December 09, 2008

Ben Bowman, American Hero

INSPIRING STORIES ARE all too rare in American life these days, but here's a great one out of Chicago that should warm everybody's hearts. Ben Bowman, a producer for WMAQ-TV, the NBC affiliate in the Windy City, delivered an on-air rant blasting his own station for delivering breathless reports about ... snow. You know, in winter. In Chicago.

Mr Bowman, who amazingly writes about his job on his own blog, writes as follows:

Another reason for rage (sorrow?) is the fact that a dusting of snow fell overnight. This, of course, is reason to throw out lots of interesting stories so we can tell you what you would already know if A) you have access to windows or doors in your home or B) you’ve lived anywhere where snow falls at this time of year.

As I frequently point out, I grew up in Michigan, where 12″ of snow is barely justification to wear mittens, let alone raise the terror alert level to red. And even though I didn’t see a single snowflake on the way in to work, we still rang the alarm bells and blew up my show to herald the arrival of our white, flaky overlords.

I will make a guarantee right now. Once we get some real snowfall, a dusting of this consequence won’t even be mentioned on the newscast. We led with it today merely because the roads were previously clear. There will be days when the roads will be much worse, and we won’t even mention them.

You should lead with weather when something unusual happens. Winter is not unusual. Today was the equivalent of leading with the news of an 80 degree day in June.

The full video of Mr Bowman's rant is here:

Mr Bowman's outburst should be required viewing for local television news directors everywhere. He is clearly a scholar and a gentleman, and as such, someone worth heeding. Also, he's from Michigan and is named Ben, which means he's OK in my book.

Mr Bowman is right in that weather should be covered when it is unusual, or when news results because of it. For instance, if the first snowstorm brings with it a rash of accidents -- as it often does -- well, then that may be news. If the first snowstorm is especially fierce, and dumps 18" of snow all over the tri-state area -- well, that's probably news. But if there's a dusting of snow ... meh. News, not so much.

Yet even a dusting of snow can cause news stations to go a bit overboard with Team Storm Coverage, which all can agree is an unfortunate circumstance. Why, back in Ohio where my folks live, I can assure readers that a football game was once briefly interrupted in the name of Team Storm Coverage. (If there was justice in this world, the people behind said interruption would have been publicly flogged, but sadly our laws do not properly account for such abuses of the people's airwaves).

This tends to generate unwanted side effects, too: for instance, when major events are interrupted for crappy storm coverage, people get upset; and when the news stations hype weather stories that turn out to be nothing, people tend to get desensitized to the latest breathless bulletins. Thus, Team Storm Coverage should be used sparingly -- and, ideally, only when the situation is especially dire.

But I do have to give Mr Bowman a lot of credit for delivering his rant. For one thing, he's a local television news producer, a job I wouldn't want for all the tea in China. After all, consider the challenges he faces:

1. He has to arrange and put together a local newscast every morning. This is not easy. (YOU try to summarize an important story in two minutes and tell me how it turns out).
2. He has to deal with reporters. This is not all that easy either, particularly as reporters are often cynical, hard-bitten types who may not see eye-to-eye with a producer on certain stories. ("You want me to WHAT?")
3. He has to deal with his news presenters. There are many good news presenters out there, of course, but Mr Bowman's video makes it pretty clear that his early-morning presenters are not the brightest bulbs in the lamp store. Such situations can often lead to amusing television, but that often means the producer feels like clawing his own eyes out -- particularly since the anchors make obscene sums of money compared to what he's making. (Television is a horribly unfair medium in many respects).
4. Along with this, he has to deal with pressure from his superiors in the news organization, who want him to deliver, or else.

As a result of the above four items, I do hope Mr Bowman won't get cashiered as a result of his rant, but will rather cause his superiors to think about how they deliver the news and the resources they devote to doing so. There actually might be some value in doing so, too.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at December 9, 2008 02:00 AM | TrackBack
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