Out of Sight
Producers are unsung, unknown – and essential to the success of television news-magazines.
By Robert Lissit
Robert Lissit, a former television newsmagazine producer, teaches broadcast journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Sam Donaldson jumped out of a van in the small Argentine village of San Carlos de Bariloche in the shadow of the Andes mountains, 1,000 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. With two camera crews behind him, the ABC News correspondent ambushed an elderly man named Erich Priebke and forced him into admitting he had been a captain in the Gestapo during World War II. As Donaldson would later report in the segment, Priebke had presided over the massacre of 335 civilians in Rome in 1944. The former Nazi concluded the interview by saying to Donaldson, "You are not a gentleman." As Priebke drove away in his car, television viewers heard Donaldson say, incredulously, "I am not a gentleman?"
The exchange was reported by newspapers all over the world. And many credited Donaldson with tracking down Priebke, who had been living in seclusion for nearly 50 years.
But Donaldson had some help. Standing nearby throughout the interview was Harry Phillips, the ABC newsman who had come up with the story Donaldson says is the most important he has done for "PrimeTime Live." Donaldson is quick to point out it was Phillips who did the reporting for the story. Phillips found the former Nazi, staked out the locations, directed researchers on three continents, placed the camera crews and, ultimately, coordinated the editing of the videotape.
Phillips' credit on the story, aired on "PrimeTime Live" in May 1994, read "Producer." Many viewers probably didn't notice it. And if they did, most of them would have no idea what Phillips and his fellow producers do. But they play a crucial role in a network newsmagazine industry that, this season, will generate revenues estimated at $1 billion.
Their obscurity is partly due to the fact that the word "producer" is a misnomer. For those who draw their definition of a producer from movies or plays, there's no similarity. Network newsmagazine field (or segment) producers raise no money, hire no directors, sell no tickets, book no theaters or sound stages. What they do is a complex combination of research, reporting, directing and planning.
Producers have to be reporters and creative artists. They engage in almost continual warfare over control of the story with on-air reporters who are paid many times more than they are. When a story succeeds, the correspondent gets the credit. When it fails, the producer more often than not gets the blame. They have to deal with a high degree of stress, physical danger and the real possibility that a story can go so wrong that they will lose their jobs.
Magazine shows include a mix of stories. Likewise there are different types of producers: investigative producers, who spend months on each assignment; crashers, who may spend 72 hours straight on late-breaking stories; those who excel at producing profiles; and others who cover dramatic international stories. Because of the recent proliferation of magazine shows, all of them are in demand. Newsmagazines are raiding the staffs of local stations, the network evening newscasts, daily newspapers and their newsmagazine competitors. That means more job opportunities, but there is a downside. People both inside and outside the networks are beginning to wonder whether there are enough capable producers to successfully and responsibly produce quality stories.
The process of producing a newsmagazine story goes something like this: First, an idea is generated by a researcher, producer, correspondent or the executive producer – the show's "editor in chief." The stories generally come from newspapers around the country; few are original.
In the case of the "PrimeTime Live" story in Argentina, the initial idea came from a contact Harry Phillips had at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization in Los Angeles.
"For 10 years I'd been interested in the story of the Nazi flight to South America," says Phillips. "So when my contact called and told me they'd identified a Nazi largely responsible for the 'rat line,' the underground escape route from Europe to Argentina after World War II, I thought there was a story to be told."
"PrimeTime Live" was interested enough to send the 41-year-old producer to Argentina for an initial investigation.
Usually, when a newsmagazine executive producer thinks a story has potential, it's an associate producer or a researcher who does the initial checking. In most cases, the first question is whether there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys, since newsmagazines cast their stories like movies. The stories are, in newsmagazine terminology, "character driven." If the characters pass the test, a producer is assigned.
For Phillips, it was a little more complicated. He followed the trail of the former Nazi to San Carlos de Bariloche.
