By Tom Tucker
I didn’t go into TV because I love TV. In fact, I don’t like the industry very much at all, and for a lot of reasons. But through a series of peculiar circumstances, I find myself working at an Atlanta TV station, though not as a member of the news staff.
That doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention. And in the past few years, I’ve noticed that we only tell four stories.
1. The Political Story: Here’s a candidate, here’s an issue, here’s the person involved in the issue from a governmental perspective, and here’s the MOS. Pithy remark, reporter tag, the end.
2. The Complicated Issue: Usually financial in nature. Stations tend to tag-team financial stories, with one person doing the number-crunching angle (maybe as a VOSOT) and the other doing the impact on a single person or small group. However, anything really complicated falls under this banner. People tune out of these stories fairly quickly.
3. Breaking News: Apartment fires, shootings, evacuations, police chases, anything that happens so quickly that all the reporter has time to do is talk to the PIO, get some location footage, and slam it together before they go on the air.
4. The Fourth Story. This is the one I really want to talk about. Have you watched TV news… um… EVER? Because all any reporter (or anchor doing the special segments they bring themselves to do every so often) does, if they’re not doing one of the other three, is take the following script, fill in the blanks, and call it “great reporting.”
ANCHOR: Something happened to a person we think is just like you. It’s so horrible/so great, we want you to identify with our station because we talk to ordinary people. Our Reporter has the story.
REPORTER: Ordinary Person has a problem/cause/story to tell.
*NATS OF ORDINARY PERSON DOING ORDINARY THING*
REPORTER: Ordinary is a mother of three/single dad/retired army sergeant/teacher/plucky 11-year-old who is doing This Thing because of reasons X, Y, and Z.
ORDINARY PERSON ONCAM: Well, I just saw something happening and I thought, why can’t I, a perfectly ordinary citizen of Our Town, do something about it?
* BEGIN SHOWING STAGED VIDEO OF ORDINARY PERSON DOING WHATEVER OSTENSIBLY MAKES HIM/HER SPECIAL *
REPORTER: So s/he did. S/he did A, B, and C, and started making a difference.
MOS 1: This is pretty great/cool/amazing. I’m so glad Ordinary Person is doing this.
MOS 2: I just feel so blessed that Ordinary Person is doing this thing for me.
REPORTER ONCAM AT LOCATION OR WALKING THROUGH A HALLWAY: It turns out that This Thing is a problem nationwide, and people across the United States are working to stop it/spread it/fix it.
EXPERT SITTING BEHIND DESK OR IN FRONT OF TV OR IN LOBBY OF TV STATION: This Thing has grown/shrunk/gotten better/gotten worse over the years. Here are three statistics that sound made-up but probably aren’t. I’ll be nodding now as I give them, to make myself seem like I actually care.
*CUT/WIPE TO ORDINARY PERSON INTERACTING WITH OTHER ORDINARY PEOPLE*
REPORTER VO: So, Ordinary Person has taken on this mantle in the hopes to make a change for the better. Reporting from what we hope is Your Hometown, TV Reporter, TV News Station.
* ANCHOR 2-SHOT AT DESK *
LEAD ANCHOR: Wow, Bob, that’s just amazing/sad/inspiring.
OTHER ANCHOR: Absolutely.
* HALF-SECOND PAUSE FOR EFFECT, THEN OTHER ANCHOR TURNS TO CAMERA 3 TO BEGIN NEXT STORY*
Don’t believe me? Sit down and watch an hour of TV news on WSB, WGCL, WXIA, or WAGA. The faces and causes change, but the script remains the same. I wonder if they teach it in journalism school. (I don’t know; I didn’t go.) In this era when viewership is down and people are turning away from television in favor of their computers, telling the same types of stories in the same fashion, day in and day out, is not going to save your product.
Tom Tucker is a pseudonym for an employee of an Atlanta TV news station. He submitted it on condition of anonymity. He is not a member of any news team. In his spare time, he likes to actively avoid TV news altogether.