BY ANN FARMER
Local news director Dorothy Hill was sound asleep one cold February night in 2003 when, at three in the morning, her phone started ringing. The managing director of her station, WCVB-TV in Boston, was on the other end of the line.
"He said, 'There's a nightclub fire and it's really bad,'" says Hill, who immediately grabbed her clothes. An hour away, in West Warwick, R.I., firefighters and emergency crews were pulling dozens of bodies out of a burning building. Hill rushed to work so quickly that the fire was still raging by the time she stepped into the station's control room. She took one look at the disturbing situation on the station's live news feed. She then sat down in the director's chair and began directing nonstop coverage of what became one of the deadliest nightclub fires in U.S. history. "It was as active a scene as you can imagine," she recalls, describing how she edited out some of the most graphic footage for the sake of the viewers. Ultimately, the inferno killed 100 people and injured more than 200 others. "It was brutal," she says. "But if you're impassioned about this business, you just do it."
Directing local news requires a clear head and a strong stomach, and not only for the tough stories. The shows are usually produced live and they are always densely packed. A one-hour program will feature dozens of stories, including sports, traffic, weather, entertainment, health and other topics relevant to the community. Whenever any breaking news occurs during the course of a broadcast, the director must scramble to get it on-air ahead of the competitors. Many local news directors say they experience an adrenaline rush as they count down to their show's opening, knowing that they have only one chance to get it right.
"The best part is you see your work immediately as it's being done. You see the results right there," says Jim Hollingsworth, a senior news director who currently directs, on average, seven shows a day, five days a week, for WJLA-TV in Arlington, Va. All of them are live. "I don't like doing a show that's being recorded for later viewing," he says, explaining that it's too tempting to stop and redo things. "Good directors," he adds, "can work around situations." Determining the mix, content and lineup of stories is the producer's job. It has little impact on the role of the directors. The director's responsibility is to get the producer's program layout on the air, and make it look as seamless and visually compelling as possible.
Hollingsworth describes how he orchestrates a team of six or more individuals: They include a technical director, who pushes all the video buttons; an audio operator, who pushes all the audio buttons; a robotics operator, who controls the cameras on set; a stage manager, who runs the set; and two production assistants, who assist with graphics and the teleprompter.
When things are going well, "Everybody's doing what they should, when they should. They're listening to the director's commands," says Hollingsworth, who began in the business 45 years ago as a cameraman working alongside a novice reporter named Charlie Gibson, who is now the ABC anchor. Hollingsworth started directing local news 35 years ago and his shows have won 14 Emmys. He says, "It's teamwork that gets a good show on the air."
Ultimately, though, it's breaking news that drives local news. "When serious things happen, our viewership goes up," says Hill, describing for instance, when JFK Jr.'s airplane went missing near Martha's Vineyard and the ratings spiked. "Our viewers trust us," she says. "We're certainly not the flashiest. We tend to be more the show of record."
One of the biggest and most chilling continuing news stories that Hollingsworth ever directed came to be known as the "Beltway Sniper Shootings." For the entire month of October in 2002, a rampage took place in and around Washington, D.C. "Two snipers were popping up and shooting people at gas stations, schools, everywhere," says Hollingsworth. Until the perpetrators were caught, fearful residents stayed glued to their televisions for updates and information that could keep them safe.
Initially, it was thought that the snipers were driving a white van. So anytime a suspicious white van was sighted, the police would set up roadblocks. "Our challenge was to get video of the particular roadblock," says Hollingsworth, describing how his station would often access footage from the highway department's cameras. Many times that month, he would be in the middle of directing a news block when the producer would notify him in his earphone that they'd located video of the roadblock, or worse, that another shooting had occurred.
This is the moment when local news directors must function at the top of their game. To move a breaking news report quickly into position, the director must first put the story originally slotted out to "float." With no time to script the new segment, the anchor and director begin operating on the fly. While the anchor ad-libs the breaking news report, the director calls the camera shots and maintains a keen ear to whatever the anchor (or reporter) is saying in order to find the right moment to insert pictures from the scene. "I couldn't tell you when," says Hollingsworth, "I just know it when I hear it. It's an instinct that you develop over time."
"Our pictures are everything. We live and die by the pictures we show," says Jerry Sandy, who directs the 5 a.m. local news program at KGO-TV in San Francisco. Two mainstays of local news are traffic and weather, and especially during the early-morning news hours when people are turning on their TVs to determine what to wear and how best to get to work. Sandy has rolled more video of highway backups and lashing rainstorms than he probably cares to remember.
He began his career decades ago as a stage manager in awe of the directors. "I looked at the directors as magicians and jugglers. I was amazed that they could handle so much," says Sandy, who envisioned himself doing their job. "I enjoy environments where things are dynamic, fluid and somewhat chaotic."
He also got into the business because he likes working with a team. But two years ago, he became something of a one-man band. KGO-TV upgraded its control room with an Ignite integrated production system, which eliminates several control room jobs and requires the directors to also push buttons. "Now I run the audio, I run the cameras, I run the technical direction. I tell the engineers when something is going wrong, and I have to watch the show," says Sandy. "It's much more difficult. It's much more technical."
