Summer 2020

Crisis Management

Faced with reduced staffs and heightened safety measures, news directors maintain a ferocious pace at a time when Americans rely on their skills more than ever

By T.L. Stanley

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 News Crisis Management
The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by white Minneapolis police ignited a powder keg of indignation across the country, propelling massive protests for weeks on end, and challenging short-staffed news directors to keep citizens informed by whatever means necessary. (Photo: NBC)

While the vast majority of directors who work in entertainment have been sidelined due to the coronavirus, the one sector of the industry on which it has had an opposite effect is news. Moreover, this stubborn pandemic—combined with an economy in freefall and racial strife that is tearing at the very fabric of our society—has kept many Americans glued to local and national newscasts wondering if things can get any worse.

Given the protective measures that COVID-19 requires, directors of news programs have been dealing with a host of challenges, from drastically pared down staffs and newly remote anchors to Teledoc check-ins and plexiglass partitions in control rooms. They're wearing multiple hats, while shifting to smaller venues and experimental technology, as delivering critical information like live press conferences from health and government officials has never been more important.

"We are doing more production now with less people," says Christian Alicea, director of NBC's Nightly News With Lester Holt, who takes a glass-half-full approach to the situation. "This is as busy as I've been because we're a much lighter, nimbler production staff. And people have more capability now. It's Savannah Guthrie and a home camera. She can do a pre-tape with somebody for The Today Show that she couldn't do before because she would have been at home. Now she's got a camera in her house, so my crew will handle that for Today."

Directors describe a relentless news cycle that's taxing mentally and emotionally, where workarounds, split-second calls and rolling with the punches are the order of the day. That's a tough reality for type-A directors who pride themselves on their attention to detail and flawless production.

"We're all adapting to the world we live in now," says WCBS director Michael Haynes, a 30-year industry veteran who operates from the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City. "The audience needs the facts, and they want the story delivered. Some things just aren't going to be perfect." Glitches are inevitable, though Kelly Creffield, a news director at the local CBS station WBBM in Chicago, says she and her colleagues are "still trying to find ways to do good TV. We're not just hitting buttons. It's not rinse and repeat."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 News Crisis Management Christian Alicea
"It was the first time that I, a black man, felt so close to a story on so many levels… It was probably the most difficult week of my career."
—Christian Alicea
Director, NBC's Nightly News With Lester Holt

It's Personal

With all that's going on in a world seemingly turned upside down, some news directors who normally take pains to maintain a neutral stance in the face of it all have experienced a tough time not getting caught up in events—not to mention the risks in simply doing their jobs.

Amid the widespread outrage in the immediate wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis, just getting to and from work became a precarious proposition.

At 30 Rock in New York, one of Nightly News' satellite cameras was trained on demonstrations just outside the building as Alicea and his crew were covering the action in real time. "It was the first time in my career that I, a black man, felt so close to a story on so many levels," he says. "So I felt empathy with the protesters. And I'm worried about, I've got to get to my car and get home safely at night and hope the police don't pull me over and harass me. It was probably the most difficult week of my career."

For Creffield, the predawn scene in Chicago on June 1 was "surreal, like a disaster movie set," she says of the morning after public demonstrations and violent clashes between Chicago residents and law enforcement.

Against that backdrop—not to mention a recent round of layoffs that had reduced the network's already stripped-down staff by 20 employees—Creffield directed news programs that started at 4:30 a.m., keeping an eye out for what she dubbed "glimmers of hope" in the coverage. She saw such an example when a field reporter interviewed the owner of the oldest camera shop in Chicago, whose business had been destroyed during the weekend's melee. The shop owner, while expressing no anger toward the mobs, vowed to rebuild.

Creffield was so struck by the businessman's resilience that she recommended to her colleagues that the interview air each half-hour. "I'm not editorial, and it's not my call," she says, "but I said, 'This is important.' I have a leadership role as a director. This isn't just words and soundbites and V.O. to me."

The piece ran numerous times as Creffield juggled a lineup that included press conference coverage of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the temporary closure of coronavirus testing sites and the upcoming phased reopening of Chicago's retailers. The pace on that day, as on most since the public health crisis and civil unrest hit, left her little room for introspection. But shortly after her shift ended, Creffield says, she could reflect on staying the course in unprecedented times.

"I try to maintain a calm demeanor and not share my anxiety," she says. "I learned that early on in my career, but I have to be even more mindful right now because it's nonnegotiable. I don't think it'll always be this way, and sustaining this level is really tough. But just when you think there's nothing left in the tank, you find something."

