Spring 2007

Early Birds

Directors and their teams on the networks' morning news shows have to get up in the middle of the night to get the job done.


WILLIAM (BILL) BRADY: He stands the whole time directing the
weekend Early Show, making sweeping hand motions to
accentuate a dissolve. (Credit: Catherine Grasso)

It's murky, sleeting and bitterly cold at 6:50 a.m. on a recent morning in New York City. But that hasn't kept a clutch of determined spectators from gathering in midtown Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza outside the glass-walled studio of NBC's The Today Show. Balancing hot coffee containers in one hand, and hoisting cardboard cutout placards of the morning news anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira in the other, they giddily jockey for position in anticipation of the program's start, minutes away.

A glance inside the lit-up studio reveals cameras being rolled into place and the show's affable meteorologist, Al Roker, getting a last-minute face powdering. Not visible to the onlookers is what's just about to happen right below Studio 1C—in the darkened control room—where the show's director, Joe Michaels, eases into his chair on the front deck, surrounded by dozens of audio and video technicians, researchers, editors, producers and other crew members. All of them are facing more than a hundred shimmering television monitors, each poised with a different camera feed or videotape on its screen.

"5-4-3-2-1," counts down Erica Grody Levens, the associate director who sits to Michaels' left.

"Animate C—roll 2-K—Fade-up," orders Michaels. And they're off and running.

An opening wide shot of the anchors at their desk is soon replaced by a sequence of close-ups and medium shots, crisply expedited with Michaels' directions to "dissolve," "cut" and "wipe." And before you know it, he's cueing in remote satellite feeds from across the nation about record-breaking snowfalls and other top news stories, cutting back and forth between reporters on the scenes and the studio talent.

As the show progresses, he supplants hard-news stories with softer news features, interspersed with more live shots, interviews, teases, guests, commercials, bumpers, anchor chat, animation, B-roll and graphics. All the while, he's on his headphone, telling the anchors to wrap up a segment, reminding the stagehands to prep an area, or instructing the camera operators how to frame their shots. For three hours, the action never lets up. And since it's also Valentine's Day, an entire section of the program moves outside onto the Plaza where a spectator pulls out a ring and proposes live on-camera to his unsuspecting sweetheart. Again, it's Michaels who tells the cameraman to zoom in on her surprised reaction.

JOE MICHAELS: The director of Today keeps the mood light with a steady stream of jokes. "To do a three-hour show, you've got to have fun
JOE MICHAELS: The director of Today keeps the mood light with a steady
stream of jokes. "To do a three-hour show, you have to have fun."

"My job is a lot like being a traffic cop. I keep the flow going," he explains when the show finally wraps up at 10 a.m. and he can relax again. Seated upstairs in the green room, he explains why he still enjoys directing the show, even after 17 years. "We're almost like a morning variety show," he says, listing all the elements that might appear in one program, including weather, sports, health and lifestyle segments, fashion, cooking and music interludes. Only the first half hour, the segment most heavily watched by viewers, is set aside primarily for hard news.

"And we're live," says Michaels, emphasizing how each show takes unexpected twists and turns that require his constant alertness. For instance, during one of today's Valentine romance segments, the co-host, Ann Curry, demonstrated, with the help of an expert, how to correctly make a bed. But as soon as she neatly tucked the corners Army-style and perfectly arranged the pillows, the resident jokester, Al Roker, leapt onto it and tossed everything on the floor.

"That wasn't planned," says Michaels, who laughed at the prank along with the control room crew, while also instructing the camera operator to pull out to a wide shot so that the viewers could get in on the gag. "You have to react to that," he says. "I'm responsible for the look of the show. And you want it to look good."

The same could be said of all the morning network news programs, which includes CBS' The Early Show, ABC's Good Morning America, and two weekend shows. There's a lot running on these profitable morning news programs, which help finance the networks' entire news gathering operations.

The morning news shows remain highly popular, primarily because they run during the morning time slot when many Americans are getting dressed for work, and find it convenient to flip on the television set and listen while they make coffee and get the kids off to school. "I think viewers appreciate it more," says Michael Mancini, who directs CBS' Early Show several blocks away on Fifth Avenue in a glass-walled studio with views of Central Park.