"It looked like a German Alpine village," he says, "Germany recreated in South America, complete with a Hotel Edelweiss and München Bar." It would take two months of investigation, and a lot of luck, before Donaldson would travel to Argentina.
Since a typical newsmagazine story takes six weeks or more to complete, each program employs 20 to 30 producers. Investigative stories take longer, while celebrity profiles may take less time. Each producer is responsible for six to eight stories a year. Because correspondents appear on 20 or more stories each season, they can't travel from location to location, appear on the air and still do their own reporting. As a result, producers become the primary reporters, immersing themselves in the details of the story. Veteran executive producers Don Hewitt of "60 Minutes" and Victor Neufeld of "20/20" say, quite simply, their programs could not be done without a solid line-up of experienced producers.
The producer will develop the story idea in consultation with the correspondent and then, with a camera crew, videotape the basic elements, including some of the less important interviews. The main interviews are scheduled according to the correspondent's availability. Correspondents parachute in and out of stories, spending from a few hours to a few days doing the key interviews and standups – the on-camera footage that places them on location.
In the case of Phillips' Nazi story, Sam Donaldson arrived in San Carlos de Bariloche on a Tuesday night and was available to shoot only until 3 p.m. Wednesday, before flying back to New York for the Thursday night "PrimeTime Live" broadcast. It was Phillips' responsibility to make sure everything worked while Donaldson was on location.
"It was a charmed shoot," Phillips remembers. "Everyone was where they were supposed to be, and the subjects walked out on to the street as though we'd scheduled them."
A 15-minute newsmagazine story frequently involves shooting 15 to 20 hours of videotape, which the producer screens and catalogs. On magazine shows, story structure is all-important. In most cases, the producer takes the first crack at organizing the story and frequently writes the first draft of the script. That's because the producer has worked with the research material, screened the tape and is working on just one story. Correspondent and producer then go through the draft and begin to shape the material into something they both like.
The finished script is approved by a senior producer – who acts as an editor, overseeing the producer and the correspondent – and the correspondent records his or her narration. The producer takes that audio recording and spends about two weeks in an edit room, adding the art, some might say artifice, of television to the basic journalism of the story. It's the producer's job, along with a videotape editor, to establish the pacing of the story and select the most effective pictures and sound. Along with the interviews and the narrative, the producer turns it into a polished piece.
The correspondent-producer relationship is complex,"
says ABC's artin Clancy, a producer at 420/20" who collaborates with Barbara Walters on proèiles. "It's like a marriage or a long-term affair." When the collaborative process is working at its best, it's one that Clancy's boss, Victor Neufeld, describes as "seamless; you can't tell where the correspondent's work began or the producer's finished."
But it's also a collaboration marked by tension, usually over who controls the story. While correspondents and producers pay lip service to the importance of collaboration, there are inherent problems. "60 Minutes" investigative producer Lowell Bergman, 49, sums up the relationship between producer and correspondent as one that has "an undercurrent of conflict that's inherent in how the business is structured. The correspondent has to be dependent on someone else who has been on the scene and is more familiar with the story. It's not comfortable."
Often, the relationship between producer and correspondent depends on individual personalities. As Tom Jarriel, a longtime correspondent for "20/20," says, "It isn't something that's taught in classes or found in a book." With strong producers, says Jarriel, you "go along for the ride, and they'll get you on the air smoothly." Jarriel also says there are plenty of correspondents who expect producers to hold their coats, reserve limousines and serve as whipping boys. Some correspondents turn into tyrants. On the other hand, he says, there are producers who want total control.
"PrimeTime Live" chief correspondent Chris Wallace has a reputation of being extremely hard to work with. Stanhope Gould, 59, an ABC and CBS veteran, worked with Wallace and his father Mike, of "60 Minutes." "There are difficulties working with both of them," says Gould, "but they have great strengths, too."
