How do things like live broadcast TV deal with vacation/absences?
April 12, 2016 12:11 AM   Subscribe

Most every other company I've seen can grind to a halt on certain days depending on who calls in sick and how many, who is on vacation, etc. How does broadcast and other "must go on" stuff like that deal with these kinds of personnel issues? Do they just have a 3-deep bench of understudy people for every role that usually aren't doing much and step in in case of emergencies? Do they borrow people from other studios with an understanding that it will be reciprocated? Do the unions help somehow?
posted by basehead to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that broadcasting is a ladder of less glamorous jobs and people are bumped up the ladder to compensate for absenteeism so your field reporter does the broadcast and whoever supports the field reporter does the job. This is just my impression from TV shows and watching local newscasters move around as needed through the years.
posted by toomanycurls at 12:17 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

The last time I worked in telly was 15 years ago. There is a lot of shift work in TV broadcast so if someone was sick, somebody off roster would be called in. Or if we needed another broadcast camera operator and no one off-shift was available, we would get a freelancer.

One time, many years ago, all the non-management staff went on strike (even, dear god, the canteen!). Management personal had to run the whole show from lighting to camera to audio to lodging the advertising cartridges in the advertising broadcast machine thingy. I think for things like sports editing, the station called in freelancers who were happy to 'scab'. But there were not many folk willing to scab as it was quite a union town and they would find it hard to get work later.

tl;dr off-roster employees and freelancers.
posted by Thella at 12:50 AM on April 12, 2016

I'm glad everyone mentioned my original rememberance that this was how freelancers paved their way to permanent gigs in broadcast, by being available and able to perform the job well on short notice when the opportunity came up.
posted by jbenben at 2:13 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I worked in live radio, and we always had at least two or three backups per show: pre-recorded segments we could air at a moment's notice when the guest got stuck in traffic, researched topics with guest on call in case we needed them. For hosts, the bar for calling in sick was incredibly high, and we only had to deal with that once a season or so. There was a ladder of back-up hosts who were paid to be on-call and available to host a show within an hour. Production was comparatively easy, as Thella says there's always someone around, either another producer/sound engineer/etc or someone who knows the job well enough to pull it off for a day.

That's part of what makes live media so exciting, and so addictive to work in!
posted by third word on a random page at 2:14 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From 1997-2002, I worked for Dennis Miller Live, which broadcast live on HBO each week. Here are some of the key people, listed roughly in order of how big a disaster it would be if they didn't show up:

• The star. If he's not there, you cancel the show and just air a rerun. This simply never happened. I'm sure there were times when Dennis was sick and would rather have just stayed home, but always he sucked up and dealt. (This is one reason why TV shows tend to have schedules that seem, from the outside, pretty soft, with a number of long vacations scattered throughout. It's easier to demand perfect attendance among essential personnel if you're going to give them nice long recuperation periods.)

• The director. Directing a live TV show is a very specialized skill, and the small number of people who have it are in high demand. If our director Debbie Palacio didn't show up, we probably could have found another person who could have done it, but it would have been hard, and whatever director we rounded up wouldn't have had Debbie's years of experience with our specific show. I think there may have been a handful of occasions when Debbie knew in advance she couldn't make it, and so she arranged an equally skilled replacement and briefed them on the requirements of that particular job. Other than that, I don't think she ever missed a day.

• The guests. The show consisted of Dennis and one celebrity guest each week. Obviously the guests were booked well in advance, and if they canceled, we'd have to scramble for a last-minute replacement. Fortunately, if you are successful enough to be a featured celebrity guest on a talk show, you probably have a strong work ethic, so it was very rare for a guest to drop out. Nonetheless, I think one or two guests had to cancel because of a death in the family or some other urgent reason, and one or two guests didn't have a good reason but just flaked out. Fortunately, Dennis was always able to find one of his comedian friends who was willing to fill in. On one occasion, for example, Jon Lovitz stepped up on a few hours of notice. If we gotten totally stuck and there was simply nobody for Dennis to interview, we would have had to come up with some other way of filling the airtime-- HBO was paying for half an hour of live TV, and they were going to get it.

• Miscellaneous back-stage production people employed directly by the show. Writers' assistants, script coordinators, etc. If one person wasn't there, everybody else could redistribute their tasks and make it work, although it would be a bit more stressful. Obviously within this category, some people were more fungible than others.

