The Life of a Television News Production Assistant

It’s 3am on a Saturday. My friends are either at twenty-four diners or crashing after a long night of barhopping. My alarm clock is going off. I swipe blindly at the clock, my phone, and everything else in that general vicinity, trying to find and severely punish the source of the noise. Then my sleep-deprived brain realizes that it’s not just some awful disruption – it’s time to get up.

Feeling rather like a coma patient waking for the first time, I sit up. My eyes burn. No contacts today, that’s for sure. Even though I’ve been at this early morning stuff for five-plus months, that wake up call doesn’t get any easier.

I’m fresh out of college and I’ve got my first real job in the industry I went to school for. During college, I’d spent some time as a professional unpaid intern, and it seemed that efforts have finally paid off. I’m a Production Assistant on the morning newscast at a local station. It’s a pretty big station. It’s in the fourth-largest television market in the country, actually. And I love my job – most of the time.

For those of you who don’t know, a Production Assistant (commonly called a PA) is sort of like the glorified servant of the business. If you want to work in TV or film, chances are very good that you’ll start as a PA. It’s half a step up from an intern – you’re getting paid, but you’re also getting copies and sometimes coffee or diet Cokes.

The good news: it’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of the business. You’ll get to meet lots of people, see lots of things, and learn plenty. The bad news: you have as much power as a Moped. But it’s an easy way to get rich quick. And that, my friends, is called sarcasm.

So, I get up and dressed, and by this point I’ve even got one eye mostly open. I drive into work, praying that I don’t fall asleep at the wheel or get sideswiped by some half-drunk college kid on the way home from a night out. More good news, though: there’s no traffic at 4am!

And there are day and night shifts, as well. But strangely, I like the morning shift. I had a friend compare the shock of waking up that early to getting shot every morning, and it’s a surprisingly accurate analogy. But once I’m up, it’s not so bad. And I have afternoons off. So what if I regularly get the Early Bird Special dinners with the old folks? Maybe I like going to bed before dark. You don’t know otherwise.

At my station, PA’s are responsible for “ripping” scripts – a term held over from the olden days when printers used those long reams of attached paper with the holes on the sides and each page had to be torn apart. Now we just sort the scripts for the director and each anchor – which sounds deceptively easy. It’s actually a very important job. This isn’t sarcasm – the anchors need their scripts to be in perfect order.

We PA’s also run the teleprompter. It’s a scintillating, thrilling job. Well, no. It’s kind of boring, but it’s also really important. And you get to sit in the studio and observe the action, which is pretty cool. Just use it as a way to learn more about television production. You’re behind the scenes!

When I’m not doing the scripts or working in the studio, I’m answering phones at the assignment desk. If you want to see stress, stop by a newsroom assignment desk in the early morning or mid-afternoon. I have so much respect for the Assignment Editors – I’d have daily panic attacks in their position. They are responsible for keeping abreast of all the news and checking for updates on stories with the police, hospitals, or families involved. They also make sure that every photographer and reporter knows their assignments for the day. And when the reporter has a problem (or gets lost on the way to their live shot), who do you think they call?

And station employees aren’t the only ones that call the assignment desk. There are also public relations people calling to see if we’re coming to this or that event, other TV stations looking for video, and viewers calling the tip line with breaking news stories. And then there are the crazies. Some people love to call and just chat. We have a few regulars and plenty of anonymous callers who either want to rant and rave, whine about their problems, or just have someone listen to them. Let me put it this way: I know for a fact that there are several mental hospitals in the area with our phone number.

We sort and deliver the mail and screen the hundreds of press releases the station recieves. We’re also responsible for organizing a show segment called “Baby’s First Birthday.” The PA’s take care of any other miscellaneous task that needs to be done, so we have to be prepared for anything. Our job description? Someone says “jump” and we don’t even wait to ask how high. We just leap for the stars.

Being a PA is a great way to get a foot in the door if you want to work in this business. It’s certainly not the job you want for the rest of your life, but everyone’s got to start somewhere. And there’s no business like show business! Or so I’m told.

My advice to you? If you know you like the media and you get offered this gig, take it. If the hours are awful, don’t stress, because they won’t last forever. If the pay is low, remember that you can only go up from there. When you’re on the job, smile and be willing to take on any task, no matter how menial. Even if they’re asking you to stuff envelopes, whoever was supposed to do it will appreciate your help – and they’ll remember you when your time comes. Learn everything you can. Talk to everyone you meet.

And always bear in mind that the big guys crawled their way to the top, too. Now go to bed. You have to get up early in the morning.

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