Taking Over Midway Through a Project

One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons has Lucy in the outfield, camped under a fly ball, yelling: "I got it I got it I got it I got it! You take it," followed by the plop of the ball onto ground.

I remember that when I took my first production manager job, the news director said: "Here's the contract [signed] for the news set we've bought." I don't even remember him telling me to have a nice day.

In fairness to him, there had been no one in the production manager job for a number of months, and in television, there's never a time when anybody but the guy who put the station on the air actually starts with a clean slate. So when you take over, there's always going to be something you're inheriting in midcourse: an office remodel, a headcount reduction via a hiring freeze, the launch of a new program. The new news set that welcomed me is as good an example as any.

When you take over, you've got to get up to speed on these mid-course projects as quickly as possible.


The news set project took place prior to e-mail, so there was a lot of actual paper to read. After about 15 minutes, I noticed there were lots of dates and lots of "station will supply" conditions. I pulled out two blank sheets of paper, one for deadlines we'd have to meet, one for things that were going to cost us. I went back to the beginning and started reading again, noting deadline dates and station obligations on the appropriate sheets.

Surprise, surprise: we'd already missed about two months of deadlines. If we wanted to make changes in the design, we'd have to ask the set design/build company for some flexibility. Fortunately, they were so busy they hadn't really started sawing and nailing yet.

This gave my studio directors a chance to lay the set out with masking tape in an open part of the studio. Despite the artist's beautiful rendition of what the set would look like and assurances from the fellow who designed the set, the backgrounds didn't line up very well for talent close-ups, and there was a handoff shot from a news update desk that only had half the background it needed.

The anchor backgrounds were easily fixed by the designer at this stage. The handoff background was something we had to come with ourselves. But we had a head start.


The news director had been given a $45,000 budget for the news set, and he signed a contract to pay the set design firm $45,000.

However, right there in the contract it said we were also obligated to fly the design firm's installation staff into town, put them up for a week, supply them some gofers, and rent them the tools on a list in the contract. My recollection is that in total these extra obligations came to half-again as much as the check we cut to the set design firm.

Because I was new to the job, I didn't understand much about how the budget worked on these kinds of things. I didn't want to get beat up in a budget review, so I trooped off, contract in hand, to the business manager's office. He told me: "Good news. The news director's signature is on the contract—all of this extra stuff comes out of his budget." It was good news indeed, because there were several more of takeover projects I had inherited, with my boss' signature on the contracts that had been running over budget before I took my position. Those would come out of my budget.

The station engineers saw the tape on the studio floor and started asking questions. Good thing, because when they came up with a lighting plan, it turned out we needed some additional fixtures. More good news for me: this expense came out of the engineering budget.

We started to meet weekly to make sure everybody was on the same page. We actually got back on schedule, and the surprises ended, on that project at least.


One additional gotcha in the news set project was that it would be installed over the Labor Day weekend, and we did the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon on those dates. It meant some overtime, but it actually worked a bit to our advantage because the newscast updates we did during the telethon were much shorter than normal, and we could get away with just a portion of the outgoing news set as background. You've got to get lucky somewhere.

In the end, we went on the air with my inherited news set, on time if embarrassingly over budget.

It doesn't do any good to throw a fit when you discover you've come into a project in midcourse. The sooner you take ownership of it, the sooner you can get your arms around it, and the sooner it'll be done.

And anyway, inheriting a project allows you to learn from other people's mistakes.

Craig Johnston is a Seattle-based Internet and multimedia producer with an extensive background in broadcast. He can be reached atcraig@craigjohnston.com.