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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ham-I-Am (Sorry Scripts, Part 2)

95 percent of the folks that write for newscasts get writer’s block from time-to-time. As for the other 5 percent… well, they’re lying.

I remember being a novice producer during the ’84 political season. There I was, trying in vain to write about one of the democratic debates, without resorting to stupid clichés. Then Walter Mondale just had to do it! He had to go and parrot the catch phrase from a famous Wendy’s commercial, meaning I pretty much HAD to waste precious time on the democratic frontrunner exclaiming “Where’s the beef” . As if it wasn’t already difficult enough summing up everything in 90 seconds! So I’m sitting there trying to write the lead, trying to grab our viewers, trying not to trivialize the event while not hyping it as well. And all that could come out of me was trivia… hype… clichés. That was one of the few times I ever let anyone else write the lead to the top story. To me, that is the producer’s job. The pre-show tease, the opening headlines, and grabber lead make up the most crucial minute of the entire show, and as the captain of the ship it was my duty to keep us on a bold course. Or so I always thought.

Then came… John Hambrick.

(Click images to view them full screen)

“Hambone” was already a star in this market, thanks to his years at WTVJ. I was a fan. Hambrick was an actor before he was a journalist, and it showed. The man could really play the camera.

John could be a joy to work with, but he could also be a royal pain in the ass. One day John let me know that when it came to him, the rules were different. “They’re paying me a lot of money,” he told me. “Not just to sit at the anchor’s desk, but to put my brand on what I do.” It made sense to me. If things went wrong, it was John that the viewers saw, not some guy (me) behind a keyboard. So John got to put his stamp on the stories that he read, and that included writing the lead to the top story in the newscast.

Most of the time, it was not a problem. John understood the importance of writing in the active tense. He understood that a lead was meant to grab and entice. He understood the importance of making our viewers care, and selling that big, big story of the day.

But sometimes, like the rest of us, John would get writer’s block. Sometimes I would have to remind him that it was 10 minutes to show time, and the lead to the top story was not yet in. Sometimes John would then sit at his typewriter, and type WHATEVER. Oh it would be active, enticing, and big, but would it be coherent? Often there was no time to proofread his leads. The bosses would say that as producer, it was my responsibility to approve every script before it aired, but we’re not talking about any old script. This is Hambone we’re talking about. So occasionally, the news open would roll, the anchors would say hello, and John would read something like this:

(Click images to view them full screen)

Oh… my… God. A 35-second lead! “The whooshing spew of water under pressure”! The word “ostensibly”, used twice (great word, but hardly conversational). In the quest to turn an early-morning fire into poetry, we completely buried the nighttime lead: that a suspect, taken into custody, had died. If this had been a newspaper story, it would have been different. The headline would reflect the breaking development, and the talk of “flames, smoke, sirens, determined shouts above the din of engines, generators, and whooshing spew of water” would paint a vivid picture of the scene, sans pictures, which of course is the world of newspapers. But for the lead to a developing story on a major market 11PM newscast? Ostensibly, it missed the mark.

Let’s be honest. TV news has really been dumbed down in the past decade and a half. I would love to see a more intelligent, respectful-to-the-audience’s-intelligence approach. We should not be afraid to use the occasional 40-point-in-Scrabble word, but only if it’s the best available word (and never, never, at the expense of remaining conversational). It’s all about connecting. While that connection can be broken through too much dumbing down, it can also be broken by giving the impression that the words are being spoken by the great and powerful Oz. There’s a balance in there somewhere. I hope to see that day when that balance, “ostensibly”, is rediscovered.


Patric Martin said...

Hambrick did have a presence, and his lead for the custody/death story sounded like something out of a play. But, that was his style, I suppose. And, like he mentioned, that's why they paid him the big bucks ...

Paul Stueber said...

There were times John's writing brought tears to my eyes ... and others when it sent me into diabetic shock. But the man certainly knew how to play John Hambrick playing an anchor. It was his greatest dramatic role.