curly cord, wireless lav, stick mic with cube and mic flag, tape in the camera, fanny pack with spare battery and tape incase you run into Saddam Hussein and need to shoot a quick interview, collapsible mic stand incase it turns into a press conference and a tripod. Then there are the Everything Including the Kitchen Sink and then Some Fellas. I promised Kevin I would try to stay under 2000 words, so I will not list everything they take on a shoot, but you know them, maybe you are one. They have snacks, tools, multiple forms of entertainment, every cable known to man, lights you have never even heard of, A/V connectors that turn audio into video, collapsible furniture, tripod accessories, things the rest of us never even considered using in creating television and it is all crammed in one bag.
My biggest rule is don't carry more than you can keep track of. There is the obvious stuff: camera, tripod, spare battery, a few spare tapes (since we switched from Beta SX to DVCam, you can carry twice as many). I leave my stick mic, cube and mic flag in the car---those are for press conferences only. For audio I go with a wireless lav for clipping on my subject and chasing them around. But a lot of the situations I shoot in are either very fast moving and fluid or they involve little kids who would tear the wireless to pieces. My best source for audio is my giant shotgun mic and an 8 foot audio cord (it goes back to my early days when we did not have curly cords and just coiled a regular audio cord and hung it off the back of the camera---not pretty, but works great and is very versatile when I use a hardwire lav).
My favorite piece of equipment is the Anton Bauer Satellite. It is essentially the battery connector like on the back of your camera, but instead it has an Ultralight on it. If you suddenly need a little key light for an interview, plop it on a bookcase or door jam, a little backlight maybe...pop out a ceiling tile in false ceilings and hang it over the edge, or take along an intern and have them hold it like a human light stand. I love to use my big set of lights and make the scene look like Christmas, but when you are one person covering a lot of space in a little time, the little things will save you time and your back. 90 percent of my interviews are done in natural light. People are almost always willing to stand where you want then to out of sympathy for carrying big heavy stuff or because they want to be on TV.
My other favorite thing is a little pouch that came with our new camera covers that hangs off the battery and was intended to hold the rain cover. However, living in the desert were we get less than six inches of rain a year, the cover lives in my light kit and other stuff has moved in the pouch: a spare tape (upside of DVCam), a pen, some business cards and my wireless lav. Before we got the camera gloves, a lot of our guys at KPNX used little digital camera cases and plastic ties to fasten them to the camera strap. I won't tell you how many times the spare tape has saved me when I have wondered away from my gear bag or ran out the door without replenishing the supply in my station car. The business cards cut down on hassle. How many times are you rushing to get somewhere and a well meaning viewer stops you and starts pitching a tale of woe or brow beating you for not covering their kid's soccer match? I just hand them a card and point out the assignment desk number and explain that I take the pictures, they plan the stories. (Survival secret---when a reporter is getting ready to leave the station, ask them for a stack of their defunct business cards and hand those out to people who are mean or maladjusted, then they don't know your name and the reporter is gone anyway).
Finally my last favorite piece of equipment cannot be bought in a store or ordered on-line. I lovingly call it "Lynn's Booty"; it is a bootie for my lens and eyepiece. I got the idea a few years ago while trying to shoot hockey and could not pick out the puck because of all the dust in my viewfinder. Obviously it helps keep the lens and viewfinder clean, but it also cuts down on being hassled when carrying the camera into hospitals, restaurants or schools. It is also a great conversation piece (it is lined with fleece imprinted with yellow baby ducks that I put on the outside when I am shooting with a bunch of little kids, and I can wipe down the lens quickly with the lining.) Before you ask, I only sew for love, not for money. However, if the good folks at a camera accessories company want to buy the design off of me, we can talk.
That is my stuff, but there is one more thing I use that is actually my news director's stuff. It is the ratings book. I just felt somebody roll their eyes and guffaw "suck-up". Let me make a case for it before you hit the "back" key to go to the message board. One of the biggest battles photographers fight in a newsroom is for respect. As much as I wish I could say we should be respected for our great story telling abilities and snatching many plummeting news stories from the jaws of disaster, to the ears of most newsroom management, that buzzes in their heads like bad AM radio. However, when you can put your storytelling wants in their language of HUTS and PUTS, you are preaching to the choir and they are on the edge of their pew. Now I am as bad at math as anyone who chose a "communications" major just so they would not have to take statistics, if I can get this, I guarantee you can.
