How To Stack A News Show

March 21, 2016

An on-air interview

What is Stacking a Show?

“Stacking a show” is a phrase broadcasters use to describe putting the segments of a newscast together. Usually the job of a producer, stacking the show is done after assignments are given—in other words, after the show’s topics have been chosen. However, new events can happen between the time of the morning news meeting and the five o’clock news, and stories frequently need to be rearranged multiple times before the show.

Where to Start

At the news meeting, the show’s producer or producers, reporters, an assignments editor, and usually the news director will discuss various story ideas. Sometimes these are continuations or new angles of news from the previous day or few days (“latest developments,” “new information,” etc.). Some are completely new events—say, a robbery in progress caught on the police scanner. On slow news days, meeting attendees may kick around human-interest or “in-depth look” type ideas when hard news is scarce. In most stations, each reporter is expected to offer at least one story suggestion each day.

The assignments editor usually decides what stories will be covered and what angles the reporter covering the story should look into. In some stations, the assignments editor chooses the general story, and the producer picks an angle. (If there is a big disagreement, the news director may make the final call.) Each story is then assigned to a reporter/photographer team. Frequently reporters are assigned the stories they pitched, but sometimes schedules and assignments have to be juggled for a variety of reasons.

Once assignments have been given, the producer begins creating a skeleton of the show, which at this point mostly consists of putting the stories in the order they are expected to air. Software varies from station to station, but generally the producer uses a program to create a show rundown (simply a list of everything appearing in the show in order), in addition to filling in each segment with scripts and directions for the production crew. Each segment can be moved if priorities change throughout the day.

What Goes First?

The A block is the first block of the show, usually slated for the biggest news stories of the day. Typically, a show will open with a brief tease of the two or three biggest subjects to be covered, a brief standard intro in which the anchors introduce themselves (“I’m so-and-so and this is your five o’clock news on such-and-such channel,” or something similar), then the top story. Some stations have a policy of doing a brief check of the weather near the top of every show, while others simply tease the weather report coming up in a later block, unless severe weather is imminent. Whoever is doing the weather usually has a small control device in his/her hand, which will change the CGI content being used. It is easier for the air talent to do it, since the CG operator might have to guess when to change given that there isn’t an actual script.

So, what’s the top story of the day? Sometimes the answer is easy. For example, if you work in a small market station (where most reporters begin their careers), where there is little hard news, you may only have one big news event a day. (Some days you may not have any, and you might have to lead with weather.) Generally, crimes, accidents, fires, and any type of new legislation from local government are all good contenders for the top spot.

If you have multiple options, you should usually start with crimes or accidents that involve death or serious injury, in that order. If there is more than one such event, go with the one that involves more people, if possible. This also works when you have multiple less-serious events, such as car accidents—if there were no deaths or injuries, a four-car pile-up beats a two-car fender-bender.

The rest of the A block should follow roughly the same pattern, going from serious accidents/crimes to more minor offenses or accidents. Local government news might go anywhere in the A block, depending on how important it is to a large number of viewers—typical city council meetings might warrant a brief mention near the end of the A block, but if a new law has been passed, that story might be closer to the front of the show. It could even lead if there was no other hard news to report. On the other hand, if the mayor was just arrested for purchasing the services of a prostitute or embezzling city funds, that story should be near the top of the show, if not the lead.

Should it be the lead? This can be a tough call. Will the majority of people be more interested in the mayor’s arrest than a story about a family killed in a car accident? Obviously both stories are newsworthy, but which one should you lead with? The car accident is sad, and involved multiple deaths, but the majority of viewers don’t personally know the victims, and won’t be directly affected. On the other hand, almost everyone knows of the mayor, who shapes or influences policies and laws all residents of the city are expected to follow. In this case, it might make more sense to lead with the local government corruption story, and follow with the car accident story.

In general, if you’re having a hard time choosing an order for two topics, it’s a good idea to think about how many people will be affected by each one, and put the story you think affects more of the viewing audience first. Some stations also take a cue from social media, teasing several stories for the upcoming newscast on Twitter or Facebook. If there is no clear-cut lead story, you can look at which one gathered more comments/shares/re-tweets to gauge audience interest.

The Rest of the Show

The rest of the show is usually divided into three or four blocks. These can vary by station, but usually one is dedicated to weather, another to national news and/or human interest type stories, and another to sports.

Weather is fairly easy to block, as the meteorologist usually ad-libs and doesn’t need any scripts. He or she will let the graphics operator know what needs to appear on the green screen, and in what order. Similarly, the sports director usually chooses the order of stories in his or her block and relays that to the producer.

The national news block should go in order of importance, although national stories, by nature, are important to most viewers. Deaths of VIPs or tragedies involving mass casualties usually lead. As we discussed in a previous article, if you end on a lighter story, try to add a more neutral topic in the middle for an easier transition.

The final block is usually brief, and involves a quick check of the weather, followed by what’s called a kicker—video of an upbeat event so the show can end on a pleasant note. Concerts, fairs, sporting events, spelling bees and other school events all make good kicker video. If there’s time (like on a slow news day), try a lighthearted national story—new world records, or human-interest stories about people doing anything unusual are good topics. The most important thing about the kicker is to have plenty of cover video, which will usually continue after the anchors sign off until the next commercial or network program rolls.

Other Considerations

In addition to choosing an order for stories, you will also need to write technical instructions for the director and production crew, letting them know what video and audio need to be “punched up” at any given time. This allows camera operators to prepare their shots, graphics operators to get graphics ready, audio operators to plan when to open and close mics, and the director to be prepared for all of the above. These technical considerations will be discussed in more detail in a future article.

[su_note]Learn more about the School of Broadcast Journalism at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.[/su_note]