Work Experience 32: Today Show Producer
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to work behind the scenes of a television studio?
Although I’ve always been intrigued about the world of television, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I’d have the chance to do just that. If this year-long adventure has taught me anything though it’s to expect the unexpected, seek out opportunities and jump at them when they present themselves.
Late last year I was interviewed about my 40 40 Experience as part of a career change segment on the Today Show. It was filmed on location at Ripley Fire Station, where I’d been ‘stationed’ for Work Experience Job 11 as a Firefighter. Fast forward a few months and I was amazed to be offered the chance to spend three days at the Today Show studios in Sydney with the show’s busy but very welcoming production team. What an exciting adventure it was going to be!
What did I do?
It was a lovely 9am start for me at the Channel 9 studios on my first day, the perfect way to ease in to life in morning television. The Today Show airs from 5.30am to 9am each weekday, so it would’ve been a bit of a shock to arrive before filming kicked off on my first day! After passing through security I met my fabulous new boss, Today Show Chief of Staff Erin Bouda. Erin introduced me to the morning production team and took me on a quick tour of the building (nobody walks slowly in that place!). She pointed out the Today Show, Today Extra, Weekends and News production team areas, the graphics team, and a small studio where Today Extra is filmed. Through the rabbit warren that is the Channel 9 studios (there are many corridors and stairwells to get lost in) Erin walked me through the Green Room, gave me a quick glimpse of the hair, makeup and dressing rooms, and pointed out the Channel 9 café.
Returning back upstairs it was time for the post-show team meeting, which was run by Erin and Director of Morning Television Mark Calvert. Also included in the meeting were presenters Georgie Gardner and Sylvia Jeffreys, who’d just stepped off set after three and a half hours in front of the cameras (and were still looking as fresh as daisies), as well as the production team which was made up of segment, social media, meet and greet and supervising producers. It was a bit surreal for me to be sitting in that room at first, but I was handed an agenda and made to feel like one of the team from the get-go.
The main purpose of the 9.30 meeting was to discuss the day’s show (things that went really well, and anything that perhaps could have been improved), mention what had been happening on social media (hot topics/opinions), run through the following day’s program with each of the segment producers giving a quick description of their segment and where they were up to with it, identify any gaps that needed to be filled in the program and what they’d be filled with, and then to pitch ideas for upcoming stories, topics or issues that the Today Show could cover in future episodes. I found the final discussion particularly interesting, as people were bouncing around ideas based on something they may have seen or read, or that could perhaps stem from a previous story they’d covered. As an Australia-wide program, a good story for the Today Show is one that is relevant to viewers nationally, so that’s something that always needs to be considered. I felt comfortable enough to join the conversation and throw in a couple of thoughts of my own! I’m not saying they were good ideas of course, but suggestions were definitely welcomed. After the buzz of the team meeting, it was time for everyone to split up and get to work.
My first job was to shadow segment producer Ashley, who was working on a ‘Today’s Agenda’ segment about the difficulties older Australians can face when trying to gain employment (a particularly pertinent topic to me as you can imagine). Aged Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson and Adzuna CEO Raife Watson had been secured to discuss the topic with Georgie live in the studio, but Ashley was looking for a member of the public who’d be prepared to share their experiences as an older job seeker on camera. I googled Sydney job agencies and groups that specifically targeted older workers with the hopes of finding the right person, while Ashley did the same and followed up with phone calls. She ended up finding a willing participant interstate and organised for a local film crew to make their way out to pre-record an interview with her in preparation for the segment the following day.
Next I spent time beside segment producer Zoe, who was finishing off a segment she’d been producing on how people can avoid internet and phone scams. Zoe showed me the ENPS program the production team use to create each segment brief. This brief included important information for the segment such as the date and time it was due to air, the amount of on-air time allocated for the segment, studio booking time, guest details (name, job title, contact numbers etc), overlay vision to be used (vision without sound), SOT (short clips with sound), graphics required and supers (writing that’s shown on screen). It also included the host’s brief, which was a two-line introduction in addition to a few key points and guiding questions for the hosts. Zoe had previously chatted to the Today Show’s technology expert Trevor Long, who would be doing the interview live from San Francisco, about the topic of scams. She used some of the information she’d gained to help her write the introduction and guiding questions. Zoe emailed the graphics team to request graphics required for the segment. Once they were completed Zoe reviewed the graphics as they’d be seen during the segment, and asked for a couple of small changes to be made to the layout of the images. After the brief was finalised, Zoe added it to the schedule for the show. It was really great to see how the process worked, before watching as the segment went to air the following day.
