Inside the Media
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Below are excerpts from the Newscast chapter of
Winning with the News Media
Copyright © 2005, 2001, 1999, 1996
By Clarence Jones
NewscastFor the End of the
World, Two Minutes
Time dictates almost everything in radio and television news. Broadcast deadlines are absolute. The news begins at exactly six oíclock, or ten, or eleven. The lead story in broadcast news must be ready when the anchor says, "Good evening."
Sure, you could place that story later in the newscast. But if the audience is expecting todayís big story and itís not ready at the top of the newscast, theyíll switch to the competition.
A Precise Fit
Time restricts broadcast stories in another way. The producer who assembles the newscast must build a collection of taped stories, live material and commercials that will fit the time slot exactly. The time tolerance is so precise, listeners and viewers will notice if there is an awkward split-second of dead air. Producers live with stopwatches hanging around their necks.
A television newscast, in its entirety, will be 30 or 60 minutes long. The time slot is rigid, just as the "news hole" in a newspaper (the space set aside for news stories) canít be stretched. The newspaper news hole varies from day to day, depending on how much advertising has been sold. The newscast length remains the same.
Radio Even Shorter
A radio newscast producer will have only five or 10 minutes. Most radio news stories are 10 to 15 seconds long. In radio, 30 seconds is a very long story. Unless itís National Public Radio.
The 17-Minute Newscast
Time is absolute, and it is precious. After you subtract commercials, weather, sports, good evening and good-bye, a 30-minute local TV newscast is only about 17 minutes of news. Most stories will run 30 seconds, or less. A few will have the luxury of a full minute. For a major story ó 90 seconds.
Half-hour network newscasts contain about 22 minutes of news. They donít have weather and sports segments.
There is an old joke producers scream when young reporters say they need more time for a story. "What do you think youíre covering?" they yell. "This story isnít worth it. For the end of the world, you get two minutes. But only if you have good video."
TV Alters the Mind
Television has radically altered the way most Americans receive, retain, and react to information. Fifty years ago, first graders had an average attention span of 20 to 30 seconds. Today, that is beyond the limit for most adults. Televisionís ability to flick from one picture to another ó sometimes several times per second ó has conditioned us to expect frequent changes of scenery on the tube. When it doesnít happen, our attention drifts.
A new form of TV commercials evolved in the mid-1990s. Dubbed "MTV-style," they got their name from music videos. It had become trendy to edit videos with extremely rapid cuts. Some shots were so brief they were virtually subliminal.
Young People See the Cuts
Marketing researchers ran some tests to see how much of the information in these commercials could be retained by the audience. Commercial time is precious. No reason to increase production time and cost if the product doesnít work.
They found that young people who had grown up with television and video games could see all the cuts. Older people whose learning process as youngsters developed without television could not see some of the very quick cuts.
The theory from that research is that heavy doses of television at an early age sharpen the natural ability to see and retain visual information that flicks by in milliseconds.
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Voice-Over Story Formula
In a voice-over story, the anchor begins to read the story on camera. About 10 seconds into the copy, the director in the control room switches the picture from the anchor to videotape of what the anchor is talking about. The anchor continues to read, live, while we see videotape. The tape may have sound with it, played very low. This is called natural sound. The anchor voice is over the picture and any background sound on the tape.
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Voice-Over to Sound
In the voice-over-to-sound formula (V/O to SOT), the anchor begins the story on-camera, just as before. The story becomes V/O as you watch the actor accept the Oscar. Then the anchor stops reading. The sound on the tape is turned up, full volume. You see and hear the actor thanking his mother, his father, his mistress, his director, and his dog.
For this kind of story, everything must be timed precisely. After the copy is written, a producer with a stopwatch takes it to the anchor, who reads at a normal pace. They time from the point where the live voice-over begins, to where the actor in last nightís ceremony will speak on videotape. The voice-over section of tape is edited to run exactly as many seconds as it takes for the anchor to read the copy.
When the anchor reads the copy during the newscast, the director in the control room punches a stopwatch as the voice-over tape begins to roll. The anchor must read for exactly 16 seconds.
If the reading is too fast, there will be a hole of silence between the anchorís voice and the actorís.
Read too slowly, and the anchor will drown out the beginning of what the actor says.
The director works with a microphone in the control room. The anchors wear hidden earphones. The floor crew all have headsets.
By flipping a selector switch, the director can talk to anyone in the studio, or to all of them. As the anchor reads the voice-over section of the story, the director watches a stopwatch and begins a countdown to the floor manager. The floor manager, listening on a headset, drops a finger each second as the director counts.
Watch My Fingers Count
When the countdown reaches five seconds, the anchor will hurry a little, or slow down, to finish the voice-over just as the sound-on-tape (SOT) begins. When the Oscar winner finishes thanking everybody, the anchor comes back on camera to begin another story.
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