Occasionally as news reporters or special projects producers, we set out to right a wrong. Perhaps a young mother abandons her autistic daughter because the government will no longer provide special daycare services – and the child is a danger to the woman’s other children. We interview the mother and perceive her and her daughter to be the victims. We interview state or federal mental health care bureaucrats only to discover their hands are tied. We interview the dedicated workers at the special daycare center to find they are understaffed and can’t keep up with the growing demand for their services. We come back to the newsroom and what he we got? What do we put together for the 6?
What I just described was the plot in an episode of a 1990′s TV news nighttime soap, E.N.G. It’s a Canadian series that ran for five seasons. As you’d expect, most news events depicted in the episodes are over dramatized, highly improbable and schlocky (and I looove schlocky). Art Hindle played Mike Fennell, the morally righteous News Director, Sara Botsford portrayed drama queen Executive Producer Anne Hildebrandt, Mark Humphrey was chief photographer Jake Antonelli, Anne’s secret lover until (Spoiler Alert) he hooks up with the sleazy office slut reporter in the woods at the company picnic, and Victor Garber played the station owner in the last two seasons of the series who eventually bedded Anne until (Spoiler Alert) she re-hooks up with Fennell in the series finale. I ran in to Victor a few years ago in L.A. and he was quite surprised that I didn’t want to talk to him about Alias, or Titanic or Godspell or the tons of other films or shows he’s appeared in… I wanted to talk about E.N.G. He actually said,
“Did you really enjoy that show?”
And my answer was,
“Absolutely. It’s my life on TV.”
Sad, but true.
I want to show you a scene from an episode that pleasantly surprised me. It’s how the writers ultimately presented the above scenario on the air. A very right-brain solution to a story that otherwise wouldn’t have made air. Quick setup – the anchorwoman character is Jane Oliver played by the amazing Sherry Miller. If Jane were real, I’d hire her in a second as she is warm and growing quickly as an on-air personality (even though in a previous episode, her Audience Polling Ratings flat-lined). Sherry, ironically, was a news anchor at Global Television in Canada before taking this role. Jane is a former weather bunny who finally got her own “lighter” show and wanted to do some serious reporting even though she’s never been a reporter. She covers all the angles in this autism story and comes back with nothing she considers air-able until the left-brained Fennell has a rare right-brain moment and gives her some superb direction.
What resulted on-air was a brilliant way to present and package a story that doesn’t really have an ending. It’s an idea I will gladly “borrow” if the opportunity ever arises. Notice how the story became about her discovery, her ignorance, her failing. That’s how you tell a story.