Adds Alicea: "At the outset of the George Floyd incident, we did several pieces throughout the community, learning and hearing from black families, and getting perspectives that the rest of America may not always necessarily relate with. One of these spots highlighted a black man explaining to his young daughter how to deal with the police if she ever had to. He explained a situation where he was Tased at a traffic stop and, though she had heard the story before, his daughter broke down on camera. As a father with a young daughter, that particular scene shook me, and I had to collect myself during the broadcast."

The New Normal at GMA

Life as Good Morning America's director has changed significantly for Lily Olszewski, from the reduced internal staffing at the ABC show's Times Square headquarters to pivots in on-air content.

The crew has been temporarily slashed by more than half, and there are remote interviews and sheltering-at-home anchors to wrangle instead of in-studio appearances. Her myriad visual and technical challenges range from weak wi-fi and frozen Zoom calls to guests' unintentional backlighting. The show itself, by necessity, features a flood of talking heads, which means "more boxes to build and shuffle around," she says.

Through the hurdles, Olszewski says she and her team have been balancing the long-established sensibility of the three-hour chat show with a continuous stream of COVID-19 updates, police reform developments and a White House chief executive who can always be counted on to generate controversy.

"We're trying to keep the essence of the show intact, with news and human interest stories, because a lot of people watch morning shows for camaraderie and a bit of levity," Olszewski says of the program that's been top-rated in morning news for eight consecutive seasons, though running neck-and-neck with NBC's Today Show recently. "Some days it's hard to figure out tonally."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 News Crisis Management Lily Olszewski
"We went to a number that I felt like I could use to still make the show work, without adding too much stress. We're constantly learning about the limitations we’re facing and some of the actual benefits."
—Lily Olszewski
On switching to four cameras as opposed to 12 on GMA
(Photo: Heidi Gutman/ABC)

Scrapped Run-Throughs, Guiding from Afar

On a logistical level, the beat-by-beat rehearsals that used to take place before sunrise are gone, Olszewski says, replaced by a five-minute, socially distanced meeting with key players, all wearing masks. Equipment is sanitized constantly.

There are two stage managers on hand at a time instead of the usual four (they rotate their shifts), and operations have compressed from two floors to one, with in-studio anchors that include Michael Strahan and George Stephanopoulos. Four cameras capture the show now as opposed to 12 pre-pandemic, which "hasn't cut down on our creativity," she says.

"We went to a number that I felt like I could use to still make the show work, without adding too much stress," she says. "We're constantly learning about the limitations we're facing and some of the actual benefits."

For anchors like Robin Roberts and Lara Spencer, who have been working from home with network-supplied equipment, Olszewski helps figure out the best angles and backdrops for their live segments. She's careful to take into account that their situation may reflect many Americans' realities of pets, children and significant others sharing the same live-work space.

"I don't want to invade their entire existence," she says. "I'm just trying to get a shot that looks good and keep it so they can function with their families nearby."

The same goes for business leaders, health officials, politicians and others who appear on the program. "I try to not unnerve them with too much direction," she says. "I'll ask them to raise the laptop so the camera isn't shooting upward or get them to step away from a bright window. We have everyone send us a screen shot of where they'll be so we can anticipate and make changes. But the truth is, you never know what it's going to look like until that shot comes up."

If the framing is bad, she'll ask the guest (or the amateur cameraperson wielding an iPhone) to move around or change the angle. If the picture freezes, from a dropped wi-fi connection or other tech snafus, she switches to audio and still images. "We don't stop the interview," she says. "It's not a cause for panic."

For NBC's Nightly News, Alicea holes up in a control booth, which normally accommodates up to 16 people, with just a technical director and an executive producer. "And we're all socially distanced in quite some ways," he says. "And everybody's virtual. I've have ADs who are at home; I have robotic camera operators who are at home; I've got graphics playback operators who are at home. So, in the course of an entire day, I may see less than 10 faces. And that includes going to the commissary and getting lunch. So water finds its level."

Changes in Content, On-Air Design

At GMA, segments like live music and cooking demos had to be rebuilt for the lockdown. Many artists have given acoustic performances as simple as "one person with a guitar on Skype," Olszewski says, instead of full bands rocking out at the studio. Chef Michael Symon walks audiences through his recipes from his kitchen, and the existing "Deals and Steals" segment has shifted to become a platform for helping small businesses stay afloat.