Just the other day, Sandy was operating the Ignite system when the lead video froze and he could not roll any clips. "So I had to tell the anchors to toss to a commercial break one minute into the newscast." It took him six minutes to reset the system and get back on track. However, he doesn't dwell on things beyond his control. "I move on and try my best again for the next show."
Local news directors usually get a small window of time to prep. Jerry Rimmer, a local news director for WXYZ-TV in Detroit, arrives to work about 1.5-2 hours before his initial 5 p.m. show. The first thing he does is check on whether or not the equipment is working, starting with the camera robotics operator. "You want to be able to say that at 4 p.m., I ran the camera through its paces and it was fine."
After that, he starts fleshing out the program's skeletal layout in the computer. He calls the weather and sports departments to determine their video, graphic and equipment needs. He starts pressing the producers to assign stories to specific anchors and goes over camera shots with them. "Sometimes they map out things that can't be done." The layout continues to morph until seconds before the show begins. "Heaven forbid you get up and leave your computer for a minute," he says, explaining that when he returns, it will be covered in Post-it notes alerting him to last-minute changes.
He also makes pre-tapes and special effects packages. As content cuts have become more accepted by viewers, he has enjoyed experimenting with new ways to transition stories, rather than rely purely on dissolves. For instance, he was recently asked to make the sports director appear to jump out of his chair and fly over the city of Detroit. "It took a few minutes to figure it out," says Rimmer, who positioned the sportscaster on one leg in front of a green background in order to Chroma key (insert) the skyline of Detroit around him while he waved his arms like he was flying. The recorded sequence was played back during the show. And it worked beautifully.
However, that's not always the case. Inevitably when it comes to live local news shows, anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible moment. Hollingsworth recalls the time he was directing a segment on Queen Elizabeth II. The associate director had pulled a slide labeled "Queen Elizabeth," but didn't examine it carefully before it went on air. "It was the ship the Queen Elizabeth," says Hollingsworth dryly.
Another time when things went awry was during the very first show that Rimmer directed. The meteorologist was pointing to a satellite weather pattern map, taped to a cinderblock wall because no one could find the easel that day. "I looked up, and said, 'Where's the world?'" The map had fallen. And the camera operator, not knowing what else to do, panned his camera to the map on the floor. "The magic was gone," chuckles Rimmer, who quickly cut to graphics. "From then on, everyone knew how we did the weather."
Dorothy Hill recalls the time a light went off during the middle of a broadcast, followed by another and another. She couldn't stop to figure out the problem, so she continued to work around it, using other studio lights until only two out of about 200 were functioning, and the anchors could no longer read their lines. "I was joking, 'It's a damn shame that no one smokes anymore. We'd at least have a lighter.'"
And Michele Peiffer, a director at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, reports a whole string of recent technical difficulties. In one incident, "A couple of the robotic cameras crashed into each other and went down." In another, "every live shot had a problem. We couldn't hear them. They couldn't hear us. That does not happen a lot," says Peiffer, who managed to resolve both situations without the viewers catching on. "At home you wouldn't notice. But it can be complete hell in the control room."
Peiffer always tries to maintain her composure during crises. "There are directors that are screamers. They yell and they swear." She says, "You're not going to get the best results out of people that way. You set the tone." She also isn't afraid to admit when she's made a mistake. "That's part of it. That's what live television is."
Also inescapable in live television are those slow news days. "There are days when there's just nothing going on," says Carl Petre, a director at KMOV-TV in St. Louis, who gets in at 3 a.m. to direct a 5 a.m. news program and subsequent shows. The station dispatches two live mobile news units who trawl the streets all night and day for stories, ready to peel off to a breaking news story on a moment's notice. Nevertheless, says Petre, "There are days when we scrape by and put whatever we can on the air."
After 36 years as a local news director, Petre has pretty much seen and done it all. Still, when it comes to directing live, he says, "After all these years, I still get a little adrenaline." And there is one story that he will always remember directing: The visit to St. Louis in 1999 by Pope John Paul II. "That was a big coup. We were the only city in the country where he stopped," he says, describing how his local news station became the press pool feeder. He directed 12 hours straight out of a mobile news truck parked at the convention center where the Pope conducted a mass. "Knowing that you could be on all over the world," says Petre. "I'll never forget that."
But those types of uplifting experiences tend to be in the minority. Local news primarily focuses on the sad and horrific. If someone doesn't have a thick skin before becoming a local news director, they soon develop one. Hill remembers when she worked for CNN in the '80s, directing stories about the Ethiopian famine. "You were really affected by it the first time." Twenty viewings later, a filter kicked in. "You can't get lost in the moment," she says. "I can't let it impact my perception of the pictures." As directors, she says, "We wield a lot of power."
Working behind the scenes in darkened control rooms, local news directors are rarely recognized for what they do. Jerry Sandy was home sick the day that the Loma Prieta earthquake erupted in 1989, which collapsed a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and caused a major fire to erupt in San Francisco's Marina District. He received an urgent call from the station to come in.
We were the only station in town with a backup operation," he says, describing how his skeleton crew managed to put up three lights in the studio. "I directed for the next 36 hours before taking a break," he says. "We were the link to the rest of the world." Afterwards, the station received a flood of phone calls and letters, thanking them for performing such a public service. "It made us feel so good."