Producing live television is preeetty crazy, right?
Despite how much of a plan you have, it can go awry in an instant.
The first time this smacked me in the face was a few months into my first producing job. I was getting the hang of writing a two hour morning show. Some days I had help, many days I didn’t. I was learning how to pace out my show, cover local, regional and national news and give the anchors a few moments for warmth and laughs. I was getting the hang of this producing thing, and counting the minutes until my morning nap, before heading off to class, for my senior year of courses at Hampton University.
All is good.
THEN—one of the biggest breaking stories of the year took hold. A rash of shark attacks had hit the East Coast, and it was an ongoing story for weeks. On Sunday, September 2, 2001, a shark attacked a ten-year-old boy swimming with his family in the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach. Young David Peltier was standing in the water, taking a break from surfing just off shore on a warm Sunday afternoon when a shark clamped down on leg. His father, Richard Peltier punched the shark, then gouged his eyes out so his son would be released. They rushed him to the area children’s hospital for surgery.
Ten hours later, on September 3, the hospital reported the young boy passed away. The time: 3:45 am. An hour and 15 minutes before we would go on air. I have never covered anything like that in my life.
My producer instinct kicked in and I knew I needed to blow up my show. I talked to my News Director via phone in the wee hours of the morning and he directed me to own the story. I threw out my rundown and ran with it—adding phoners and live reports to the mix and covering the story as best as we could. As the morning wore on, I mentally counted down to 7am when the CBS network morning show would take over and we would be off the air. I thought I did pretty well covering my first big breaking news story. And we were almost done. I planned to get out of there, get some rest and go to class. I was a professional producer (and had more than earned the right to call myself one after that morning), but I still had to finish my degree in Broadcast Journalism. It was the start of the first semester of my senior year.
Maybe ten minutes before we were off the air, my News Director came into the control room. He complimented our team on the morning’s rolling coverage. Then he said two words that I will never forget: “keep going”.
My immediate (naive) response was “are we allowed to do that?” I will never forget that response. I said it out loud. I hadn’t thought about the magnitude of the story in real time. I hadn’t thought about the bigger picture. I didn’t even think about what was right for the viewers. I pushed myself through the morning but only thinking about coloring within the lines we were used to on a normal day. On a normal day, we were live Monday-Friday, from 5am-7am. This was not a normal day. We kept going.
I think about that day often when I am making big picture decisions about coverage. Is this a story that warrants us blowing things up? Today, during unpredictable coverage, I often say “we’re making it up as we go along”. I still stay it. I remember saying this in the control room on September 3, 2001 during our coverage after 7am, when we were literally making it up in real time. No commercial breaks, no format, just covering the story. The best producers can sense what a story needs and what a moment needs and learn how to live in that moment. Whenever I say it now, almost 17 years later, I immediately think about that shark attack coverage. That was a day when I truly understood what it meant to be a producer. It’s not just writing and story selection. It’s also gut and instinct. I don’t remember how long I stayed on the air before I handed off to the next producer. I do remember skipping class that day and hanging around the newsroom-sleepless but full of euphoria after having covered such a big and important story. I learned so much that day.
It would prove to come in handy, because eight days later, I would learn the lesson of a lifetime. One I would never forget.
About a week later, I found myself in a control room, covering the largest, deadliest terror attack on US soil. I was 21 years old, not even a college graduate.
The date was September 11, 2001.