Craig Johnston /
02.16.2005 12:00 AM
Prioritize and Plan When It's Calm
I've often heard doing television described as long periods of relative calm, interrupted by short periods of terror.

Things run pretty much as scheduled, or at least as expected, and then the unexpected happens--an equipment failure, breaking news, a sales emergency. A great deal of the success television people have making it through emergency periods depends on how they've prepared during the calm ones.

I think it comes down to two words--priorities and planning.

Your crew is in the middle of a news program and the studio lighting fails. What do you want them to do?

Obviously, master control can run a break and buy you a couple of minutes. You can even run a double break, good for four or five minutes. But then what?

The priorities of television and the circus have this in common--the show must go on. When there's a problem at the circus, their plan is to send in the clowns. For the most part, this is where the circus and television are different. So what's your plan?

If you replied, "send one of the anchors, along with a floor director, to the camera in the newsroom," you've given a workable answer. (See how easy that was during a moment of relative calm?)

When most plans are made, they're theoretical. Until you've done a walk-through (or at least a think-through), you don't know if the plan's going to work.

In the above case, can the anchor get from the set to the newsroom quickly enough? Is the teleprompter there? Is it controlled by the newsroom computer from the same controller used during a newscast, or by the talent at that newsroom update desk?

If you're sending a floor director to count down to soundbites and offer other assistance, is there a place for that crew member's headset to plug in? If they're on a wireless headset, will the signal work in the newsroom?

We did a walk-through of just such studio power-failure plan years ago and discovered a problem. While the studio had emergency lighting around the perimeter, it took several minutes before the talent, having stared into studio lighting prior to the failure, could see to walk around.

So we assigned a floor director to go up and get the talent. These are the things you can think of during periods of relative calm.

I watched a football game the other day where the yellow first-down line was malfunctioning, but the blue line-of-scrimmage continued to work fine.

I can't speak for the network, but my priority would be the first-down line rather than the line-of-scrimmage indicator. I don't know the equipment well enough to know if this would have been possible, but if that priority was known, the engineering crew could at least examine that option.

WORK-AROUND PLAN

News emergencies don't pick the best time to happen, they just happen.

While I was working for a small television station several years ago, we picked a quiet weekend to install a new routing switcher. A work-around plan was developed to allow master control to keep the station on the air and to play programming, and commercials.

The plan was to have enough of the routing switcher installed to get the 5 o'clock news on the air, and that deadline was met.

However, at around noon, a forest fire changed directions and threatened some rural homes in our market. We should have had a plan for a news emergency during the day. Fortunately we had a real smart master control operator who figured out how to get the announcement on the air. But he didn't have a period of calm to come up with it.

RIPPLE EFFECT

Since TV Technology is not tailored for the sales folks in a TV station, I can probably safely state that to the sales department, everything is a sales emergency. They have to go out to face angry clients, clients who ultimately pay everyone's salaries.

We had a football post-game show that started when the game was over and ran until the 5 o'clock news began. The program could accordion all the way from an hour in length down to nothing. Sales had sold spots as though all the breaks would run.

My recollection is that there were eight two-minute breaks. With bumpers in and out, that would come to around 18 minutes of spots. If the game ran to 4:10 p.m., we were okay to fit in all eight breaks. If it ran longer than that, we began commercial triage.

After several weeks of Monday-morning quarterbacking over whether the producer made the right decision on breaks to run, my priority was to establish peace and still have a post-game show that showed some football. I drafted a plan. If the game ran up to 10 minutes over, we would run all spots. From 10 to 15 minutes over, we dropped one break. And so forth.

During a period of relative calm, I took it to a sales meeting. They didn't make a single change. In fact, they expanded it to identify the order in which the breaks would be dropped. They were able to communicate this plan, during periods of relative calm, to the clients.

Let me close with two observations about priorities and planning. The first is that plans arising out of prioritiies should not be used as a reason not to do something. "In Search of Excellence," the management book that kicked off the management-book craze 25 years ago, said that one trait "excellent" companies had in common was a bias for action. I've found that particularly true of television stations.

Design plans so something gets done.

The second is that employees should think of the plan as open-ended.

If we'd had a plan for airing a news-emergency during that routing switcher change-out I mentioned earlier, and if the master control operator came up with a better solution, he should feel the freedom and obligation to use it.

It just needs to be better.


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