Let's Go to the Videotape. Or not.
By now you’ve discovered that some of my favorite stories are from early in my broadcasting career. Those were the days before YouTube, when a young and inexperienced reporter in a small TV town could make a mistake without the entire world knowing about it. And in my early days, I certainly had my share of mistakes.
Only a few months into my TV news career, a fairly simple error almost spelled disaster for me and my colleagues during one memorable news program.
It was a weeknight on a small-market TV station in west Texas. Though I was still green at news reporting, my boss had entrusted to me the job of producing and anchoring the late newscast. It was a task that involved filling the half-hour show with the top local and national news of the day, plus sports and weather. Earlier in the day our reporters had filed a few local stories on film, and we supplemented those with edited versions of the top national stories via video from the network newscast. We then transferred those video stories onto one big video reel to play one after the other at the appropriate time during the newscast.
At the top of the hour the show began as usual with a pre-recorded open. “This is ‘Newscope Eight,’ live at 10pm, with the top news from the Valley, the State, and the World.”
“Standby,” the floor director called, raising his palm. I looked into the camera, a red light came on, the floor director signaled, and I spoke.
“Good evening,” I said in my best announcer voice. “No new dog licenses. That’s the word today from the City Council, enacting a moratorium on pet registrations until an investigation into faulty paperwork is complete. Newscope Eight’s Fred Granger has the story from City Hall.” I turned my head slightly to look at a TV monitor, waiting for the pre-recorded story to come up.
A couple of seconds passed. Then several more. Apparently something had happened to the taped story, so I turned back to the camera and said matter-of-factly, “We’ll have that story a little later in this newscast. Meanwhile….” I shuffled my papers, turning to the next page in the script. It was a lighter piece, so I put on a little smile for the camera as I read the introduction to the next report.
“Who doesn’t like free ice cream?” I began. “Certainly not the students at Cedar Hill Elementary School. They were treated today to 31 flavors after enduring a rocky road this past year. As you may remember, lightning destroyed several of their classrooms last spring. Our Jerri Stokes was there today as students returned to their newly-remodeled school.”
Again I turned to the monitor and waited for the video to roll. It didn’t. After a few seconds, the floor director sounded in a stage whisper, “Pitch to commercial!”
I dutifully obeyed. “Stay with us,” I instructed, with only a hint of desperation in my voice. “We’ll return with these stories and more after a break.”
As the commercial rolled, my faux friendliness turned to frustration “What’s going on?” I demanded.
The floor director was listening to someone speak over his headset. Then with a solemn look he announced to me, “We don’t have any video. The master reel got erased just before the newscast. We have no pictures at all.”
I sat there with my mouth open for a few seconds, then glanced down at my script. A quick calculation told me I could fill about four minutes with the typed words in front of me, though most of the stories were useless without pictures to go with them.
“90 seconds ‘til we’re back,” the floor director shouted.
I knew only one thing to do. Unfastening the microphone from my tie, I jumped up and ran the sixty or so steps back to the newsroom. Randy the sports guy and John the weatherman were sitting there making their final preparations.
“We have no film or video,” I told them. “Randy, you’d better get some wire copy. John, can you fill six minutes, maybe more?”
Randy was aghast. “Are you kidding me?” he wailed. I assured him I wasn’t.
John just beamed. “I’ll go as long as you like,” he said.
I turned to a big nail in the wall with the day’s teletype copy pegged to it and pulled the giant stack of wire stories off. With both my hands full of yellow paper I raced back to the studio, sat down, and put on my mike as the floor director shouted, “Standby!”
The red light on the camera came on, the floor director cued me, and I began reading the wire copy, never having seen the words before, and having no idea whether the stories would make any sense. I read story after story, guessing at the pronunciations of names and foreign cities and licking my dry lips every minute or so until mercifully, the floor director cued me to pitch to weather. I turned to John at his weather maps. “John, I understand we have a rare opportunity tonight to go into some detail about the weather in the upcoming days.”
“That’s right Nick,” John said, “and tonight I’d like to tell our viewers a little about how we get our weather information and how we get it on the air.”
John went into an impressive show-and-tell, rattling off facts and statistics, and presenting what I eventually realized was the talk, in its near entirety, that he gave to school students on career day.
While he chattered on, I thumbed through the rest of the wire copy and pulled out what I thought were the most important and interesting stories of the day. I set aside a “kicker” story, a funny story that could close the newscast once we finally got to the blessed end of our half hour.
John finally finished his weather segment, clocking an amazing eight minutes. I read a few more wire stories and then pitched to a commercial again. Randy the sports guy sat down at the news desk, half laughing and half crying. “Can you believe this?” he sighed. “I’ve had nightmares that weren’t this bad!”
That night Randy gave the most complete sportscast ever presented on live television. In addition to the major sports headlines, he read stories about players and teams I had never heard of, and spouted off scores from sports I didn’t know existed. After exhausting every possible angle of every possible story, he spent the rest of his extended time predicting the outcome of the upcoming games the following weekend, explaining in detail his rationale for each of his prognostications. Finally, another commercial break.
Randy, John and I looked at one another and shook our heads in astonishment, wonder, and fatigue. We were mentally and emotionally spent, but we had survived, and were almost to the finish line.
“You’ll have two minutes coming back,” the floor director declared.
Two minutes. “We can do this,” I said. “John, Randy, how about a quick 40-second wrap-up from each of you, and then I’ll read a final story.”
Back on the air I looked into the camera and said, “Once more, here’s John with what to expect in the weather tomorrow.”
John gave his spiel and then I turned to Randy. “What should we be looking for in the big game this Saturday?” I asked him.
After Randy finished, I thanked him, then looked down and read my thirty-second “kicker.” Then on a wide shot we all laughed appropriately at the funny story we had just heard, but I knew we were also laughing in relief that the newscast was mercifully at an end.
In forty years of working in television, that was not the only time we had a videotape fail to play or had to go to a commercial break early. But it was the only TV newscast I ever did without any pictures, video or a real script; in other words, without all the essential elements in a TV news broadcast.
I’m telling you this so you’ll know that it can be done.
I’m also telling you this so you’ll know that it should never be done. Ever.
© Nick Walker 2019
If you have any stories of career “disasters” that you lived through, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to comment below.