Craig Johnston / 07.20.2005
Pitfalls of Producing On a Collision Course
I once watched a competing station launch a five night-a-week magazine show at 7 p.m. The station didn't subscribe to a PM Magazine kind of co-op, where they'd get stories from other markets to run. They did it all themselves.
These types of shows can be particularly tough for a station to do because they require setting up a separate news department--hiring staff and buying equipment and vehicles.
The show was scheduled to premier in September, and the staff spent the whole summer doing stories that sat in a story bank, ready to air when they were needed in the fall.
They had one other buffer to help them ease into day-by-day production once the show hit the air. They were an ABC affiliate, and because of Monday Night Football, they'd only be producing for four nights per week until the regular NFL season ended in mid-December.
The way I remember the story, they ran out of summer-shot stories in the bank at almost the same time Monday Night Football ended for the year, giving them a double shock just in time for Christmas.
The amazing thing is that they had been on a collision course with that moment for months, and they went right ahead and collided.
I know something about collision courses, and how to spot them. Prior to coming to work in TV, back in the Pleistocene, I worked summers on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. The skipper himself didn't want to steer all the time, and he didn't want the boat to crash, so he taught us how to spot a collision course.
His advice? When you see another boat approaching from any angle, pick some object on our boat to note that angle. Continue to steer the course you're steering, and wait a minute or so (if you have that much time left), and check to see if the angle to the oncoming boat has changed.
If the angle of approach has changed, you are not on a collision course. If that angle has not changed, you are on a collision course, and you'd better do something about it.
As near as I can remember hearing, no television station has actually physically collided with another station. But events like what happened with the magazine show have resulted in painful collisions.
In that instance, I think everyone on the staff knew when they were going to five days a week from four, they just didn't realize they were going to run out of the banked stories at about the same time.
I'm going to pull some numbers out of the air that are probably pretty realistic. Let's suppose the magazine show used three stories an episode, that they had 13, four-day weeks of shows before Monday Night Football ended, and that they had banked 30 stories during the summer.
Around the first of November, they would have finished seven weeks of production. If they found they had 13 or so stories left in the bank, it would tell them they were going through a little more than two banked stories a week, and that those banked stories were making up just under 20 percent of the stories used each week.
It also would tell them that at that pace, they would run out of banked stories in the middle of December.
If there was a big star or cloud of doom or other indicator on the calendar that in the middle of December, they were going to have to ramp up production an additional 25 percent to cover that fifth day, that collision course should have been predictable. (That's 25 percent before factoring in the nearly 20 percent accounted for by the banked stories.)
To follow the maritime metaphor just one more step, this could have been a good time for a course correction. In boating, as in life, gradual course corrections are generally preferable.
By my calculations, doing four shows a week, three stories per show; each story represents a little more than 8 percent of the story production workload for a week.
If they had done one additional story the next week, ramping up story production 8 percent, and another additional story the next, and another additional story the next, by mid-December they would have weaned themselves off the banked stories and in fact would have put stories back in the bank.
As far as story production was concerned, going to a fifth day a week would have been no big deal; they would already be on that story production pace.
This is really nothing new. Any manager worth his salt is making course corrections all along with his budget. If you find that in the first part of the fiscal year you're spending more than one-twelfth of your budget a month, you're going to have to correct course; in fact, you're likely to be told you're going to have to correct course.
Making that correction in the third month of the fiscal year gives you 10 months to spread it out. It should be relatively painless. Let the problem fester until the final quarter, and it can be very painful to fix.
And, it may cost you your job to boot.