Producing for the small screen

If you need a reason to think about producing content for mobile devices, consider this:  The cell phone industry estimates 30 million people in the U.S. will be video subscribers in 2009.  That’s 30 million people available to watch your stories on the go.

So, what do you need to do differently to capture this new audience?  It depends on who you ask.  At the Broadcast Educators Association Convention in Las Vegas, Sean Thomas, Senior Producer for Disney’s Hollywood Studios told the audience, “Don’t change a thing!”

“Stick with what’s appealing, what works on television will work on the Web or on a cell phone,” says Thomas.

But Thomas also cautioned against producing long-form content.  “By the third minute, you’ve lost your audience,” Thomas went on to say.  Instead, he suggests you produce shorter stories and then create a link to additional content for people who want to go deeper.

On the other hand, Bonnie Buckner, president of MicroFocus Media, suggests that “small screen production requires you to expand beyond the limitations of the technology.”

Approaching small screen production requires more than simply scaling down a visual display, whether Web Page or movie.  Because the size and amount of available visual information is reduced, and the often distracting and attention-demanding settings in which small screen productions are viewed, there are more challenges to our ability to perceive and comprehend information on a small screen.

Certainly, TV journalists are used to competing with distractions – but now we must also think about producing stories that work both on the wide screen and the small screen.  Do you have to re-think the way you create graphics if you know someone will be viewing the story on an iPod?  Does this increase the pressure to produce visually strong stories?  The answer is probably yes, but the end result may be more effective television that can break through the clutter we often find on the air.

So, who is doing it right right now?  Garry Hare of Peer English Networks says check out the Discovery Channel and its podcasts


Va. Tech multimedia tribute Roanoke Times marked the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings with an extensive multimedia tribute, including “the sights and sounds of the events of April 16, 2008, as captured over a 24-hour period.” The “day in the life” concept is well executed, visually compelling, and deep. It includes video, time-lapse photography, blogs, maps, and reflections from survivors. There’s also a guest book where visitors to the site can add their memories and comments to those that streamed in immediately following the shootings [it now runs over 4,000 pages]. And there’s a link to the archived coverage of the events one year ago and what’s happened since. Take a look at how that coverage is organized into featured sections on wounded victims, deceased victims, investigations, the campus community, reactions and accounts of the shooting. It’s the kind of package any news organization can and should put together online for stories you can anticipate and plan for, like an anniversary.

More than one hat

Want to be a TV news producer or reporter? Be prepared to wear multiple hats. Mary Ellen Hardies, who produces the 6 p.m. newscast at WCMH-TV in Columbus, Ohio, does a lot more than assemble a rundown and write lead-ins. She screens video on her desk top, makes all her own graphics, and now she’s Twittering five times a day about what stories the station is working on.

I don’t even know who they are but there are hundreds of people following my every move. It’s driving our traffic up. We have a lot of young viewers contacting our Web site because they saw something on Twitter.

She’s not the only one whose job has changed. During a panel discussion at the RTNDA convention in Las Vegas this week, Hardies said the station’s reporters are doing more, too. “All our reporters have Blackberries,” she said. “I’m in touch with them every hour, hour and a half, to get them to update what they’ve been doing.”

The reporters send in bullet points that the web producer turns into sentences, Hardies said. Those updates also go to everyone in the newsroom via a listserv, which has dramatically increased communication between producers and reporters in the field.

I know exactly what they have. I write lead ins based on what I know they are going to say. There is more being expected but as you are writing you are the most knowledgeable person on all of these stories. Our communication has improved because we are requiring more.

Dow Smith of Syracuse University questioned what’s being sacrificed in newsrooms where producers wear so many hats. If they’re spending so much time on technical issues, how much attention can they pay to editorial supervision and content?

To tell better stories it takes a lot of interaction with reporters…Producers have to get up from their computer and talk to the reporters one on one. 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. That helps the process of telling better stories. The future of local TV news is going to have to be better storytelling, otherwise, with the Internet, who needs it?

But Victoria Lim, a multiplatform journalist who recently left WFLA-TV in Tampa, said having to do more actually made her a better storyteller. “There’s more than one story to tell,” Lim said.I’m taking advantage of the strengths of each medium” writing for TV, online and print. Hardies said technology also has changed the content of TV stories. While they haven’t gotten any longer, Hardies said, reporters are using their 1:10 differently.

The reporter isn’t telling the whole story. The producer creates a 45 second anchor tell with graphics that gives the meat of the story. The reporter is going to explain the impact, the emotion.

With everything that’s on her plate, does she ever have time to think…or even breathe? Absolutely, she said. As a self-described “control freak,” Hardies loves having more responsibility. “I still have ten minutes here and there to take a breath, step back and look at the big picture,” she said.I don’t feel harried every day.”