Chris Wallace acknowledges that producers who worked with him on earlier newsmagazines at NBC were highly critical of him. He says that's because he had come from the White House, where a correspondent was expected to do all the work. "I was a control freak," says Wallace, "and it was hard to get used to working with producers."
Craig Leake, 50, a producer who worked with Chris Wallace at NBC before moving to CBS and then ABC, says network correspondents like Wallace are accustomed to daily shows, where they are their own producers. "They're used to grabbing a story," says Leake, "and making the 5 o'clock feed. They're not used to the producer who spends four days in the field, picking the location, lighting the scene and chatting up a subject. Some [correspondents] don't need a producer, and we want to be needed."
ýow at ABC, Chris Wallace says he and his producers are a team. "I like good, strong, assertive producers who want to argue a point," he says, "and who aren't threatened when you argue as well. If you're a control freak, you're in the wrong business on a magazine show."
Leake, who is developing a newsmagazine for Scripps Howard to be launched early next year, likes to supervise his own stories. He worked on several shows as a cameraman as well as a producer, and his wife, Linda, did the editing. Doing the shooting, says Leake, gives him much more control over the product. He thinks a good newsmagazine producer's idea of a great piece isn't necessarily the same as a correspondent's. The producer, says Leake, often wants to show what's happening, while the correspondent wants to describe what's happening. Leake sees a correspondent's narration as simply another element to tell a story, like pictures, music or sound. Frequently, Leake produces pieces with no correspondent at all.
Steve Kroft, a "60 Minutes" correspondent, acknowledges he had a difficult time adjusting to working with producers. Kroft had spent seven years reporting for "CBS Evening News" and says he wrote every word he read on the air until his first newsmagazine assignment, at "West 57th," which aired from the summer of 1985 through the fall of 1989.
"The producer," says Kroft, "would bring in a rough cut, and I'd reinvent every piece. I think producers hated my guts, and it didn't work." Now Kroft says he thinks of himself as an editor, and he's learning to trust his producers. He says he's hard to work with because he's demanding, adding that he still experiences a certain amount of friction with producers.
For some producers, the level of collaboration is determined by how hard the correspondent works on the story. Both Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace, for example, have a loyal following of producers because the two are as hard on themselves as they are on their producers.
For Wallace's producers, the critical interview on a story can create anxiety attacks. The producer knows the material, knows the sequence of questions calculated either to develop specific information or, perhaps, to trap the subject into admitting guilt. The producer knows the facts, what the answers might be and how to follow up with the right questions.
As good an interviewer as Mike Wallace is, producer Barry Lando says he still occasionally sits in the back of the room and muses about the control he'd have if he did the interviews himself. For his part, Wallace says he does his homework and thinks his savvy and years of experience enable him to enrich the interview questions Lando has prepared. With the affection that comes from years of working together, Wallace says that on major interviews Lando "becomes a fat pain in the ass."
According to Robert Anderson, 44, another Wallace producer, "The best correspondents welcome questions and input, the worst correspondents feel threatened by it."
Bill Moyers is in the former category. Leake worked on CBS' ill-fated "Our Times with Bill Moyers," which aired during the summer of 1983, and found the correspondent to be interested in all aspects of the production. "At the other extreme," says Leake, "are the correspondents who are supposed to fly in for their part of the story and consistently say, 'Can I take a later plane?' with the result that the producer does all the work."
The process of working together ýsn't made any easier by the fact that correspondents get virtually all the credit for the stories and earn bigger salaries. When Leake is asked whether he's bothered by the disparity in recognition and pay between correspondents and producers, he fairly shouts, "Absolutely, absolutely!"
After the "60 Minutes" 25th anniversary program, which aired in November 1993, Senior Producer Philip Scheffler was irate. He felt the role of the producers had been virtually ignored and that the show made it seem as though the correspondents did all the work.
"The correspondents work very hard," says Scheffler, 64, "but the original reporting and the shape of the story are largely the work of the producers."
