I’ve always thought that networks like CNN and Fox News should have a position such as “Vice President of Teases”. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but when you break it down it makes total cents (pun intended). Commercial breaks are disastrous for ratings. Ever since the invention of the clicker, now known as the remote, when viewers no longer have to get up off their butts to change the channel, they surf at will. The good news for “live” morning shows is viewers are rarely sitting down watching the show. They’re more likely using it as background noise as they brush their teeth and comb their hair and just let the commercials play through. But all viewers are automatically conditioned to mentally tune out the minute they hear that theme music begin to play, with the host saying something along the lines of “Coming up…the latest trend in swimwear. Stick around.”
Teases are the lifeblood of any newscast. In fact, I would go so far as to say that teases are actually more important than the actual news stories that are in the show. And the sad truth is not every writer or producer was born with the knack to write killer teases. That’s why networks like CNN and Fox should have teams of tease writers who do nothing but go from show to show writing the teases. It’s an investment that will pay off well in terms of audience retention.
Tragically, of the tons of hours of clips I’ve saved over the years, none of them were of any of the teases I wrote. So I don’t have any actual on-air examples of killer teases – except one. And it might get me in some hot water with a very good friend.
In May of 1990, I was producing the 11pm newscasts at WDIV-TV in Detroit. It was a great gig, because News Director Carol Rueppel gave me great freedom to experiment and take risks. And my anchor team, Mort Crim & Carmen Harlan were “all in” and ready for anything. We were also crushing WXYZ, the ABC affiliate who owned all the other dayparts in the market. I especially loved writing the 10pm and 10:30pm teases which aired during the breaks of NBC’s prime time. NBC was doing very well in those days and with the right teases, the big lead-ins helped our number if we could keep those viewers into the 11pm show.
On Thursday, May 3, 1990, I was preparing for the 11pm newscast as usual. Our lead-in that night was L.A. Law, the #1 program in its timeslot and one of my favorite shows of all time. About 9pm, a story crossed the AP wire about an actor who had committed suicide. David Rappaport was his name. Born with the genetic condition dwarfism (he was 3′ 11″), he was often typecast in bizarre, sometimes silly and demeaning roles. On L.A. Law, he had been cast as the infamous Hamilton Skylar, an aggressive defense attorney known as “Mighty Mouse”. In a recurring role, he would often try cases against Jimmy Smits’ character, Victor Sifuentes, who was well over six feet tall.
On reading his obit, I was initially stunned because I loved this guy’s character. It was a great character and he was a great actor. I confess I was also excited that this story fell into my lap in the November sweeps on the same night L.A. Law airs. I escaped back into business reporter Jennifer Moore’s office, which I’d always do, when I began to write my teases, because I needed complete concentration and no distractions. I wrote the 10PM and 10:30PM updates as well as the pre-open which is the tease at the top of the show, right out of the L.A. Law credits. Each tease led with some semblance of: “A familiar face you know and love on L.A. Law tragically commits suicide. The story straight ahead on the Nightbeat”. While it may just be semantics, I am very conscious of not lying or even stretching the truth on teases because as a viewer, I get pissed off when a tease says one thing and then the story says another, invalidating the tease. I didn’t want to give anything away, so I did not use tape of Rappaport in the tease. I wanted people to conclude that possibly one of the stars of the series died, but made sure only to refer to him as a “familiar face” since in fact he was not a star of the series. I know, semantics, but I can live with it.
Mort taped the 10PM and 10:30PM teases as usual, his big booming, classic anchorman voice capable of shattering glass. He could make a tease about Barney the Dinosaur sound like the world is coming to an end. And I often depended on him to do just that! Sure enough, just after the 10PM tease aired, the phones started to ring. Keep in mind, these were the days before the Internet. No one could just go on line to search for the information they wanted. But with the phones ringing, I knew I had sparked a lot of interest among our L.A. Law watchers. Same thing at 10:30PM. More calls. All is going according to plan.
Finally, 11PM comes around. I’m in the control room, Mort and Carmen are on set, the pre-open hits and they again read a tease about someone from L.A. Law committing suicide. But it wasn’t our lead story. No way. It wasn’t even in our first block. Or our second block. I kept it well into our third block, past the second quarter hour mark where it could have the greatest effect on our ratings. Finally, Mort revealed the story about Rappaport committing suicide and how he was suffering from depression.
High fives that night as we all left the station and went home. In the morning, I got a call from Carol who was elated! The 11pm newscast had scored a 19-rating, a huge number even in those days. I was very happy. Happy that my habit of scouring the newswires paid off with the right story on the right night, and happy that I had executed it just right to get the maximum effect ratings-wise.
Fast forward about six year later. I meet a woman named Frankie Leigh. Frankie worked with a lot of celebrities as a manager, publicist, advisor, etc. She came into the KTLA studios with her client, Roch Voisine, for a rehearsal of a big event show we were planning. I eventually became good friends with both Frankie and Roch. The event show we planned was amazing, essentially introducing Roch to America. He was a huge artists in Canada and France, I was a fan, and when I heard he was in L.A. making a record, we got him for several appearances on the show, leading up to the big finale where he came in and performed. We had screaming fans, limousines, helicopters and security all over the place making it truly a morning event.
Fast forward again a few months to New Years Eve 1996. By this time, Frankie and I had become really good friends. I’m sitting on the diving board of the pool with Frankie in the backyard of Roch’s mansion in Beverly Hills. It’s two hours ’til midnight. Frankie is advising me about what I should do with a job offer I had gotten just the day before. David Rappaport’s name somehow came up in her conversation. She mentioned that he had been a client of hers. Oh shit! She mentioned how he was a great guy and talked about the tragic end to his life. Fuck! I didn’t tell her the story I just told you.
I felt extremely guilty at that moment as Frankie talked about her friend. And I felt especially bad that I had scored a ratings victory because of the incident. But you know what, upon reflection, I wouldn’t do anything differently in similar circumstances today. I did my job then. And I’d do it now. The fact that David’s death became much more personal to me because it affected a friend I didn’t know at the time – I guess that’s just a side effect of the industry we’re in. But I do apologize to Frankie for withholding this guilty secret for so long.
As for how all of this relates back to tease writing, it’s pretty obvious. The producer needs to look for story opportunities in every show. If WDIV was the CBS affiliate, I probably would not have aired the story at all because the actor wasn’t all that famous and his death wouldn’t have interested the viewers of, say, Murder, She Wrote. Oftentimes, producers need to put stories in their newscasts for the sole reason that the story makes for a great tease. Most producers stack their shows and then decide what to tease based on what they put in the show. I do the opposite. I choose what stories make for good teases first and find a way to include them in the show. That’s how you retain viewers. That’s how you increase your ratings. And that’s how your station profits.
Unfortunately, that’s not something they teach in journalism school.