While The Today Show has been leading the morning news show ratings for years, Mancini admits to being hotly competitive, saying, "I'll do anything I can to make CBS the best show it can be."

All of the network programs appear to study and mimic one another. "I think they are all fairly similar," says John D'Incecco, director of Good Morning America, who breathes a sigh of relief that his weekday program, which is produced nearby in Times Square, has one critical difference from The Today Show: It runs for two hours as opposed to Today's three-hour time slot. As it is, says D'Incecco, "It feels like we're going on the air at 6 a.m.—because we're that busy. When I get in, I hit the ground running."

By the time D'Incecco arrives at 4 a.m., the content of the show has pretty much been determined. "That's decided by the editorial producing side," he says, explaining that he often receives calls at home at night or in the morning, alerting him to important breaking news stories that need to be incorporated.

After checking in, one of the first things he does is discuss with the executive producer how best to execute the script. He then meets with the crew to do a walk-through of the show's rundown. From 5:30 a.m. until the show begins at 7 a.m., they rehearse, make pre-tapes and decide which elements to use.

"Some mornings are more chaotic. It's different every day," says D'Incecco, adding, "The same thing that drives me crazy is what's rewarding about this job, which is the ability to pull it all together and create a really nice, clean show."

All of the directors lean heavily on their first mates—their associate director and stage managers—to help them manage the complicated process. There's usually a team of stage managers for each show, who coordinate things in the studio to ensure that operations run as smoothly as possible. The associate director, sitting next to the director in the control room, helps prep the show beforehand, funnels critical information to the director during the show, and sticks around afterward to help update the show for different time zones.

Elliot Mendelson has been a highly valued associate director on Good Morning America since 1988. As soon as he gets in, he says, "I'm going through the script and finding various land mines and making sure we have all the necessary elements, whether it's graphics or tapes. So when all hell breaks loose and we're flying by the seat of our pants, you know what you've got, and you can just reach back and grab it." Just that morning, for instance, he'd pulled footage of Anna Nicole Smith so that when the anchors turned to the then-current controversy over her will, the director would have plenty of lively B-roll to throw up on the screen.

Another valued team player is Charlene Harrington, the stage manager for CBS' Early Show weekend edition. She began her career stage managing theater. In 1981, CBS approached her to become its first female stage manager. On this particular Saturday, even though it's barely 6 a.m. and the sun is just beginning to creep up and expose the landmark Plaza Hotel across the street, Harrington has been at it for hours along with three other stage managers who are assisting her. They've divvied up tasks including who will cover which areas of the crowded studio. There are seven indoor sets including a main anchor desk, a window seat area and a music stage. A full kitchen set is located on another floor.

 JOHN D'INCECCO: He hits the ground running at Good Morning America at 4 a.m.
JOHN D'INCECCO: He hits the ground running at Good Morning America
at 4 a.m. "You never get used to it. You deal with it the best you can."

"We try to think of every possibility of what needs to be covered," she explains, while watching today's musical guest, Broadway star Christine Ebersol, rehearse her number. For instance, Harrington has already alerted the stagehands about when to move extra chairs into the couch interview area. Even the wardrobe person knows exactly when the anchors will need their coats for an outside segment.

Mark Traub is the longtime stage manager on Today, and has been with the show for 24 years. He says he shares with the director the important responsibility of staging the show. "I block out the show each morning," he says, describing how he determines the routines the camera operators will use to get in and out of position. "Otherwise you get spaghetti with the cables in a short time." Traub explains how he studies the show the night before. In the morning, he draws up detailed rundowns, which are distributed to the entire studio team, from the audio and lighting technicians to those who handle the props. Because once the show begins, he says, "You don't have time to think about where to go next. You need to be ready."

Once on-air, things quiet down, and the various stage managers shadow the crew. "Everybody has to be reminded where they're going because they can't be carrying paper [rundowns] around," says Harrington, who also keeps an eye out for the little things, such as coffee cups accidentally left on a stage set.

Meanwhile, Harrington's got her headphone on, keeping her ears tuned to any queries or instructions from the director. She's also listening to the associate director, who's on the same line and is providing a countdown to the end of the segment. It's the stage manager's job to periodically update the talent—via hand signals—to how much time is left in a segment. Harrington jokes that she's gotten so comfortable with multitasking that "I can literally listen to two or three conversations at once at a cocktail party."