A few months later, Los Angeles Times television columnist Howard Rosenberg cited Scheffler's complaint and the fact that TV producers do the basic reporting in a column he wrote suggesting the system is deceptive.
"It's almost a metaphor for television news," says Rosenberg, "that all these hidden hands are doing the work. The person mouthing the words is not the person doing the research and the writing." In his column, Rosenberg quoted an analogy he says he has heard for years: "Some equate the relationship between correspondent and producer as that of a dog and a fire hydrant."
Lowell Bergman of "60 Minutes," who was quoted in Rosenberg's column, says, "Only one in 10 viewers has an inkling of how the process works; it's inherent in how the business is structured."
While newsmagazine Executive Producers Hewitt and Neufeld say producer credits at the beginning of each story make the point that the work is a collaboration, Rosenberg argues that "people don't notice the credits."
·ost newsmagazine producers seem resigned to the fact that the on-air reporter is the one most likely to become a celebrity. And most have no interest in being on the air themselves.
Harry Phillips, "PrimeTime Live" investigative producer, was an on-air correspondent in Canada. In 1983, however, after he exposed anarchist terrorist groups, he and his family received threats.
"I found myself checking under my car every day before going to work," Phillips recalls, "because some of the evidence against the terrorists included recipes they had for blowing up cars."
Because he had small children and was genuinely frightened, he decided to lower his profile by becoming a producer. "Part of me still misses the jolt of enjoyment of fronting the piece," says Phillips, "but it's not worth the heat."
Then too, there's the question of ability. As a former correspondent, he recognizes how good Sam Donaldson is at his job. Phillips says he's not at all sure he could have handled the confrontation with the Nazi on the street in Argentina as well as Donaldson. As a producer, Phillips says he loads the bases for Donaldson, the clean-up hitter, to step up to the plate and hit a home run.
Other producers acknowledge that they simply aren't on-air performers. "I had enough sense to know I was not the best person to talk to the camera," says Leake.
Still other producers have decided that theirs is the more satisfying job. Susan Aasen, 36, who produced an award-winning story on female genital mutilation in the Gambia for ABC's "Day One," says, "I realized early on that producers were the intellectual authors and the brains behind the pieces, so I never wanted to become an on-air person."
While newsmagazine producers are paid well, they're not in the same bracket as correspondents. Anchors make seven figure annual salaries, topped by Diane Sawyer's reported $5 million to $7 million. A typical correspondent will make as much as $300,000 a year. Producers average slightly more than $100,000, with some investigative producers making $150,000 to $175,000. Keeping this in perspective, Don Hewitt points out his producers on average make twice as much as reporters at the New York Times.
Even so, there's a principle involved. "You've done the reporting," says Bergman, "and someone else comes in and gets the credit and the pay."
Because newsmagazines require a mix of stories, producers develop specialties. There are four main categories in addition to the producers who turn out basic stories – what print journalists would call general assignment pieces. They are the investigative producers, "crashers," celebrity profile producers, and those who deal in larger-than-life international human dramas.
Barry Lando, 55, is the dean of investigative producers. Mike Wallace credits Lando with making investigative reporting an integral part of "60 Minutes" during its early years. A Canadian, Lando got a master's degree in Latin American studies at ColumbiaÛUniversity and spent a year at Harvard Law School. Like many newsmagazine investigative producers, he began in print, eventually covering South America for Time magazine in the 1960s before moving to CBS News in 1967.
Lando joined "60 Minutes" in the fall of 1971. A year-and-a-half later he produced a landmark story with Wallace that revealed discrepancies in charges made by Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert that his superiors in Vietnam were guilty of covering up war crimes. He later went on to produce highly praised investigative reports about city licensing inspectors who solicited payoffs from businesses in Chicago, Medicaid corruption involving clinical laboratories, and the ease with which people create fake identities.
