Tuesday, August 26, 2008

New Direction

I've mentioned that I'm not a candidate to become the permanent morning traffic reporter for WTSP. I know this because the operations manager at traffic.com, which provides the traffic service for the station, told me so. "They want to go in a new direction," he said.

This is the sort of cover-all statement that answers a question without saying anything, which, of course, is the whole idea. It usually means one of two things:

1. The station wants to hire someone who is younger, of a different gender or a different race. Or just blonder.

Hiring for TV news programs is essentially casting just like for any TV show. I don't blame them for not hiring me for this job. When I'm in good practice, I'm a decent on air talent but my skills are writing and telling stories with video. Traffic reporting requires little more than knowing the area, using the computer and being able to stand in front of a camera and speak reasonably coherently without a teleprompter. Even Don Henley's "bubble-headed bleach blonde" can do that.

This kind of discrimination is technically illegal, however, so when it's the basis for a talent change, the explanation is usually, "we want to go in a new direction." The resulting hire will usually tell you that the direction was almost invariably younger and whatever ethnic and gender mix fits best with the rest of the anchor line-up for a particular newscast.

2. The other reason for the "new direction" line: Station management doesn't know what it wants to do; it knows only that ratings are going in a bad direction and it's got to change something or management's own job status is going to change -- for the worse.

The talent is not the only reason for the ratings -- good or bad. The shows leading-in and following the newscast, the traditional viewing habits of a market and how well the newscast is produced all factor into it.

Reshuffling the anchors looking for a quick fix usually does more harm than good. The changes alienate anyone who has grown attached to the people now gone and the new talent hired in a panic will unlikely draw new viewers. But if you're a manager in a job whose average tenure is two years, you probably don't have time for a long-term plan. A station that makes changes for changes' sake will cover its own lack of direction by explaining the switches as "going in a new direction."

The "new direction" was the same reasoning given to the now-departed traffic reporter whom I have replaced for the time being. An oblique reference she made to it on the air Monday may have sparked her sudden ejection nearly two months before the scheduled end of her tenure. Someone complimented a new hairstyle and she said, "I'm going in a new direction." The WTSP bigwigs apparently did not appreciate the joke. Thus, the call to me in the bullpen a few hours later.

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