By Jack Kazmierski
Special to The Toronto Sun
Behind every great man stands an exhausted woman," my wife always tells me. And the same holds true in the world of TV: Behind every great interview you see on TV, you'll find an exhausted story producer.
These unsung heroes never see the spotlight, are never treated like celebrities, and will never be asked for an autograph while walking down the street. But without them, on-air personalities would have little more to do with their time than smile and look at the camera.
The story producer, a.k.a. segment producer, is the one who provides the host with a guest to interview, topics to discuss and, in some cases, the right questions to ask the interviewee.
They figure out what subjects will be covered on tomorrow's show and which guests should be invited.
Brad Matson, one of three story producers for Citytv's Breakfast Television, starts his day at 4 a.m., is in the office by 5 a.m. and makes sure everything runs like clockwork while the show is on air, live.
"When the guests come in we prep them for going on the air," he explains.
"We chat with guests about who they are and what they're about, because if you haven't booked them you don't know much about them. Then you help them set up their demonstrations or whatever visuals will be necessary for their segment."
Because BT is a live show that airs five days a week, it's like a machine that constantly consumes content and guests. It can be a challenge to make sure every show has enough guests and content to fill up all the on-air hours.
Matson says he just keeps his eyes open for whatever might be interesting or newsworthy -- new stores opening, posters advertising something interesting, etc. "PR (public relations) people, or people I've dealt with over the years also send me information about something they're doing."
The hosts on BT make up their own questions, but Matson provides them with information about who the guest is, what they're going to be doing or showing, a bio of the guest, notes of interest, etc.
None of the producers interviewed had any formal education that had anything to do with working on a TV show. Eric Lunsky, Executive Producer of Global's Train 48, is an optometrist. However, he followed his passion for writing and that led him to where he is now.
"You have to be relatively easy-going because you're going to run into a lot of different personalities and you have to be able to get along with different people," he says. "I think people have very damageable egos in this business, so you have to be careful not to step on people's toes."
"I did not go to school for what I'm doing," admits Jeffery Tam of Canada AM, who comes from the financial industry. "I actually learned everything hands-on."
"Apply for an internship to see if you like it," BT's Brad Matson says. "Not only will you get a feel for the job, the environment and the people, but it's a great way to get your foot in the door. If you do it for about three months, they'll get to know you and if they like you, it's a great way to get a job."
Once the show is over for the day, the real work begins. "The show is really exciting and fun to do because it's live and there are so many interesting guests," he says. "After the show you have to look for content for upcoming shows. We keep working until at least the next couple of days are solidly booked."
Jeffery Tam, one of 15 story producers for CTV's Canada AM, has been on the job for more than two years. He too spends his days chasing stories and locating possible guests.
"Once I find an appropriate guest, I do a pre-interview with them to find out what they'll be able to speak to," he explains. "Once I have all that information, I put together a five or six-page synopsis of the segment. It includes everything from an introduction, suggested questions, the clips and drop-ins that we will roll in throughout the interview, as well as a breakdown of all the notes I took during my pre-interview and any additional background
His is not a typical 9-to-5 job. "I'd like to say I leave the office after eight hours, but on most days that's not necessarily true," he admits. "Depending on the nature of the news story, we may stay there all night."
During the Twin Tower disaster in New York, for example, most of the story producers at Canada AM worked between 36 and 40 hours straight.
How much do story producers make in exchange for all this dedication to the job? The figures vary greatly depending on the TV show. Between $35k and $50k seems to be a good entry-level bracket.
But the job offers rewards that go beyond what money can buy. Tam sums up the perks: "For me this is the most rewarding job I've had. At the end of the day there's always something tangible you've put together as opposed to just pushing paper. You get to meet a lot of cool people, go places the general public can't and see the stories behind the news. It takes a lot of hard work, but it's worth it."
(Jack Kazmierski (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.)
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