Sweeping performance

“Your mind is totally controlled.  It has been stuffed into my mold.  And you will do as you are told, until the rights to you are sold.” Frank Zappa, “I’m the Slime”

There are three reasons to watch local TV news.  One:  The content.  Two:  Your friend or family member is on TV.  Three:  The spectacle.  Let’s address the spectacle at one Atlanta TV station.

On the move: Portia Bruner, WAGA

The spectacle is especially rich during the sweeps months of February, May and November.  During these months, WAGA treats its viewers to special reports.  It takes the I-Team out of hiding during sweeps.  But just as importantly — the reporters and photographers are beseeched to perform.

Woe to the WAGA reporter or photographer who delivers a live shot merely framing a nicely-lit reporter with a static backdrop.  A casual look at WAGA this month indicates the issuance and re-issuance of orders heard regularly during my tenure at this TV station:  Don’t just stand there.  Do something.  Show us something.  Move someplace.  “Produce” the live shot.

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Here Morse Diggs and his photog execute the simple zoom-in.  The mise-en-scene behind him was a bit of a stretch — his story was about take-home vehicles driven by city employees; he delivered the live shot in front of gas pumps.

But the tag afterward is exemplary:  Diggs waves paper, but intentionally blocks it with his hand because he can’t show it on TV. This is solid evidence that Diggs got the message, repeated by supervisors during his work day:  Make that live shot sing, even if it’s a bit off-key.

Below, Patty Pan’s photog zooms into the school building behind her.  Since the story is about the school all-but closing, it makes a measure of sense to see the building.  Pan delivered on the mandate ably, albeit minimally.

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Within our random sampling of video from WAGA’s web site, Portia Bruner wins the LAF “produce the live shot!” prize.  She’s standing in front of a government building (as were Pan and Diggs).  She’s static at the start, which worries us.  But then she produces a piece of paper, which lends excitement.  And then — she walks toward the door, mimicking the steps of the subject of her story.

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Because we were so spellbound by the performance, we didn’t absorb the content of her remarks.  But that’s OK — if the audience is spellbound, it’s not switching channels or leaving the room to fix supper.  Bruner’s supervisors viewed it with approval.  Her job is safe for another day.

Of course, there’s all that other stuff:  Reporting the story accurately, writing it clearly, developing new information from sources, shooting  and editing video that meaningfully tells the story.  These aren’t afterthoughts.  But that’s not what WAGA’s reporters are hearing about when they walk out the door during sweeps.

Produce the live shot.”

Who wins?  Perhaps the puzzled viewer, who wonders why these TV folks are being all hyper on th’ TV.  Certainly WAGA’s reporters and photogs, who have learned to handle sweeps edicts the way H.R. Haldeman endured the psychotic rants of Nixon.

But the biggest winner is that damned lawyer who sponsors WAGA’s embedded video.  By the way, did you notice how that guy moved?

7 thoughts on “Sweeping performance

  1. wagwar

    I like how Portia’s cameraman keeps moving around even as she’s standing still 🙂
    I’m resigned to the fact that it will never get better, only worse. The only way to have a decent local TV newscast, is to have a non-profit organization (public TV?) as an option. It would certainly be last in ratings, but would likely not make a big production out of the newscast.

    And I didn’t see the lawyer, I got a car dealership.

  2. Lisa Clark

    TWO thumbs up from the retired movie critic for correct (if perhaps overblown) usage of the term “mise-en-scene.” Perhaps we can hope for a future invocation of “deus ex machina?!?!?!”

  3. AdamM

    I do like your use of “mise-en-scene.”

    However I don’t like to see reporters just standing in front of a camera talking. So very boring.

    Certainly holding up a piece of paper or looking over their shoulder at the building behind them isn’t the solution. So where’s the middle ground?

  4. Lisa Clark

    Alas, rare cases where you get “middle ground” Adam! From the reporter’s perspective, by the time you hear about the story or get assigned to cover the story, and get yourself and a shooter to the story, the story’s often over and you’re left to recap. (Unless of course, you’re dealing with a Live Apartment Fire!) To elaborate on LAF’s comments about “producing” stories, it’s all well and good for producers and news directors to sit in their climate-controlled offices and issue decrees about dazzle … but it’s another thing to make chicken salad out of you-know-what, especially when you’re on a deadline and you’re expected to deliver multiple versions of the same story (plus live teases) at 5, 5:30, and 6, then late news and maybe the morning show. Not saying it can’t be done … but it’s damn hard. I have been known to lament the impropriety of using hand puppets to spice things up rather than watch some poor sap standing in front of a darkened intersection where “just hours ago” a chemical spill or a deadly police chase was cause for interest. For better or, as I believe, for worse … TV news has been hamstrung by its proximity to entertainment. And no matter how good their words might be, reporters are cursed to wave papers, gesture and maybe do a little soft-shoe to try and make the pictures a little more interesting. Think I’ll go watch “Network” again.

  5. Jim

    Never forget…working at a cable station one time, had a reporter who desperately wanted a decent fire package for her tape. What can I say, she was cute, I was bored, so we spent the evening chasing fire trucks. EVERY TIME we got to one, the scene was over, the truck leaving. Finally, she gave up, I took her back to the office. As we’re pulling in, she says, “God, I really, really need this. I don’t want anybody to get hurt or lose anything, but I sure do need a fire that will make a good package.”

    Two hours later, they tone out a multiple unit structure fire. I called her, told her where to go. Turned out to be a townhome fire that totally destroyed 15 units. All but one were empty and under construction. The one that was occupied had just been sold, so she only lost an air mattress (hadn’t moved in yet). That victim actually turned out to be a great interview, so she had it all, and, just like she asked, nobody lost anything, and nobody got hurt.

    Needless to say, from then on, I just asked her to take care of it when I needed a favor from God:-)

  6. Snozz

    Funny, I heard the N.D. at my Dad’s station say it in the mid-80s, Zeke Segal taught it to me in the early 90s, and here we are in 2010 and still: “you’re on camera, you’re holding a piece of paper and YOU’RE MOVING!!” (waving a piece of paper in his hand Zeke would go on to add “ya know, this ain’t a newspaper- it’s T. golly-gee V.!” as he walked to- and sometimes out- the door)


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