Soon after the afternoon production team arrived for their 2pm-10pm shift it was time for another meeting run by Mark and Erin. This meeting, which involved the whole production team, started with a discussion about news headlines and other issues that had popped up throughout the day. Again we ran through the schedule for the next day’s show, and I noticed that many of the small gaps in the program from earlier in the day had been filled. The morning producers talked about the progress they’d made with their segments, and the afternoon producers shared what they’d be working on throughout their shift. There was also an opportunity for the afternoon team to pitch any ideas for future stories before the meeting wrapped up. I had a good idea at this stage how the show was going to look.
I shadowed Zoe for the rest of the afternoon, watching on as she finalised a second segment. Day producers usually have between one and three segments to work on during a shift, whereas the afternoon production team can be responsible for up to 5 to 6 shorter segments.
When my kids were little it was normal for me to start my day before first light. I fondly remember the day my youngest slept through until 5am for the first time…bliss! I was reminded of those early starts on Day 2 of my work experience at the Today Show. My alarm woke me at 4.15am, and after a few presses of the snooze button I was up and at ‘em and ready to go at the studio at 5.30am (well…let’s just say a quick stop with the hair and makeup team wouldn’t have gone astray).
My day was spent with Meet and Greet producer Floyd, whose shift had begun at 4.00am. Prior to my arrival Floyd had collected the daily newspapers for the hosts to flick through, taken coffee and food orders for the hosts as well as the production team, helped set up props with the stage team, produced the morning weather after checking with the bureau, and formatted and sent out the studio guest list. Another one of Floyd’s tasks throughout the earlier part of the morning was to get in touch with the morning’s guests to make sure they’re awake and on track to arrive at the studio on time. Male guests are required 30-40 minutes prior to their scheduled interview and female guests an hour before, to allow time for their hair and makeup to be done.
Our morning together began with a quick tour of the control room and a peek into the studio. Hosts Georgie, Karl and Sylvia were chatting behind the desk while being beamed into hundreds of thousands of homes around Australia, and in some ways it felt like I was watching them on TV myself rather than in real life.
The studio was much bigger than I thought it’d be, with row after row of lighting overhead and a number of cameras and crew on the floor.
Floyd and I then headed to the café where the coffee machine was getting a workout. We picked up the coffee and breakfast orders at exactly 6.07am, which gave us time to deliver breakfast to Mark in the control room and Dickie (Richard Wilkins) in his dressing room before being ready on set with the hosts’ orders. These were delivered as soon as filming paused for an ad break. I’m so glad Floyd didn’t ask me to hand the hosts their coffees. I probably would’ve tripped on a cable in my excitement (and lack of waitressing skill) and spilt the lot – and Georgie was wearing white!
Back up stairs, around corners and through hallways to the café, we picked up the producers’ breakfasts and delivered them to the control room, before taking a break and eating our own breakfast. I had a bit of order envy though when I saw some of the other breakfasts that came out of the kitchen…it all looked delicious! More juice and coffee deliveries to the control room and on-set began, and as we walked Floyd joked that the hosts and producers were just like pets. Ha!
While the show was being broadcast I shadowed Floyd as she greeted guests in the reception area and led them to the Green Room, to hair and makeup and then to the studio when they were ready. I offered to walk one of the guests out after his appearance but got (just a little) lost along the way. Woops! I thought I’d mastered the hallways and stairwells by then. Luckily the guest had been there before so knew the way better than I did.
