If you work in a newsroom, it’s essential that you understand the psychology that often goes unnoticed between you and higher level managers. That old Left-Brain/Right Brain disconnect is killing creativity in newsrooms and – trust me – it shows on air! Below is a chapter from my recent book, “…Like No One’s Watching: Transform Your Local Newscast into a Hit TV Show!” It spells out the problem and shows how to overcome the obstacles.
Left-Brain | Right-Brain Sync
You’ve heard the biology about people being “left-brain” (L-directed thinkers) and “right-brain” (R-directed thinkers). Medical science has proven through brain scans that we are not hard-wired to use one side of our brain more than the other side. One side is not more active than the other. The biology of left-brain/right-brain is a myth. However, psychologists have proven that the metaphor of being left-brain or right-brain is alive and well because it perfectly describes the way different personality types actually think.
- SPOCK – LEFT BRAIN
It’s been said that business leaders (including station group CEO’s), lawyers, civil engineers, accountants and computer programmers commonly have dominant personality traits such as logic, analytical thinking, objectivity and things like quantifying results (whatever those are). If you are a left-brain thinker, you are more scientific and look for rational explanations. You see through the lenses of everything being either black or white. Think of it this way. First Officer Mr. Spock of Star Trek – he’s totally left side of the galaxy. He’s into chess, for christsake! Spock is all about logic. He can’t help himself.
- CAPTAIN KIRK – RIGHT BRAIN
Conversely, politicians, actors, athletes and, I strongly suspect some TV producers, are classified as right-brain thinkers. They’re the creative types who don’t see things as black or white but as all shades of gray. They’re emotional, intuitive, risk-takers, thoughtful and objective. Back to my analogy, the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Captain James T. Kirk, is a right-brainer. He’s an explorer, a risk-taker, a rebel.
A direct quote from Captain Kirk: “Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about!”
His passion and emotion for his starship are so strong, they allowed him to resist the evil, mind-controlling spores on the Federation colony of Omicron Ceti III. Remember that? When his crew returned to the ship completely controlled by the spores, Kirk got pissed off – so fricking angry that he discovered expressing violent emotions somehow destroys the power of the evil spores. Spock didn’t figure that out. His left-brain ass was completely at the mercy of the spores.
Kirk and Spock complement each other in their leadership and command of The Enterprise. Spock’s weaknesses are Kirk’s strengths. They both have the same goal: “to seek out new life and new civilizations” – they just boldly go about it differently – which leads to the plots that make Star Trek a classic.
That same balance has to be found in the newsroom and in the corporate culture if your newscast is going to be a hit. Judging from what we see across the local news landscape, the balance is way off – strongly tilted to the left. There are so many primarily left-brain layers of management making the calls, that any surviving right-brain creativity is crushed long before it hits the newsroom – much less the air.
- THOUGHT PROCESSES
Left and right brainers need to understand the thought processes that are involved with their opposite-brain counterparts. Take a look at how left and right-brainers think and behave in different ways:
They think dramatically differently
LB: analytical & objective | RB: random & subjective
They make decisions differently
LB: logically | RB: intuitively
They use different terminology to SAY the same thing
LB: profit & ratings | RB: reward & winning
As you can surmise, there’s a clear and present “disconnect’ in the way lefties and righties communicate, define goals, measure success and connect with co-workers. Additionally, business is a left-brain pursuit – while the art of television is more the domain of right-brainers. You can see how people like me, a right-brain showrunner who talks in shades of gray, might have difficulty relating to left-brain CEO’s and other successful company leaders who view everything as black or white.
That’s why left-brain company leaders rely on focus groups and research and studies – because those studies provide tangible evidence that the decisions they make are the right ones. For right-brainers, there are no results or studies that will support my gut instinct. I can’t quantify for you why one anchor will draw an audience while another won’t. I can’t provide my left-brain boss with verifiable proof. I just feel it. My left-brain counterparts are going to have to trust my intuition.
- THE CONCEPTUAL AGE
There will come a time when managers on every level of the local news industry begin to recognize how valuable creativity and innovation are to reaching their business goals. According to Daniel H. Pink, author of the New York Times bestseller A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, computers are taking over more and more white-collar, left-brain jobs. If those jobs aren’t being done by automation, they’re being sent to Asia where left-brain jobs, in growing numbers, are being outsourced. Pink, whose book was named Best Business Book of 2005 by Fast Company, posits that creativity will be the competitive difference between commodities as we exit the Information Age and move into the Conceptual Age. He believes that companies which can move beyond function and engage the senses of its customers will be the standouts. That includes adding a narrative (story) to a product, focusing on the big picture – not the details, going beyond logic to trigger emotion, intuition, and humor. If you apply that thinking to our product, a newscast, producers should be telling stories (storytelling is another big buzzword these days in TV news) and producing emotionally compelling television.
Embracing creativity gives companies a distinct competitive advantage. Creativity was a priceless commodity for the KTLA Morning News. It had a huge “creative advantage” over its market competition.
- CREATIVE ADVANTAGE
Wanna discuss creative advantage? One of my favorite stories of our KTLA creative process comes from March of 1993. I arrived on the KTLA studio lot in Hollywood at 2AM like always. As I lived a good distance away, I had already spent half an hour on the car phone with assignment manager Toni Molle discussing possible story ideas for Eric Spillman and Michele Ruiz, our morning reporters. The only local news of any interest was the city of Anaheim would begin work on a new carpool lane on the Orange Freeway today. That story has zero relevance to anyone outside of Orange County so it was a “pass” as a live remote. Nationally, we could rehash yesterday’s developments involving President Clinton trying to spark the economy with a stimulus package. Spillman could do the “coffee shop” report, getting live reaction. Um, “pass”. Once arriving in the newsroom, I skimmed the news wires, looking for that needle-in-a-haystack story the other stations’ producers won’t search hard enough to find.
