I want to tell you a story. It’s the lessons I learned about producing TV news from a tragedy. On December 3rd of 1979, 11 people were trampled to death while racing for the best seats at The Who concert inside Riverfront Coliseum. The fans were sold “general admission” tickets, meaning they could sit anywhere in the venue, so when the doors opened at the coliseum, there was a mad dash for the front rows. 11 people were trampled to death by thousands who wanted those seats.
I was a junior in high school at the time, watching “live” coverage on the CBS affiliate WCPO, Channel 9. It’s anchor, Al Schottelkotte, was leading the coverage from the newsroom. He’s a legendary Cincinnati newsman, so much so that his newscast was called “The Al Schottelkotte News” – something unheard of since then. As he was reporting, newsroom staff would hand him various bulletins about developments at the scene that Al would then read on-air. I remember one of those bulletins like it was yesterday:
“I’ve just received word that… my son, one of the young people who was attending The Who concert, has returned home safely”.
Holy shit! ‘Til that moment, I had never heard a news anchorman utter anything regarding his personal life – especially in the middle of breaking news coverage. It was so out-of-the-ordinary that I still remember that moment all these years later. It was brilliant TV and I bonded with Al at that very moment.
Fast forward a month or so later. WKRP In Cincinnati was a hit sitcom at this time and it aired an episode following its characters reacting to the tragedy. At the very end, beloved station manager Arthur Carlson is in the DJ booth talking with nighttime DJ Venus. He says:
“There’s been a lot of talk about setting up a commission to look into what happened here. That isn’t going to be just talk, this town’s gonna do it. Ah, this is a good town, Venus. We’re responsible people here.”
A simple sentence. Yet a stirring message.
Fast-forward to this year. A white police officer in Cincinnati shoots a black man to death. There’s questions about the legalities of the cops’ actions. Imagine your local Cincinnati station is covering this story. And when bringing the coverage to a close, your anchorman or anchorwoman looks into the camera, with both sorrow and pride, and says something like this:
“There’s been a lot of talk about setting up a commission to look into what happened here. That isn’t going to be just talk, this town’s gonna do it. Ah, this is a good town. We’re responsible people here.”
That moment of humanity, of going one step further, of recognizing tragedy and yet offering a glimmer of hope is what bonds a news anchor to their viewers. Most news anchors probably couldn’t pull this off. It would be out of character for them. It would be awkward. Maybe their station wouldn’t approve. But for the one or few who get it, who understand how to reach an audience, it’s a priceless moment of genuine personality.
I told that story to a news director several months ago. As I was talking, her eyes glazed over. This story wasn’t relevant to her in the way she’s been taught to produce newscasts. She knows everything there is to know about marketing through social media, and being true to the station’s brand, and the analytics involved in getting viewers to sample her show. But her anchors are mere puppets whose strings she pulls based on the incoming research. There’s no humanity in her hosts. She wasn’t looking for that when she hired them. She was looking for the closest thing to the anchorman described in the research. Those are the news directors being hired. That’s what’s important to stations because those things can be measured and analyzed and detailed on a resume and e-mailed to each other via Excel attachments.
You can’t e-mail humanity. Well, not exactly. But when a TV personality reaches people – really touches them – you can go one better than e-mail. You can go viral.
That Australian TV personality is not a news anchor. He hosts a news/opinion show. He expressed what we all feel. That Isis is evil. That something has to be done. That we have to pull together. Your news anchor could have easily expressed the same opinions without “crossing the line”. Just by sharing a hint of humanity. That guy is currently the “face” of Facebook. He’s the “talk” of Twitter. His show is now an instant #1. And not a single piece of analytics, or a single page of research, or a single thought from a focus group got him there. When you produce people over product, it so easily falls into place.