Lando is especially proud of a more recent story, the 1990 incident in which Israeli police and military personnel shot and killed 21 Palestinian demonstrators on the Temple Mount. While in Israel for another story, Lando heard of inconsistencies between what actually happened and what U.S. correspondents had reported. Israeli officials initially blamed stone-throwing Palestinians for inciting the incident. After investigating, he and Wallace proved the Israeli police were at fault. Their story was eventually confirmed by an Israeli commission.
Lando spends several months on a typical story. While Wallace is involved in the planning, he spends just a few days in the actual taping, and his producers do the bulk of the writing. Wallace likes to joke that he's "a puppet who dangles from Lando's string."
Another heralded investigative producer, Robbie Gordon, 43, has raised the art of hidden cameras to a new level. Her stories for ABC's "PrimeTime Live" have won more than 20 awards. She produces two to three 30-minute to one-hour multipart stories a year, spending as much as four to six months on each.
Her initial effort for "PrimeTime Live" documented mistreatment of mentally ill, retarded and elderly residents at a home in Houston. To tell the story, she and her cameraman became patients, with an off-duty policeman outside in an unmarked van as their lifeline in case of trouble. When two attendants tried to rape her, she had to decide whether or not to blow her cover by calling in the bodyguard. Instead, she surprised the attendants, who thought she was helpless, and fought them off, pushing them out of her room and wedging a bed in front of the door.
Following her success with the undercover investigation of the Texas facility, Gordon documented patient neglect at a Veterans Administration hospital and child abuse at several day care centers.
Gordon says it's obviously impossible for her correspondent, Diane Sawyer, to spend six months on one story, and it's just as obvious that Sawyer is too well known to go undercover. The two confer often during the course of the reporting. It's Sawyer's job to come in after the undercover work has been done and confront people with the results. Sawyer, adds Gordon, also plays a key role in writing the script.
At the other extreme are producers like Ty West of "Dateline NBC" who are called crashers. A crasher is a producer who takes a late-breaking story, assembles a report that usually runs 12 minutes or less, and gets it done just before air time. As TV lore has it, the term "crash" derives from airplane crash landings.
West, 37, calls himself a "news baby." His father, Charlie, was a writer for Walter Cronkite on the "CBS Evening News." Ty worked for the CBS News special events unit, for a "CBS Evening News" investigative unit, and as an associate producer with "West 57th." Following assignments on two Connie Chung magazine shows, he jumped to NBC.
By coincidence, West was the only producer available for last-minute pieces on former hostage Terry Anderson and Boris Yeltsin's summit trip to Washington. He's been a crasher ever since. He likes the deadline adrenaline rush, the instant gratification of getting a story on right away, and the special treatment granted temperamental, stressed crashers.
"The greatest compliment you can pay to a crasher," explains West, "is that the piece didn't look like a crash."
Profiles are another staple of newsmagazines. Barbara Walters has built her reputation on them. Fifteen-year "20/20" veteran Martin Clancy, 52, who had been well known for investigative stories, has become one of Walters' main producers. Over the last twý years they collaborated on profiles of Louis Farrakhan, Pamela Harriman, Henry Kissinger, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Milken, among others. Clancy says he and Walters will spend several days on preparation, and after the interview they share editing chores.
Another "20/20" team, correspondent Tom Jarriel and producer Janice Tomlin, 40, became legendary for their dramatic international stories. They also were one of the most successful duos in newsmagazine history, winning eight Emmy awards and a slew of others between 1979 and 1993, when Tomlin left to become a senior producer at "Turning Point." Her work for "20/20" included stories about children dying in the Ethiopian famine, recruitment of orphans by rebels in the war in Mozambique, the lack of women's rights in Pakistan, and the first television report from Albania.
