Monday, April 16, 2012

Take This Job... Please!

There's a new career ranking survey out, and it's got some folks in the TV biz hopping mad. According to CareerCast's annual list of best and worst jobs "broadcaster" ranks as the #10 worst. They site such things as the lack of job security, lack of growth, stress, and lousy pay as conditions for their ranking. Well, yeah, those things are true, but still... number 10? That puts working in a television station somewhere down around walking a theme park in a cartoon character suit or cleaning out portable toilets. Then again, editing a politician's news conference into something comprehensible can feel a lot like cleaning out a toilet.

I don't know anything about CareerCast, and I can't seem to find out any more than they put out these surveys once a year. They do explain their methodology here. Still, I can't help but think they may have jiggered the numbers or played with semantics to get a headline grabbing result, especially when you consider you would never hear about CareerCast without "broadcasters" to tell you. Furthermore, I'm always a bit suspicious of websites who purport to know all about our industry, and then prove the depth of that knowledge by including a photo of a "broadcaster" talking into the top end of a side-address condenser microphone.

Actual photo from CareerCast page.
"Hi. I'm a model. I just do this part-time for Clear Channel."

Anyway, the definition of "broadcaster" is somewhat elastic in this survey. By CareerCast's definition, it appears "broadcaster" means the person you see on the air reporting the news. In the business of broadcasting, we refer to these people as "talent." I'll let the reader insert his or her own punchline at this point. In our facility, we divide our operation into four distinct departments, of which Talent is only one branch grossly outnumbered by all the others. For example, we have the business department which handles the sexy stuff like accounting/book keeping, accounts receivable, health insurance, and locking up the hole punch after hours lest some co-anchor makes Swiss cheese out of the other anchor's script just before air time. These are skills transferable to many other industries, except for the hole punch part. Photocopiers are usually the most abused devices in offices, used to preserve one's posterior for the ages. We are above that sort of thing in television; we have $50,000 high definition cameras for that.

The sales department has the glamorous job of going out to local business people and convincing them that somebody is still watching "The Office." Sales brings in the dollars that make it possible for the rest of us to get paid. Marketing skills can be transferred to any number of industries... politics, for example. If you can convince a client that you're actually interested in his two-hour monologue on how the Buckeyes got railroaded and Tressel was just a whipping boy for the NCAA and how the SEC is run by the mob thus Kentucky is the champion and the BCS is a bunch of commies... man, you got the stuff to be a congressman.

The production department has admittedly had it tough in recent years. Time was when we had people on each camera, switcher, graphics, and keeping time. Thanks to robotic cameras and automation software, those positions have been consolidated. The director has become a Doctor Octopus multitasking genius who really only needs the intercom to talk to the floor director... and we're working on replacing floor directors with holograms just as soon as we can get them to stop saying, "Help me, Obi Wan. You're my only hope."

The engineering department possess skills unique to broadcasting, such as knowing the exact combination of swear words to get a video server back on the air. And engineers are the people within the station most likely to keep a can of WD-40 in their desks, just in case. The engineer who is on-call during the weekend has the worst job: transmitters only crap out at 2:00 on Christmas morning. But most of these guys could take a Microsoft course and land on their feet if the worst happens.

That leaves us with the news department, and that's where we find the lens meat... er, I mean Talent. This is where we run into the issues that cause CareerCast's metrics to go off the scale. See, the problem here is that in this department we've entered a branch of Show Business. I know some journalists may bristle at that comment, but let's face it, you wouldn't want Ferris Bueller's teacher anchoring the six. News presentation requires the same abilities of good acting: addressing the audience, voice control, hair and makeup. But, it also requires going after a story, making public officials squirm, in other words developing a thick skin and staying on topic while ignoring the distractions of the mud being flung back at you. You must be the voice of reason when everybody else is going off the rails. And that's not always fun. It's a special kind of work that requires a special kind of person.

Ranking a "broadcaster" with software developers and corporate lawyers is bit like including stand up comic or movie stunt person in the survey... and I think CareerCast does. It's comparing apples to plutonium. Certain uniquely talented people aspire to certain unique occupations regardless of the hazards, pitfalls, and less-than-stellar pay. They just love what they do.

On the other hand, the falling image of the television reporter should be cause for concern within our industry. It's more than the lack of credibility; at stake is our ability to attract promising new employees to all aspects of the television business. When a young person sees "Today" bring on Sarah Palin, that sends a message that knowledge of journalism and a certain level of... let's call it decorum... is not desired in our industry. When a First Daughter delivers soft soap on a prime time news program (one that's changed time slots more than a revival of "Knight Rider") it signals to everyone that television news has the believability of Shaquille O'Neil writing a children's book. It tells people we don't take it seriously, so why should you?

And if your bosses don't take what you do seriously, then you might be better off cleaning toilets for a living.

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