• Miscellaneous back-stage people rented by the show. The guy who ran the teleprompter managed his own company of teleprompter guys, and if he couldn't make it, his partner would swap in. (That said, you would be surprised at how much of an art teleprompting is, and how much it helps to have a teleprompter guy who knows the rhythms of the show's star.) The camera operators were all employed by CBS (from whom we rented studio space) and I think CBS had a pretty deep bench.

• The writers. Writing is arguably the most important factor in a show's overall success, but in terms of just making sure the live broadcast goes smoothly, it's pretty far down the list. We'd be writing and re-writing the show up to about a half hour before airtime, but once the script was locked, the writers were done. Also, there were about 10 writers, so if one of them was sick during the week, it wasn't an emergency. (Plus, if there's a glitch with a teleprompter or a camera, the audience is going to notice, whereas nobody is going to notice a joke that didn't get written because the writer wasn't there.)
posted by yankeefog at 2:27 AM on April 12, 2016 [27 favorites]

PS: On reflection, I think I was underselling the importance of a good teleprompter. I would probably move the teleprompter guy up the list, below the guest but above "miscellaneous back-stage production people."
posted by yankeefog at 3:16 AM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

My background is many, many years in film and TV, growing up in a family in film and TV (both above and below the line) and having a husband who works in film and TV, so: one thing to remember is that the bar for being out sick is incredibly high, and "vacation time" is basically nonexistant in the run of any film or TV show that's doing X number of episodes. (vs. a news program that runs 52 weeks a year)

You're expected to take a vacation when the show is on hiatus, not when the show is running. You're expected to show up unless you're in the hospital. You don't get paid if you're not there. (Ok there's a holiday buyout you get a check for many months later depending on how long you worked on a union show, but that's not the same.)

The ethos is all about being there. Mr. BlahLaLa and I were probably together for ten years before I saw him take a voluntary day off work.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:28 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

After WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward were killed in a shooting that took place during a live broadcast, former WDBJ employees pitched in so current staff could take time off to attend the memorials.
posted by emelenjr at 10:09 AM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Even in pre-recorded media, the bar for missing work is extremely high. For example, in Clark Gregg's AMA, he mentions missing a day of filming on West Wing in order to be at the birth of his daughter, and I believe he says it was the only time he's ever done that. He sounds immensely grateful to the cast and crew of WW for being willing to move their schedule around to accommodate him.
posted by oblique red at 12:04 PM on April 12, 2016

In my experience, broadcasting is quite overstaffed with underpaid employees (including interns that are working for FREE). There's always someone to pick up the slack. Corollary: there's often a lot of underworked people sitting around. Drives me nuts.

Also, there's always a line of hundreds of people at the door willing to take just about any job. TV is intoxicating that way. "Oooooh, Adult Swim, dude I want to work there so bad!" Uh huh, we have 700 applicants for that marketing job ...
posted by intermod at 12:45 PM on April 12, 2016

There is an origin story about the radio show "Anything You Ever Wanted to Know" - that one day Glenn Mitchell's interviewee did not show up, so he just opened the phone lines and invited the radio audience to call in with questions, and then to have others call in if they knew the answers to those questions. It's now a Friday staple and a huge success, but it started as a live broadcast absentee issue.

Later, when Glenn Mitchell unexpectedly died overnight, other folks at the radio station used his show airtime that day to host an impromptu memorial service and people called in to share memories.
posted by CathyG at 7:55 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

(That said, you would be surprised at how much of an art teleprompting is, and how much it helps to have a teleprompter guy who knows the rhythms of the show's star.)

Ditto for captioning. It's a crazy difficult skill to pick up and get good at, and the ones who are good at it make it look effortless.

Generally speaking, studios also tend to be "overstaffed." The unions likely help with this, and don't get too much pushback from the management, because a bout of flu tends to run through the office often enough to remind the management of the inherent risks of having a small crew.

I admittedly worked in a very strange TV Studio, but everybody knew how to wear multiple hats, and did so often. It wasn't at all unusual to see people switch between camera, Chryon, teleprompter, audio, and makeup on a normal day. Certain roles were reserved for more senior staff (oh, unions...), but crew shortages meant that this wasn't necessarily a hard and fast rule.

I was the (non-union) IT guy, and even I ended up running the switcher a few times.
posted by schmod at 12:07 PM on April 18, 2016

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