Pitching stories for news magazine programming

Welcome to the giant smorgasbord of TV magazine programming. You will be placed on a table according to your estimated appeal to the diners (viewers). What’s that? No, the man making the assignments isn’t wearing the “sorting hat” from Harry Potter. He just likes to dress weird. But he has a good eye for what sells the best with viewers, so you’d better impress him. If he likes you, you’re on the main table with the shrimp and prime rib. If he doesn’t, you’re relegated to the side dish table somewhere between the creamed herring and the green gelatin salad with a mysterious white topping and ominous amounts of shredded American cheese.

That, in a nutshell, is essentially what you’re up against when you develop news magazine programming. And, you’re up against it on a regular basis. Unlike reality shows and travel and leisure programming, or even sitcoms or dramas, you have daily or weekly deadlines to meet. You don’t have time to sit around and refine your product over a period of weeks (except in those rare cases where you’re working on special features), then shoot over a period of weeks and edit over a period of weeks for something that won’t air for a period of months down the road. So you have to have a constant stream of material ready to pitch, get approved, shoot and edit. That material must consistently appeal to your viewers, or your show gets bumped to a less desirable time slot. Maybe it even gets cancelled altogether.

There are some critical factors you should already know about to help you find material to pitch. You have to have your ear to the ground, so to speak, and know what everyone else is doing. Then you have to do some analysis.

What are people talking about, and why? That means everywhere, not just on television. What’s trending online, what’s blowing up social media? Then, you must also ask yourself what people are not talking about, and why? Is it too old, or is it just something that may appeal only to a small group but not to a wide range of people?

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What’s the buzz about today? That’s a crucial factor in news magazine programming

Finally… and this is the one that takes some foresight and deep understanding of how your viewers think and what they crave…what are people not talking about yet? If you can master this and become the person who first breaks the stories, who gets the stories trending on social media, and who people instinctively go to when they want to find out the latest and newest information, then you have become the man in the sorting hat. You’re making the calls, not just playing catch-up with the rest of the pack. In terms of “buzz”, that all-important word in the world of ratings, the drones may make the loudest sound but it’s the queen bee that rules the hive.

It’s good to be queen.

Some people just have a knack for sensing a good thing before it takes off (and gets dragged back down by too many people grabbing on for part of the ride). They’re the ones who have an instinct for which startup companies will do well when their stocks are still reasonably affordable. They’re the ones who already know which new designer will stun them at fashion week in New York and become the next St. Laurent or Rykiel. They’re the ones who have a reserved table at the hottest restaurant in town, because they were loyal customers way before it became trendy.

If you’re in that select group, congratulations. Get those interviews now, when the soon-to-be-hot-topic is still simmering and all the major players are readily available. Then, as much as you can, persuade your show producer to promote the hell out of the story ahead of the air date. Not too far ahead, mind you, or a sharp competitor might notice all the attention you’re giving the story and run out and do a quick tell themselves, effectively making you the second in line. Once you have a few good gets, your editor will trust your instincts and be more likely to green-light your pitches.

If these instincts aren’t already in your skill set, then train yourself in how to spot trends well before they crest. Read a lot of blogs that deal with current trends in first-layer exposure (such as literature and indie films) rather than reactive, second-layer exposure (such as television shows, regular movies, and knock-off books). By the time these second-layer projects have been pitched, approved, and produced, there’s already a lot of interest in them, and more importantly, a lot of familiarity. In this business you should worry less about the familiarity that breeds contempt than the familiarity which evokes disinterest.

Get to know a lot of people in the industries you cover and find out what they’re talking about, and why. Are they being reactive to something they’ve already heard about elsewhere, or are they actively working on creating something new? Interviewing them as experts when you report on a brand new topic will ensure you stay in their good graces, so they’ll be likely to feed you more developing ideas that haven’t hit other media outlets yet.

If you just can’t develop the knack for spotting trends before they occur, then at least try to corner the market on trends that will be new to your audience. Understand what may appeal to them, then look for the odd article here, the blog there, the Facebook posts that are starting to get shares, and do some good old-fashioned digging. Decide whether this is something that has legs and will get bigger, or at least big enough to talk about and intrigue your audience. Then find a clever way to present it, putting a new spin on it that other outlets aren’t taking so that you don’t get a reputation for just copycatting the real players.

If you’re using Hencar as a production company for your news magazine, don’t hesitate to ask us for help in finding and pitching stories. Most of us have extensive experience in newsrooms, so we understand what kind of story will sell and how they should be presented for best impact. We can help your news magazine avoid playing catch-up and put you squarely ahead of the curve.