Olszewski has focused on "more video elements, less reacting," because there's an inherent lag in remote calls. "With that audio delay, reactions are a little late, a beat behind," she says. "It can feel stilted to the viewer, and it's one of the hardest things to fix. But I try to massage that abruptness and get rid of the awkwardness."

It has taken weeks, but she has adjusted to another change: Her previously high-decibel surroundings have become oddly quiet without tourist groups visiting regularly, dozens of crewmembers bustling around and on-site audiences reacting in real time. "It definitely doesn't have the same vibe," she says.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 News Crisis Management Michael Haynes
"The audience needs the facts, and they want the story delivered. Some things just aren’t going to be perfect." —Michael Haynes
Director, WCBS in New York
(Photo: Michael Haynes)

Pandemic Hits Home

CBS, meanwhile, briefly became part of the story it was covering in the early days of the pandemic. Four employees in the sprawling CBS Broadcast Center tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11 and 12 (later, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl became seriously ill and was hospitalized before recovering from Covid-19).

Haynes and the CBS station crew switched venues several times in the aftermath of those test results, at one point working from facilities in Stamford, Conn., while their venue was sanitized.

Back at headquarters now with safety protocols in place like check-ins with virtual nurses, the executives have taken up residence in a small control room with a pared down team of three (one director, one technician and one producer) to shepherd the news.

Those crewmembers work five consecutive days and then rotate with a second team that does the same. The one-week-on, one-week-off schedule aims to limit employees' exposure to the virus by working with the same core group of people.

The schedule may cut down on burnout, though Haynes describes a daily pace that's fairly unrelenting, cueing anchors and field reporters for the four newscasts on his watch (from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.).

"We're in a much more scaled down room, so we don't have the same effects available or the kind of bells and whistles we'd usually have," he says, noting that the facility is normally used by the CBS streaming service. "That means our structure and approach are different—it's very linear. There's not a lot of bouncing around."

Best-Laid Plans

Haynes tries to be especially precise with coding the shows' content because "there's nobody to spot check your work—nobody riding shotgun."

These days the shows rely less on voiceovers and graphics and focus more on unadorned packages, like a recent 10-minute interview with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.

A multiple Emmy winner who was on duty through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, Haynes adapts to the current circumstances by trying to anticipate potential hiccups. With so many remote interviews and anchors, he's learned to cue early because of quirks in the technology. "We're trying to make it look as tight as possible," he says. "What we don't want are those four-second delays."

And sometimes, even after dry runs, there are last-minute snafus that require on-the-spot problem solving. For instance, Haynes was working with two anchors who were each reporting from home using their iPhones for an evening newscast. A few minutes before air, he realized the picture would stutter every time they read an item, possibly because of a faulty broadband connection.

"We had to go with a backup anchor and a microwave shot," he says. "The rundown had to be recoded, but you take it bit by bit so you can get to the first commercial. Then you'll have two or three minutes to regroup. You don't want to get too far ahead because you might get your anchors back and then things change again."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 News Crisis Management Kelly Creffield
"Sustaining this level is really tough. But just when you think there’s nothing left in the tank, you find something." —Kelly Creffield
Director, WBBM in Chicago
(Photo: Courtesy Kelly Creffields)

Leveling Up

That lack of in-person give-and-take is one of the downsides. While the technology "makes us more virtually flexible," Creffield says, "certain things will always be hard to replicate."

Solving problems, both huge and minute, has to be done on the fly because "there's no time to run it by committee," Creffield says, noting that there's "limited help" like support staff on hand anyway.

She had to shuffle two anchors recently, for instance, when a camera trained on one of them went dead with five minutes to air. Instead of shooting the newscasters from two separate floors as planned, she consolidated the talent into the same studio, keeping them at least six feet apart.

"There were probably a million options, but I was trying to minimize the changes we had to make," Creffield says. "In those cases, you just have to pick one. But because of that one bad camera, half the show had to be changed."

For Alicea, the lack of a stage manager has been especially taxing. "Lester (Holt) is at home, and because of social distancing, there's nobody there except he and his wife. So I'm handling that responsibility on top of having a virtual crew, and nobody to get that verbal cue of ‘did you see what I saw?' of a person being in the room.

Though multitasking and thinking on their feet are second nature to most directors, they're facing unprecedented demands since the COVID-19 crisis began in early March.

"We're taking what we know to a heightened degree because there's no easy show. Each day has its own new challenges where it takes mental energy and discipline constantly," Creffield says. "We're operating at that next level, and we can't take our foot off the gas, not even for a minute."

News Directing
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