A quick glossary of terms:
Rating: the percentage of audience members watching your news at a specific time out of all televisions possible in the market.
Share: the percentage of households tuned to your station at a specific time out of televisions in use.
HUT: not a straw shack in Jamaica where I wish I was, rather "Homes Using Television"---the percentage of households in your market watching TV at a specific time. This one is important.
PUT (pronounced "putt"): not the final stroke on the 18th green at Pinehurst, rather "Persons Using Television"--- the percentage of people in a certain demographic in your market who are watching TV at a specific time. Don't worry about this one, leave that to the promotions department.
Meters: a box hooked into a chosen family's TV (known as a Nielsen family, however they do not have to change their last name) that measures when the TV is on, what channel it is tuned to and who is watching (not big brother, the family is supposed to push buttons representing who is watching).
If you are in a metered market (I believe it now is 1 into the 70's), everyday your news director gets an e-mail showing the overnight numbers. Those numbers represent how many houses with meters on the TVs watched your news last night. If you look at the column that says HUTS, that tells you how many meters were measuring away last night. You will notice that it is highest during primetime and a very low number in the middle of the night. Your station is doing their damnedest to lure those people with meters by any means necessary to park on your station as often as possible (they now also figure out if you fell asleep with the TV on or turned it to channel 12 and went to work). The meters also measure every quarter hour, so even if you have a really high rating at the beginning of the show, if they turn it off after the first five minutes, it will seriously lower your rating.
If you are not in a metered market, people fill out diaries showing that they watched Channel 5 at 6pm but Channel 11 at 10. However they may have been watching WWF Smackdown at 10 but did not want anyone to know so they wrote down the news instead (if your market is on the verge of going to meters, you will hear a lot rumblings about this).
Here is the important stuff: when you look at your ratings, be aware of how much higher or lower your numbers are compared to the other stations. Simple enough, yes, highest number wins. But you will see there are two numbers that might look like 11.5/19. The first one is the rating; the second one is the share. Why is the share bigger? The share represents the number of TV tuned to your stations out of all the TV's turned on at that time, but the rating is the number of TVs on your station out of all the TVs in your market whether they are on or off. Be aware that this gets into some deep math involving random sampling and these are representative, not real numbers...blah...blah...blah. Just know it represents how many people were watching your station last night and that affects how much your station can charge for advertising and whether you will get new stuff.
Here is how to look really smart: look at the ratings of the shows before your news and after. If they are lower, then you have "tune-in" meaning people are making a conscientious decision to watch your news. If they are lower than the lead-in, then you have "tune-out", not good, especially if you can pick out that those people are switching to another news program. Also notice if the HUT level drops, that means people are turning off the TV before the news starts, also bad. The ratings will also be listed by February, May, July and November. Compare November book to November book and so on when the viewing habits are the same (essentially, people don't watch as much TV in summer).
Now you have some information to help sell your stories. Maybe you have been eyeing a piece about the new police forensics lab but could not get the time to do it. Go to your managing editor and let him or her know that you could do this story and promote it during CSI or Law and Order to keep those viewers from tuning out. Maybe you have a really cool feature you have wanted to do but no one will bite. Tell the producer that it is totally teasable and that it could run past the quarter hour mark and keep those numbers.
My final reason for why photogs should read the ratings book: you will drop some news director's jaw on a job interview. You know the drill, you fly in, sit in the morning meeting, tour of the station, lunch with the chief photographer and maybe another senior photog, then some quick 10 minute interviews with the operations manager, the managing editor and the news director. Instead of talking about people they know from your market or how lunch was, ask the ND if you can see the numbers from the last book or the overnights. It shows that you understand a competitive news environment, you care how many people are watching your show and you speak their language. Keep an eye on the time because once they get started, you can't stop them and you don't want to miss your flight home.
