July 25, 2013

7 for 7: Solidarity Forever

[This is day four of 7 Posts for 7 Days. With Detroit making headlines for its bankruptcy, I'm spending the week sharing my Detroit experience. I lived there from mid-1997 to mid-1998.]

When I started my new TV news job in Detroit in 1997, all of my prior industry experience was at non-union stations. Boy, did I have a lot to learn when I got there. Some of the skills and tasks that had been a daily part of my professional routine were suddenly off limits.

Before I get it into it, I should point out that I didn't mind any of these changes. (Generally I'm a loyal employee and am happy to follow the rules.) But I definitely had to re-train my brain to this new way of doing things, or not doing things. At this new workplace, as a newscast writer and producer, I was not in a union. Most of the other non-management jobs were unionized.

So here's a sample of the interesting rules I had to learn: 

Editing Equipment

It was commonplace for news writers and producers to review videotapes from national news feeds as well as those shot by local videographers. (Keep in mind this was long before the days of getting video feeds directly on your desktop.) But one of the first things they alerted me to was that non-union employees were not permitted to touch any of the video equipment or editing decks. If I wanted to remove a tape from an editing machine, a union editor had to press the eject button. They had a couple of playback-only decks for us non-union folks to use. But if the tape I wanted to see was still in an editing deck, I was unable to pull it out myself.

As I recall, the station at that time was using he Panasonic MM2 format. Here's what the editing decks looked like:

Do not touch! (Courtesy: Ebay)
Don't tell anyone, but there were a couple of times when I was desperate to get my hands on a tape that was in one of these decks, but the editor was nowhere to be found. So I may have looked both ways, pressed the eject button with my sleeve (so as not to leave fingerprints) and removed the tape.

Another funny quirk to the rule was that if the videotape was already sticking out of the deck (after someone else had pressed eject), then it was okay for a non-union employee to remove the tape.


Local newscasts are filled with on-screen graphics where you see words on the screen and some sort of graphic design behind it. While newsroom software in that era was capable of allowing producers and writers to write the verbiage of whatever on-screen graphics they wanted, we couldn't do this in Detroit because any words that showed up in graphics had to be typed-in by a union employee, not a non-union producer.

To make things more interesting, the job of creating the graphic element or design that would appear behind the words was a non-union task. So as a producer I had to meet with both the union word person and the non-union graphic person in order to create a simple on-screen graphic.

Video Waivers

Any local video used in our newscasts had to be shot by union videographers. That seems to make sense. But what about those occasions where a viewer or freelance photographer catches something wildly-newsworthy on a camcorder and offers to let the news station have the video? Well, we were not allowed to use it on the air. There were some exceptions, however, which required a waiver from an on-duty union steward.

Fortunately, the union stewards I had to go to for an occasional waiver so I could air something in my newscasts were usually very accommodating. The general rule of thumb was that if the home video showed something that we couldn't possibly have known was going to happen, then it probably would have been eligible for a waiver and we could use it. For example, if you happened to witness a plane crashing, and you shot video with your personal camcorder, it would qualify for a waiver. But if you shot video of a news conference, that would not qualify because we could have assigned a union videographer to cover the event.

Live Shots

Anytime the station assigned a reporter to do a live shot in a newscast, it was a contract requirement that two union photographers had to be present during the live shot. The idea was that one person acted as the photographer to operate the camera while the other was the tech who set up the live truck and tuned in the signal, etc. But in actuality, it didn't really matter who set up the shot. In fact, there were times when only one photographer was on the scene and did everything until it was time for the reporter to go on the air live. But if f that second photographer didn't make it to the scene in time, a union tech back at the station would cut off the signal because we were not permitted to use it. It was frustrating, but rules are rules.


One of the least desirable but most important tasks during a TV newscast is running the teleprompter which allows the anchors to read the scripts directly of the lens of the camera.  In my earlier years in TV news, this job was more painstaking because you had to line up hard copy pages of the script page-by-page onto a little conveyor belt with a camera above it and control the speed of the belt in sync with the news anchor's reading pace. Nobody liked this job, and oftentimes people who weren't interested in doing to would get pulled into it at the last minute.

Now that I think about it, I don't recall whether we were still using paper scripts for the teleprompter in Detroit, or if the station had upgraded to electronic scripts. But either way, it was a surprise when I got to this TV station and find out that producers and writers would never get roped into running the teleprompter because it was a union job! Only unionized studio technicians could touch the teleprompter.

However, during my last few months, a waiver was granted to allow non-union employees to operate the teleprompter only on Sunday nights for the last few minutes of the late newscast because the union tech had to go over to a second studio to set up for a sports show.


I should point out again that while it may sound like I didn't like these union rules, that's not the case at all. They were just unusual to me because it was my only experience in a union station. In fact, when I left the job in Detroit to accept a higher position at a TV station back in Florida, I was a little gun-shy about pressing the eject button on editing decks. But then I remembered, Oh yeah, I don't have to worry about that anymore.

Preview: Next up, 7 for 7 and 7 Quick Takes Friday will collide. It could be epic. But I doubt it. Tune in tomorrow for the next installment.

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