And there it was. A study (I can’t remember the source) that discovered proven ways to add years to your life. Hmmm. Reading further, it reveals one of the best activities people can do to live longer is to “hug” other people. Hugging lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol among many other health benefits. Married couples tend to live longer than singles because they hug more frequently. I headed over to the assignment desk to get Toni’s take on the story. She thought it was a cool third or fourth block “live shot” for Michele.
I countered, “Hang on. Everybody wants to live longer. Everybody wants to remain healthy. Here is a medically proven way to extend your life. Who’s gonna change channels during this report? I say we give it to Spillman and we lead the 7AM with it!”
Toni, recognizing that look I get when I make up my mind, said something like, “OK…whatever!”
That was Toni shorthand for, “Yes! I support you 100% and will stand by you even if it means joining you on the unemployment line.”
Toni and I were on the same page in our out-of-the-box thinking. She’s the perfect yang to my yin. She would throw out an idea, I would counter, she would stick to her guns, and then one of us would take it to the next level.
Like when I made this suggestion: “We have Spillman go out on the street and try to get strangers to hug him ‘live!’ Yeah, baby!”
I think Toni’s response was something like, “OK, you get to sell this idea to Spillman!”
Shorthand for, “I’m totally on board!”
Eric Spillman is an aggressive, multiple Emmy-award winning breaking news reporter who’s been with KTLA since he joined the KTLAMN in startup mode back in 1991. I’m proud to say he is one of my discoveries. He never just stands still on a live shot. I remember very clearly on the resume reel he sent when I was hiring reporters, he was sliding down some escape tubes or slides or something that a company was testing as an emergency exit from office buildings in case of a fire. He didn’t just walk the talk – he slid the slide. And he drank our Morning News-flavored Kool-Aid on day one! He was all-in with where the show was going and he played a huge role in its ultimate success.
By the time Spillman arrived in the newsroom, Toni had already chosen the airport as the live location for his hug-a-thon. Now for my expert persuasive and motivating sales job. Here’s how you do it. Take notes:
“Dude,” I said. “It’s either hugging strangers at LAX or visiting your favorite coffee shop in Studio City to talk with people about (dramatic yawn) the stimulus plan. The decision is in your hands!”
Spillman was in!
The first “live” hug was incredibly awkward. It was a priceless Eric Spillman moment. Some woman just arriving in L.A. from Boise, Idaho wasn’t too keen on hugging a perfect stranger on live television after a grueling two-hour flight. But one by one, the hug-ees began to lighten up. Eric began encouraging people around him to hug each other. Back in the studio, Barbara and Carlos were goading Eric to try approaching various characters they could see around him… that shady-looking guy with the cigarette, or that woman in the red jacket.
“How about that cop, Eric?” I distinctly remember Barbara egging Eric on.
By the end of the first live hit, every viewer watching wanted a hug from Spillman. The camera guys in the studio began embracing. A cutaway shot to the newsroom via the newscam showed the Angry Newswriters (as we called them) stepping away from their keyboards to hug each other. I think I was even seen hugging director Lenn Goodside via the control room cam. “Hugging” became an event on this particular morning – rather than just another old live shot discussing the latest findings in a study.
Look at the succession of events:
- We nail down an original idea (hugging).
- It builds when I suggest we have Eric actually hug people (instead of just reporting the findings).
- Toni adds LAX as the backdrop so plenty of people will be around.
- Eric not only gets hugs but gets perfect strangers to begin hugging each other.
- Barbara & Carlos get involved from the set daring Eric to approach this person or that one.
- The camera operators in the studio, the Angry Newswriters in the newsroom and those of us in the control room join in.
That’s how the pieces just fall into place when your staff and crew are all in-tune with the vision of the show. Yes, theoretically, I could have orchestrated every scene from that symphony myself, but with an established vision of what the show is, everybody was already in concert. It just happens.
- POST-HUGGING AFTERGLOW
Now, here’s my favorite part – the post-script to this story: Our competition, KTTV, the local Fox station which just started up its own local morning newscast, led its 7AM newscast with a live report on reaction to the stimulus plan. Very predictable. Very left-brain. But at 8AM, what do you think happened after they saw our 7AM lead? They yanked their live reporter off the stimulus story and now had her hugging people! No lie. At noon, KNBC led their local newscast with hugs! And at 5PM, both KNBC and KABC were hugging! Let me explain why this happened:
- Because we (KTLA) led our show with hugging
- Because we owned it and sold it so well
- Because we took a risk and went with something less obvious
- Because we were the #1 show in the market
We gave the other stations’ left-brain producers the tangible facts they needed to put the hugging story in their newscast, “Well, KTLA led with it at 7AM & 8AM…”
Those producers could now justify to their bosses that this right-brain story idea was valid because their competition not only covered it but led with it. We gave them permission to do a right-brain story they never considered doing until we led the way. And that’s classic left-brain producing – not acting on something until the competition does it first. It’s much safer that way.
I am – in NO WAY – suggesting that beginning tomorrow, you lead your “newscast of record”, your local 5PM, 6PM or 11PM newscast, with a story in the same vein as the hugging story. You do and it will fall flat on its face. The stories you choose to present – and how you choose to present them come with countless variables that make your newscast completely different from any other newscast.