Maybe I sold you; maybe I did not, but next time you see the ratings floating around, take a look and see if it makes sense.
I promised you a story that will change how you look at ratings. I have a ritual of eating beans and franks on the night before a book starts, here is why:
I did not live this. This is a newsroom legend told to me by my first TV news director. Out of the sixteen news directors I have had, he holds more credibility than most; therefore I believe this completely.
Channel 4 was the first station on the air in 1948, before the TV Freeze created by World War II. The other stations in the market did not receive their licenses from the FCC until 1953 when the freeze was lifted. Channel 4 always seemed to be a few years ahead of the others, maybe it was because they had a head start, maybe it was because they had a decent owner who was not afraid to spend some money to stay ahead. Channel 4 was first to have local programming, first to have a newscast, first to be number one in the ratings. Their signal was stronger since they had a leg up on gathering translator communities and their on-air product was far more advanced since they had been in the TV business five years more than anyone else.
Channel 7 started a newscast in late 60's. Television stations were figuring out that local programming was much cheaper and readily available over national content. Primitive news was beautiful: a single deep voiced, leather face male anchor sitting at a desk hunched over a cucumber shaped silver microphone. Occasionally, he would be covered by a few expensive seconds of flittering film. It truly was radio with pictures.
Channel 7 was slow in catching up to power house Channel 4. But in the late 70's, as video tape was beginning to crop up and news was at it's height of style, and the playing field leveled as pioneering efforts in those early days faded into history and new technology took over. Channel 7 became a player and often emerged as the winner in the ratings game.
Back in the day, the day being the late 1970's and early 80's, the ratings would show up in the mail about two weeks after the end of sweeps in actual book form, not the overnight e-mail attachments we know so well now. To add to the excitement, the book was sealed, like the SAT test you took in high school that held your entire future on a few pages of low grade pulp---so much promise until the seal was broken.
The general manager of Channel 4 added an edge to the delivery of precious pages in hopes that it would spur success. The day the book arrived, he would call the country club and reserve the back room for a dinner function. He would then send word out to the news department that everyone who was not working that night was expected to be at the country club for dinner and to dress appropriately. Around 7 that night, the soldiers would march into the war room and wait for the general to speak.
The first time this was exciting, everyone assumed greatness due to the decadence of the occasion. Producers and reporters came straight from the station in their respectable work clothes, just slightly disheveled. Camera men and film guys emerged in their Sunday best, some so completely unrecognizable, they were told at the door it was a private party, their gravely voices and choice explicatives would quickly identify them as true newsroom employees.
The group was seated in the lush room of dark wood, crimson flocked wallpaper and glittering dim chandeliers. At 7:30 sharp, the GM stood at the front of the room and presented the sealed tome to the captive audience and held it above his head in a biblical fashion. The air pressure in the warm room dropped as everyone breathed in through their nostrils, holding the breath in their lungs worrying it may be their last.
"If we are number one, steak for everybody!" A cheerful murmur washed over the room. "If Channel 7 is number one, you will eat beans and weenies." The first few of these meetings produced audible gasps of disbelief from the crowd. But after the first year it became a drill. The GM demanded the country club staff not prepare gourmet grub if there was a defeat, straight out of the can and luke warm, hardly palatable.
The GM grabbed a steak knife from the table and slide the blade into the book and whipped though the seal as through he was ripping into Channel 7's chest. With teeth clinched, the group of workers watched him thumb through the book to the news ratings. The crowd searched his face for evidence of victory. He found the page in less than a minute. He took a shallow breath and swept his eyes over the masses. With a blank expression, he announced the evening's entrée.
They never once ate steak.
Next month we look at life on the bummer beat. This is for one-man-band or any photographer who has to do the dreadful task of knocking on grieving relatives doors while covering a tragic story. We will go over some ways to take the sting out of doing the goulish drill and maybe even make you feel good about doing it.
We are in the middle of switching to a totally tapeless Avid Unity system at KPNX, so pardon my slow replies to your e-mails, but I love hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org or LEFrenchNM@msn.com.
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