Lesson Plan: TV Newscast Producing (Week 3)

Choosing a Lead

Decades ago, there was an adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”  That’s overly simplistic for today’s world, and in most cases, the opposite is true.  Choosing a lead to the show should be breaking, and many times it does not involve a fire, or a deadly shooting, or any local story for that matter.  Politics, business, national, international and health stories can all be valid show leads for a local newscast.  Why?  Because if it affects the larger audience, it can be an effective lead.  You want a story that not only impacts the community, but also interests the community.  Just because a story is developing overseas, doesn’t mean it would not be a good lead.  For example, Osama bin Laden is killed in a raid, the United States begins bombing Iraq, a deadly suicide bombing takes place in the Middle East. These are all valued and effective leads; especially if there is live video showing a story unfolding.  However, any one of these stories listed would be a solid lead to a local news show, even if there is NO video, or live feed.  They are each big enough to begin a newscast with simple copy and a breaking news informational banner at the bottom of the screen.

Exclusive Stories

The only kind of story that can eclipse a breaking news story, in a position other than the lead to a show, is an exclusive story.  Remember what I said about the top of the B block?  It’s a place where newscasts can stand out from one another.  Exclusive stories, however – can be a great lead story.  Why?  Because in essence, an exclusive story is one that can only be found in your newscast, and not in any of the competition newscasts on other stations.  

So how do you get an exclusive story?  Legacy stations and flagship stations have a loyal following.  Viewers often call the assignment desk with news tips.  Exclusive stories, that are usually deeply rooted in the community, are also obtained by well known reporters, who viewers trust.  Viewers and sources often reach out to veteran reporters to have their stories told.

Umbrella Leads

It is a producer’s dream to have only breaking news at the top of their show.  Sometimes you cannot choose just one story to be a lead, so producers write what are called Umbrella Leads.  “We are following three breaking stories at this hour:  President Trump has just fired another cabinet member, plus there are protests on Staten Island over the firing of the New York City Schools Chancellor, but we begin in Brooklyn, where firefighters are battling a massive warehouse fire in an industrial park.”  Back to back breaking news provides producers with the ability to construct an active news show.

During a job interview, a news director once asked me what I would choose to be the lead of a show from the following three scenarios.  The Pope has aids, Madonna is dead, the President’s son is kidnapped, and there’s a raging active fire at a warehouse in Brooklyn.  I thought long and hard, trying my best to choose the correct answer so I would get the job.  After talking it through in my head during what seemed like an eternity, I answered:  the president’s son is kidnapped.  Why?  Because I rationed that if the president’s son isn’t safe, then what about the average American?  To me, if the president’s son is kidnapped, our national security is at risk.  The truth was:  there is no right answer.  My boss wanted to see how my brain worked.  How I reasoned with the facts and how I weighed them.  I got the job.

In-class exercise

Record and watch three separate newscasts in the same time slot.  Compare the lead stories.  Did each station choose the same lead?  How did they differ?  Did one newscast sit better with you from the rest, and if so – what was it about that newscast that you, as a viewer, liked?