"Listening to what's going on, that's 80 percent of the job," says William M. (Bill) Brady, the director of CBS' Early Show Saturday and Sunday programs since 1998. "It's my job to make sense of all the disparate factions," he adds. In fact, his mike is hot to every individual involved in the broadcast, whether they're in the studio, control room, or on some remote location. He estimates that at least 50 individuals are listening to him throughout the broadcast—and communicating back when necessary.

At the same time, everybody tries to keep the mike chatter down to a minimum so that the director can also concentrate on what's being said on-air. It's the director's responsibility to cue visuals that enhance or match what viewers are hearing. For instance, say there's a segment about the latest trend in laser phone devices. As soon as an anchor or guest mentions the words laser phone, suggests Brady, you need to see the new laser phone, an effort that requires specific coordination between the director and the associate director, whose job it is to know which monitor is loaded with what footage and be prepared to communicate that information to the director at the proper moment.

Some colleges and technical schools offer television career courses. But most people who work on the morning news programs learn their skills on the job. "Everyone I know, we learned everything by staying and watching," says Michaels, who began 33 years ago as an NBC page and worked his way up the ranks. D'Incecco worked as an associate director on programs like the Rosie O'Donnell Show before landing on Good Morning America as an associate director. Mancini also started out as a page. He adds that playing a lot of baseball as a kid has helped. "I feel that being an athlete helped me to have those quick reactions and reflexes."

Over time, each director develops his or her own style. Brady, for example, tends to be animated in the control room. He stands throughout the entire show and often gesticulates during takes, making a sweeping hand motion to accentuate a wipe or dissolve. And he might make a swooshing sound to go along with it.

Michaels, on the other hand, stays pretty glued to his control room chair. But he keeps the mood light with a steady stream of jokes and asides. "To do a three-hour show, you've got to have fun," he says. Still, he hasn't forgotten the time that he was playfully razzing a cooking spot being hosted by national correspondent Natalie Morales, and didn't realize that his "hot" button was stuck. She heard every word he uttered. "I apologized later," recalls Michaels. "She said, 'Don't worry, I was trying to listen and do both things at once because you were so funny.'"

Timing is critical on the morning news shows. That's why the associate directors are often seen clutching a stopwatch, or crunching numbers on paper or a calculator. It's their job to get the show on and off the air on time. They also have to get in and out of commercials on time, and do the same for the live and taped segments. "There's barely time to go to the bathroom," acknowledges Levens.

MIKE MANCINI: Playing baseball as a kid helped give him the quick reactions to handle the Early Show. With associate director, Anthony Jones.
MIKE MANCINI: Playing baseball as a kid helped give him the quick
reactions to handle the Early Show. With associate director, Anthony Jones.

And whereas associate directors need to be precise, they also need to be flexible. "Because every day we're juggling," she adds. "What you see on the sheet is usually not what goes on the air." For instance, if a show segment on heart disease turns out to be unexpectedly riveting, the director may let it run longer. When that happens, it's up to the associate director to calculate the difference and bring everybody up-to-date.

Sometimes a big dramatic story breaks on their morning watch. When that happens, everyone must quickly shift gears, just as they did when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven crew members, and again when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers on that clear blue morning of Sept. 11, 2001. "We were watching a live feed when the second plane hit," says Mendelson, describing the adrenaline rush as they dropped everything and immediately went to breaking news coverage. "And we were still there at 5 or 6 p.m. No one wanted to leave. It was important. There are a lot of important stories that you feel you're a part of," says Mendelson, adding, "And then there are the days when it seems like all we're putting on the air is Britney Spears shaving her head."

If there is one common complaint heard among all the morning news show crews it's about the hours. "I don't sleep," says Mendelson, who does everything he can to stay in bed as long as possible. He sets up his clothes and shaves the night before. He plugs in the coffee maker to go off at a certain time. When he gets up at 1:30 a.m., he showers and dresses in the dark so as not to disturb his wife, and jokingly adds, "I guess sometimes it shows."

"You never get used to it," agrees D'Incecco. "You deal with it the best you can." When the weekends roll around, he often finds himself at the park with his dog watching the sun coming up. "I seem to get a lot done before 8 a.m.," he laughs. "If it was 'Good Afternoon America,' it would be the perfect job."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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