I spent about an hour in the studio watching the hosts as they chatted to each other or to the cameras, saw the Today Show’s mascot ‘Cash-a-roo’ dancing during the daily cash giveaway (unfortunately the viewer didn’t answer her phone so missed out), and watched as the set was changed for different segments by the stage crew. At one point a mountain of McDonalds Big Macs, special sauce and chicken nuggets were wheeled in to celebrate the Big Mac’s 50thbirthday. I’m pretty sure Karl ate about 10 nuggets during that segment (and maybe one extra when the camera stopped rolling) which was hilarious, and of course some of the crew were happy to munch on a burger once the segment was over. It was really interesting to see Zoe’s segment go live to air, including Georgie’s discussion with the guests about the difficulties older job seekers can face.
At 9am when the show wrapped I had a brief chat and photo with the hosts while they were still sitting behind their desk. It cracks me up every time I see this picture as it looks like I was photoshopped in. I was there I promise!
At 9.30 Floyd and I went to the morning production meeting, which followed the same format as the previous day. Afterwards Floyd disappeared to do some post-show tasks, while I again shadowed the segment producers. Erin was looking into doing a story on Father Rod Bower from the Gosford Anglican Church, who has become known for his creative billboards. She asked me to call him to ask him a few questions about his signs and whether he’d be interested in a live interview in an upcoming segment. Although I was a bit nervous about calling out of the blue, I had a lovely chat with Father Bower. He was more than happy to be filmed for a live interview, and I thought he’d be great. I passed some of his responses on to Erin, who then assigned the segment to one of the producers. The story, including a live interview, went to air the following day. Everything happens quickly at the Today Show!
I arrived at the Channel 9 studios at 5am on my final day of work experience, to be met by Tim (cameraman) and Sam (sound technician) ready for a shoot on location. The aim of the segment, which aired later in the month, was to compare Coles and Woolworths online shopping prices, service and quality. We headed off in the dark to the home of a young family in Miranda, a suburb in Sydney’s south. The reason for the early start was because grocery deliveries were due to arrive at the home between 6am and 9am. As soon as we arrived Tim and Sam set up their camera, light and sound equipment inside the home and on the front patio, as well as attaching small microphones on the clothes of mum Christie and Today Show reporter Lara Vella.
After that it was a waiting game until the first delivery arrived at about 6.50am. It was interesting to look on while everything unfolded. The delivery drivers had no idea they’d be filmed so the first driver didn’t knock, instead leaving the groceries just outside the front door. Luckily the hidden camera on the patio was there to capture him. Tim and Sam, who’d been waiting in anticipation inside the front door to film his entrance, were a bit disappointed I think. I suggested they chase him just for the fun of it, but we all took up our waiting positions again instead. About an hour later the second delivery driver arrived. She smiled and carried on with her delivery, even bringing all of the bags into the kitchen for Christie, as though the lights, cameras and microphones weren’t there. I’m certain I would’ve laughed and asked questions if I were her! After the deliveries were made, unpacked and displayed on the kitchen bench perfectly for the camera, Tim recorded Lara chatting with Christie about the different products before food expert Kristen Beck assessed the quality of the produce.
Much of the filming was done on the first take, but the beauty of this segment being pre-recorded meant there could be more than one take if required. Any mistakes or unnecessary footage could be easily edited out post production. As the only cameraman, Tim also filmed some close ups, of the bananas and avocados for example, to be edited into the segment later on.
Filming wrapped up just before 10am, and we arrived back at the Channel 9 studios at about 11, 6 hours after our shift began. Time for a coffee!
What did I learn?
There’s a lot of work that goes on behind-the-scenes of a program like the Today Show understandably, as it airs for three and a half hours a day, five days a week. I was amazed at how big the production team was and enjoyed learning about the roles everyone played. I also found it interesting how quickly things got done, which is essential in such a deadline driven industry. Once an idea was given the green light it was full steam ahead!
The thing I loved most about being in the Today Show office was seeing how collaboratively the team worked. Although everyone focussed predominantly on their own tasks, they were all there to help each other. It really needed to be that way, in order to produce such a high quality program.
To watch the clips that I’ve mentioned above, click on the links below:
To gain further insight into the role of a Today Show segment producer, read my interview with Zoe Hunt here.