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Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Kicker Has To Deliver (And That's No Tease)

The voice on the other end of the phone was filled with sorrow.

“He missed it? What do you mean he missed it?”

Sue Kawalerski, our future WCIX news director, was in Israel, covering the Gulf War with reporter/anchor Giselle Fernandez and videographer Mike Hernandez. But at that moment, she was not concerned with scud missiles or other imminent dangers. She was concerned with a missed field goal, by a kicker named Scott Norwood, that would have given the Buffalo Bills – Kawalerski’s beloved team – their first Super Bowl championship.

I hated to break the news to Kawalerski. That great Bills season – the performances of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, et al – came to a crashing end with Scott Norwood’s miff. The lesson that day was clear: having just a so-so kicker really isn’t enough. A kicker has to come through when it counts. A kicker has to deliver.

So it is with TV news. A kicker, in news-speak, is the last story in the newscast, just before the anchor says goodbye and the credits roll. It’s generally the most promoted story in the show, and it’s not something that should ever be taken lightly.

Our consultants had lots of rules, when it came to kickers. Promote it early (pre-show headlines are preferable, depending on the video quality). Promote it in the mega-tease at the end of the first block. Promote it again. And again.

OK, fine… if the story is as good as the tease. But in the real world, the tease is often much better than the story. How many times have you waited to hear an item on your local news – an item that looks like a must-see – only to be disappointed by the short, vacuous, master-of-the-obvious voiceover that you waited nearly a half hour to see? How many times have you shouted “that’s it???” at your TV, when the kicker misses the goal posts once again?

I’ve dealt with writers who’ve written kickers long before the video was back in house. It was usually a by-the-numbers, insta-poof kind of story with meaningless phrases from a press release. Here’s the type of thing I mean . Fill in the blanks, kiddies!

“Thousands took to the streets of Downtown your-town today, for the __th annual ____ Festival. There was food, music, face painting for the kids… even a clown. A good time was had by all. The festival will continue throughout the weekend.”

Instant story… but there’s a problem. Let’s say thousands really did turn out. If it’s a major weekend event, one that you’d want to tease throughout the newscast (and in the preceding shows), then there’s a good chance many who saw the station’s cameras will tune in to see the coverage. Boy, are they going to be disappointed! Writers must… MUST!... look at the video, and try to put themselves in the place of that camera, seeing the event the way viewers would. The event wasn’t just fun. It was FUN! Sell that!

Superstar anchor John Hambrick understood the importance of kickers. He would often argue “THAT’S not a kicker”, when a producer would try to sell a story that didn’t deliver in any way. Hambrick loved to write his own kickers, whenever possible. His verbose writing style, which worked so well for him, didn’t translate to his co-anchors… meaning there was no way to switch anchor reads, should the need for that arise. But John earned that right, just as Ann Bishop did at Channel 10. He may have given producers heart attacks at times, but he understood that a poorly-written kicker… like a poorly-written lead… was a huge turnoff to viewers. A kicker that doesn’t leave the viewer feeling it was worth the wait, is like a field goal kicker sending the ball wide right in the final eight seconds of the game.

Just ask the Buffalo Bills.

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