Tomlin and Jarriel may be best remembered for their stories on Romanian orphans. Tomlin says she got the idea while watching a two-minute CNN piece during the Romanian revolution that included a shot of hundreds of orphans. She found a newspaper account of an American couple who had adopted one of the orphans but couldn't get the child out of the country. Tomlin and Jarriel followed the couple to Romania and discovered an orphanage that warehoused children in deplorable conditions. On a follow-up trip they charged in unannounced and recorded some of the most moving images ever seen on American television.
"Producers deal with these emotional stories in different ways," says Tomlin. "You try not to focus on the reality while you're there or you'd break down and cry. You build an emotional barrier. I won't let my guard down until the story is finished, and I'm watching it on the air, alone."
The risk of covering some international stories was underscored for producers by the death of David Kaplan in August 1992. Kaplan, 45, was killed by a sniper's bullet outside the airport at Sarajevo while covering the peace mission of Yugoslavian Prime Mýnister Milan Panic. Kaplan, a 22-year ABC News veteran, was working with Sam Donaldson for "PrimeTime Live" at the time of his death.
By next year there may be as many as a dozen newsmagazines on the air, all competing for stories and all competing for seasoned producers. The expansion of "Dateline NBC" and a Scripps Howard program in development have already encouraged producers to jump networks for promotions and larger salaries. "Dateline NBC," for example, has lured 17 field producers from ABC News over the past year. But there's a growing concern that there may not be enough experienced people to supply the total of 250 to 275 producers and 125 or more associate producers required by these shows.
Hewitt of "60 Minutes" cautions that "there aren't 250 people worthy of being producers. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel." He maintains that "60 Minutes," "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live" have excellent producers on staff. Beyond that, he says he has his doubts. Hewitt's counterpart at "20/20," Neufeld, warns that less-experienced producers will lower the quality of TV journalism.
New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta, author of the 1991 bestseller "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way," compares the situation to the movement of local TV reporters to network news during the last 10 years. "The reporters," he says, "simply were not trained the way Walter Cronkite was, beginning at a wire service."
There are three questions to ask, says Auletta. "One: 'Are there enough people?' Sure, but the second question is: 'Are they good enough and are they qualified?' Probably not. But the third question is: 'Do the executives care?' The answer is some do and some don't. Some producers can get stories with a sizzle, but are the stories factual, well reported and balanced?"
The Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg says there probably aren't enough qualified producers today. "But," he asks, "when has that ever stopped television news before? Expansions have always resulted in the level going down. Some producers probably won't be very good. The level of production has already gone down."
Traditionally, "60 Minutes" producers, according to Philip Scheffler, have come to the program with experience in daily news, either with newspapers or television broadcasts. Neufeld says many of his producers at "20/20" have worked on network daily newscasts, then progressed to doing longer stories.
Without that daily news experience, Hewitt says, "The risk is they'll get something like the 'Dateline NBC' mistake" in which producers failed to inform viewers that they had attached sparking devices to a General Motors truck to ensure an explosion in a crash.
Ironically, Neal Shapiro, who became executive producer of "Dateline NBC" in March 1993 after his predecessor was fired over the "mistake," now has more air time than any other newsmagazine – the show is now on three nights a week. It's unprecedented.
Shapiro, 36, is confronting the problem of adding staff for a tripleheader show, as well as trying to figure out new ways to run the programs. "It's too large to be comfortably administered like the old model shows '60 Minutes' and '20/20,' where the executive producer is responsible for everything," he says. "But no one says it has to be run that way. Ben Bradlee ran the Washington Post, someone runs the Wall Street Journal. I'm trying to figure it out."
A former supervisory producer at "PrimeTime Live," Shapiro agrees with Hewitt and Neufeld that seasoned producers are the key to success. And he insists his producers, including new additions from ABC and local stations, are top-notch. He's also confident that the show has instituted procedures to guard against a repeat of the GM incident.
He sees himself as a member of a new generation of executive producers, and promises that "Dateline NBC" will "break new ground." But he says the show will do that only if it has talented producers because "the difference between a good and great story is the producer." On that point, all executive producers would agree. l ###