An Evening In A TV News Room

To kick off my Christmas vacation, I spent the evening with a buddy of mine from high school. He's the guy in the photo you see here; he's a TV news anchor, doing the 10:00 evening news Sundays through Thursdays in Seattle at the FOX affiliate. We aren't going to get a chance to see each other the rest of vacation, so he invited me to meet him at the station, grab some dinner, and afterward I could watch the show as it was being produced, live. I had a blast, and wanted to jot some notes here.

In The Studio

During the show I went between the control room and the studio.  The studio had three people in it a lot of the time: Mark, his co-anchor, Kerri, and the person who runs the teleprompter.  The cameras are robots, controlled by somebody in the control room.  It was nerdalicious seeing the cameras move across the studio like huge robotic floor vacs.

There's a lot of downtime in the studio during the broadcast, which surprised me: Mark would read the intro to a story for 10-30 seconds, then he'd be off camera for another 30 seconds.  I talked to the teleprompter guy during the broadcast; he was able to talk to me while watching the show, and could still scroll the prompter along to keep up.  But while a story is playing from tape, the folks in the studio chat a lot.  Not constantly, though: the studio was much more quiet than I thought it would be.  Lots of times, nobody was talking at all.

Oh, and both anchors spend a lot of time doing makeup.  It gets hot under the lights and their faces could get melt-y if they didn't constantly apply their stuff.  I can't believe I'm gonna admit this, but I watched Mark apply makeup before he went into the studio.  Here's how that part of our evening went:

  Me: Uh, what's that?

  Mark: It's foundation.

  [pause]

  Me: What does that do?

  Mark: It smooths and evens the skin, makes it look more
        uniform.  I can apply other makeup over it to accentuate facial
        features.  You know, the camera really flattens features in
        your face, so you want to correct for that.

  Me: [blink] ... [blink]

  Me: (several moments later) Wow, what's that thing that looks like a
      pastel marker?

  Mark: It's for the under side of my eyes, to work with the eyeliner
        to define the shape of my eyes better under the lights.

  Me: [blink]


Note to the Class of '82, Ferndale High School: Mark Wright wears makeup! I just thought you needed to know that.

The Crew

Everybody at the station was nice. I mean, everybody. I immediately liked everybody I met, and everybody seemed to enjoy teasing Mark. All of them were sarcastic: when Mark would introduce me to somebody, they'd say hello to me nicely, maybe ask me a little about where I'm from and how I knew Mark, then they'd tease him about being from Ferndale (population: 3500). In the control room, Mark made a small error in pronunciation and they made a joke about about it being one of those Ferndale accent things. The people obviously love Mark. And everybody seems to get along well. It looked like it would be a fun place to work.

In The Control Room

I actually had more fun in the control room than in the studio. Don't get me wrong; Mark and Kerri were both a lot of fun to watch, and really nice to talk to (I liked Kerri instantly, not just because was teasing Mark about being from East Nowhere, Washington). But there's only two of them, and the control room had about six people all talking and cracking jokes the whole show. It was too much stuff to keep track of. I don't know how they do it. I loved it.

I sat next to a guy who was responsible for putting graphics and video clips on the screen. He was apparently also responsible for throwing wads of paper at the show's director. Anyway, he would explain to me how the computer-assisted graphics-and-video system worked live, and then would make some sarcastic comment at something on the broadcast. The people in the control room were always making commentary during the show. Maybe the on-air talent would make the slightest error in saying a word, and people in the control room would tear them apart. Nice.

The first fifteen minutes of the show was the coolest; it was non-stop activity. It was weird for me to watch the monitors of Mark and Kerri reading a story, then watch them fuss with their make-up while a video clip was playing. Didn't they know they were on TV?! (no, they weren't; not for another fifteen seconds, anyway...gotta stop their faces from melting under the lights)

Video Package No-Worky

At one point, the producer got a phone call during the broadcast. She picked up the phone, then I heard "What do you mean the package isn't ready?" That didn't sound good. Turns out a video clip showed up in the computer as coming up in about a minute or less, but the editor called the control room to say it wasn't really ready to play. The control room made a decision to cut it out of the show, and worked around it. I don't know quite how they did that --- it went too quickly and even in the control room I didn't notice any break in the show --- but they did it right quick. After the show was over, they had a meeting.

Everybody in the crew gathered in the control room and the director and producer lead the discussion, trying to dissect exactly what went wrong. Turns out it was a software problem: the guy creating the video clip ("the package") put it into the software system for managing the assets, but he wasn't completely done. He called the editor to give him a heads-up that in a minute or so, the package would be ready. The editor saw the package in the system, the system seemed to indicate that it was ready, so the editor started to try to work with it. But the package was still being updated, and the software didn't have the capability to dynamically update the status. It's a usability problem, and the crew wasn't happy about it.

Building An Audience

Mark and I were chatting before the broadcast about how tough it is to build and maintain an audience, and with advertising based on Nielsen ratings, how tough it is to know exactly who your audience is and how effective you are with them.

We talked about blogs; I mentioned to him that maybe they could have blogs from the anchors and crew. I mean, a lot of Mark's time seems to be spent in a little work kiosk on a computer, writing stories and reading email. He's got plenty of time to write an extra couple of paragraphs about stories they're working on, or a few extra notes about somebody he's interviewed.

And man, these guys have the most nerd-friendly podcast production studio imaginable. I mean, they are a production studio, and every night they already create a one-minute news update for a local radio station, and they send it in MP3 format. How easy would it be to have a few minutes of podcast every night, with a few of the cast and crew talking about extra stuff they don't have time to cover in the show? They could create that stuff blindfolded, every day. I'd listen to that.

Merry Christmas

I won't get a chance to see Mark again during my vacation trip, but visiting the station was an excellent wayi to start my vacation. I could go back again and again, to see more about how the talent works in the studio, how decisions get made in the control room, and how news gets collected and assigned for on-site reporting (I haven't even mentioned how Angela manages the chaos of the assignment desk, listening to several police scanners and watching TV monitors all at once, while socializing with the whole staff).

Thanks Mark, for showing me the station. And thanks everybody at Q13 for being so nice to me and letting me snoop around. I had a blast; you guys were a ton of fun.

And to the Q13 News crew: please keep teasing Mark. The humility is good for him.

Merry Christmas!

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