A Monday in the last century. Watching a mid-morning broadcast on KTNA. The female anchor is reading a story. Reading and reading and reading. And reading. I start to sit up in my director’s chair. Having worked the dawn patrol on a previous broadcast myself, I’m now questioning whether the something on the rocks at 11:34 in the morning has fermented or if something is happening on air. It’s both.
I start to sit up. The female anchor is reading a long and protracted story. No video. No full screen graphic. Just this woman reading and reading and reading when suddenly off-camera you hear the male counterpart also known as the ass component of KTNA say out loud, “Liza Minnelli is dead?!” I jolt up. The female anchor, still reading, jolts up. Her eyes widen and her brow furrows.
She keeps reading.
Finally, finally the story ends and the female anchor turns to Camera 2 and a 2-shot of both anchors. They’re about to read a script promoting some forgettable story coming up but first, the male anchor has some unbelievably forgettable thing to say except that I remember it almost verbatim to this day. It was reminiscent of Professor Marvel’s reaction to Toto revealing him as the spilled blood and guts of the ethereal but wonderful Wizard of Oz. In short, “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” became a real-life modern-day watered-down version as said through a sheepish smile on the face of the not-so-wonderful Anchor of Odd. And I paraphrase, “Pay no attention to what you think you heard because it really wasn’t what you think you heard because it didn’t really happen what you heard happened but didn’t really happen. Really. Everything’s okay. Really. Coming up …”
I lean over in my director’s chair and grab the decanter.
For the uninitiated, a brief background of broadcast life behind the scenes. This is one of a variation of versions of how news is cobbled together on a daily basis. And I’m keeping it brief.
Each broadcast is laid out in segments divided by commercials. We call the program a “rundown.” It’s a lineup of scheduled stories with each segment lettered and numbered. Each story also is assigned a title or “slug”. There are other identifiers within a rundown that provide additional information for the technical crew such as which anchor is reading the story and whether the story includes video or a reporter’s narration. But the basics are as follows:
A12 Presidential Visit
A14 West Nile Outbreak
A18 Liza Minnelli Hospitalized
And so on. A letter for the segment. A number for the story. A slug.
Among the stories at that particular time in the very late days of the last century was entertainer Liza Minnelli being hospitalized with encephalitis. It was touch and go there for awhile. We thought we were gonna lose her. We had Storm Watch and Fire Watch and an unofficial Liza Watch. And on that particular day at that particular station in that particular broadcast was a story about Liza Minnelli. An update.
But a change in the scheduled lineup occurred.
And often when a change occurs within a broadcast, the best procedure for a producer is to give a forward moving directive. Easier said than done when in the control booth surrounded by fire. There can be any number of reasons that dictate changes in a rundown. A story can go longer than its allotted time. A breaking news event, which rarely is ever breaking anything but wind, can preempt a planned rundown. Maybe a reporter doesn’t make slot. Or a writer or editor misses the runway. Any number of things can happen. Nee. Go wrong.
And on this particular day something preempted the scheduled Liza Watch. And the best procedure for a producer when making changes such as dropping a story from the rundown is to give a forward moving directive to the technical crew and to the anchors via their earpieces such as, “Tease is next” or “Go to commercial” or “Toss to weather”. Saying “A16 and A17 are dead and B12 through B17 are dead and …” is stop motion.
It’s always a better policy to give a forward moving directive. And on this day in this broadcast the producer for reasons unknown, gave a directive in which the story slug was used as the identifier. Not the segment letter and story number, but the slug. A slight misfire. But only because an uncontrollable known … the male anchor … repeated the producer’s directive aloud. On air. With an upward inflection.
“Liza Minnelli is dead?!”