Home > Uncategorized > I Blame Smuckers: A Cautionary Tale

I Blame Smuckers: A Cautionary Tale

-first posted at RTDNA.org on January 26, 2010

My blood ran cold while traveling a few weeks back as I sat in my hotel room and checked in on the station web site to see how things were looking.  As our rotator ran through our top stories, the worst four words a news director can ever see on his site popped into view.

“Woman Celebrates 100th Birthday”

There it was.  There was no denying it.  The station—in the absence of my wisdom and guidance—had covered a 100-year-old’s birthday party.  Did they know the havoc they had called forth with this story?  Could they even begin to understand the unspeakable horrors that would come from this one, senseless act?

Veteran news directors, read no further.  Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve already lived through this horror.  There’s no reason for you to relive it again in what I write below. Save yourself and click away now.

But you younger readers out there, dare to forge ahead.  The tale I’ll tell is not a pretty one, but hearing it now could save you from the living nightmare this sort of story can bring.

How, you may wonder, can covering someone who’s spent a century on this earth lead to so much dread?  Let me tell you, this threat is very real.  Covering a 100-year-old’s birthday changes you, your managers, and your station—forever.   Sure, it seems innocent enough.  Perhaps, you’d even consider it kind.  But it’s the cruelest thing you’ll ever do professionally.  How, you might ask, is this cruel?  Showing a person reaching the milestone of 100 years has got to be an act of celebration, not cruelty.  In that, you would be right.  Show one person would be a fun story.  But you can never show just one.

Do the math with me for a moment.  The latest estimates put the total number of centenarians in the U.S. population at about 72,000.    That’s an average of 1,440 per state.  Worse yet, that’s an average of 346 per television market. New York would have more, of course, and Glendive would have fewer.  But look out Lincoln/Hastings, Nebraska.  As the median market in population, you’re looking 346 right in the wrinkled face.  That means those mid-sized markets are going to do just about one hundredth birthday celebration every day.  In Philadelphia, prepare for ten a day.  The numbers are staggering.

Now, I’m way ahead of you here.  You’re saying to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to cover that sort of story every day.”  Fair enough.  But how do you choose which birthdays to cover and which to skip?  You know, the birthday boys and girls probably wouldn’t mind it a bit if you ignored their big days and didn’t send out that camera.  But it’s not them you need to worry about.  It’s their kids.

That’s right.  You have not lived as a news director until you’ve received the angry phone call of the 78-year-old son of a local centenarian who’s birthday you just skipped covering.  There is no good excuse you can give that will get that person off the phone.  He’ll look at every other story you did in the newscasts that day and declare them inferior in news value to the anniversary of the birth of his mother or father. You just cannot win that one.

What’s worse, once someone lives to the ripe old age of 100, they have a lot of progeny.  Skip that party and you’ll hear from children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and every other person remotely related to the person reaching the milestone.  I even heard one time from the big brother of a woman turning 100, complaining we did not cover her party (he was 102 at the time).

I blame Smuckers and Willard Scott for getting us into this mess.  It was probably 25 or more years ago that someone at the Today Show got the idea to plaster faces on jelly jars and have Willard struggle with their names.  It was the television equivalent of feeding a stray cat.  Once you do it once, it just keeps coming back.  Willard and the jelly people created a TV birthday culture anyone with a relative nearing 100 thinks about.  They plan a party, hope for a mention on the Today Show, and settle for local TV just in case.  The problem is, they’re not calling Willard Scott if he doesn’t do his part.  They just call us.

Young reporters, heed my words.  You do NOT want to head to the local retirement home when the call on that birthday party comes in.  I tell my reporters they should never lie.  So keep a good enterprise story in your back pocket you can use as an excuse when those 100th birthday feelers come in.  You’ll thank me for this advice some day.

P.S.: So far, the story we ran hasn’t caused any serious repercussions.  But I still duck down in my car when a Buick drives by.  I never know who’s looking for me.

  1. January 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Certainly hope your tongue was planted firmly in your cheek when you wrote this. While there may be more than 72,000 people in the United States who have lived more than 100 years, the percentage of those who are celebrating their 100th birthday in any given year is smaller. And it is those people whose birthdays are being celebrated – not those who are 101, or 102, or 110.

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