This is Caroline Sommers

I just edited a new sizzle reel. In preparation, I re-watched dozens of my old (and some new) stories, trying to suss out a few of my favorite moments. In the process, I was struck by how many different skills a television producer brings to the table. These skills are so baked in after so many years, we probably take them for granted–or don’t even realize we have them at all. We’re adaptable, creative, clever, nimble, scrappy—in fact as I searched up a synonym for “clever,” I had to smile. Almost every synonym applied. Foxy!🦊

Producers are storytellers. And in the field, we’re problem-solvers. We have a limited number of shoot days and the clock is always ticking. Murphy’s Law will invariably rear its ugly head: a key interview bails out at the last second. A car gets stuck in the mud. The crew is getting dive-bombed by mosquitoes. An angry mob is starting to gather. Someone needs a two-legged goat in San Luis Obispo by 4:00. (That last one may or may not be urban legend.) Point is, something will always go wrong, the producer (often with the support of the senior producer back home) will fix it, and the show makes air.

The show always makes air. And when it’s over we have great stories to tell over a beer or three.

One of the things my stories have in common is the process of creating them. Here’s how it goes: I get on a plane, land in a location I’ve likely never set foot in before, pick up a local crew, find my way around, meet people I’ve never met before, convince them to confide in me – on camera, for national television – and then come home and figure out how to whittle many hours of interview and b-roll down into a concise, compelling 43 minutes of television. It takes surgical precision to write an artful script on a tight deadline. This is what we do. But what I’ve just described is only about half the process. Now we have to track down visuals to match the words we’ve written, to help tell the story. This means convincing folks to entrust us with their scrapbooks, videos of lost loved ones, and other cherished personal items. It means cajoling and sweet-talking law enforcement agencies into providing never-seen-before surveillance tape. It means tracking down elusive archival footage.

Most people wouldn’t be able to do this if you gave them 10 years. For a producer, it’s second nature. (But then again, you could give me 10 years and I couldn’t do your taxes or take out your gall bladder.)

Here’s a snapshot of the stories on my reel and an anecdote or two about each that illustrates the skill sets used in their creation:

The FBI Declassified: Saving Ethan (CBS, 2020): We shot this story in Dothan, Alabama in November 2019 and the locals could not have been more hospitable. I always connect well with people, but it helped that I went down a couple of weeks before the shoot – without a camera crew. Breaking bread with people, you start to get to know them and build a comfort level. As a producer, I highly recommend it. As a senior producer, I highly recommend approving it…even if it’s a bit of a budget buster.

Fatal Familial Insomnia (HLN, 2017): For this story I set up and conducted an international shoot covering highly complex medical subject matter. While I was in the writing/editing phase, my mother passed away. I can’t tell you how devastating this was. And yet…the show came in on time and on budget. My dad passed away two years later while I was in production on another show, NCIS: The Cases They’ll Never Forget, for CBS. That story got done too, on time and on budget. It’s so sad. But as my dad used to tell me, “No one lives forever.” I’m a professional and life has to go on.

Who is Donald Trump? (A&E, 2015): In preparation for this hour, I had to read two fat biographies in a very short amount of time, learn multitudes of details about then-candidate Trump, and inform myself enough to interview not only those two biographers, but 28 other people: former business colleagues, friends and family. No voiceover, all interview. Along with a very talented team, I turned that show around in a matter of weeks.

Why Planes Crash: Collision Course (MSNBC, 2013): When Captain Chesley Sullenberger ditched US Air Flight 1549 in the Hudson on that freezing cold day in January 2009, I literally up and ran to the scene from 30 Rock. My aviation obsession was well known to colleagues at NBC, so when the powers-that-be decided a couple of weeks later to do a special report, I was tapped to produce it. My first thought: the Sully story was getting so much coverage, I’d better do something different. This couldn’t have been the first plane to ditch, I reckoned. Sure enough, there were several other cases, including a DC-9 that went down in the Caribbean in 1970, the hijacking of an Ethiopian Airlines 767 in 1996, and Pan Am Flight 6, which ditched in the Pacific Ocean in 1956.

Identifying those incidents was one thing; locating interview subjects who could talk about them was another. But I was determined. (See above: “inventive.”) I found the pilot of the DC-9 on Facebook, through his grandson, who had the same unusual name: Balsey DeWitt. I tracked down and interviewed Salim Amin, the son of Mohamed Amin, one of the victims of the Ethiopian crash. Salim had recently made a movie, Mo & Me, about his father, who’d been a legendary journalist in Africa and was a hero in the hijacking. And, incredibly, I found Joanne Marzioli, a therapist outside of San Francisco, who was three years old when she was rescued from the Pan Am ditching in 1956. There is footage of the rescue and we obtained it (if memory serves) from the U.S. Coast Guard. Although Joanne was too young to remember the incident, it was emotional for her to see the footage and relive it.

The segment, Brace For Impact, with its graphic animations, was such a success, MSNBC ended up commissioning a dozen more episodes.

One of them – Why Planes Crash: Collision Course – is near and dear to my heart. Because it included a story I had chased for years. In 2006 there was a terrifying midair collision over Brazil that resulted in 154 fatalities. Joe Sharkey was one of only seven who survived. Ever since I read the astounding article he wrote about it for the New York Times, I wanted to help him tell his story on television. We started talking in 2008 and it took four years to convince MSNBC to say yes. Thankfully, the client was willing to invest $100K in top-notch CGI for each episode. In order to produce that level of animation, of course I had to understand the mechanics of, well, why planes crash. I could not have done that without NBC’s amazing aviation analyst John Cox, who has since, along with his wife, become a dear friend. (So has Joe.) I also had help from another aviation expert, he of the multicolored ties, Greg Feith. The animations were heart-stopping—so realistic, in fact, we had to put up a slate every time they came on explaining that this was not actual footage of the incident.

Joe Sharkey had been planning to write a book about his experience, but when my story aired, he told me it was so well told, it laid to rest his need to write the book. He says he shows that episode to his journalism students at the University of Arizona as an example of some of the best journalism out there.

Best Jobs Ever (CNBC, 2010): It was a very proud moment for me when I was able to convince CNBC, a serious business network, to incorporate animations – cartoons, essentially – into this hour. The story featured here is about Los Angeles surf shaper Ryan Harris. I had seen the work of an animator named William Levin and really loved it. We met, and I decided on the spot I had to work with him. How, where, when, I didn’t know. When I was tapped to produce this hour for CNBC, I knew this was the moment. I pitched the idea, figuring the executive producer would think I was a nut. To his credit, he said yes. I think the result lent the show a playful vibe that made it stand apart from just about anything else I’d ever seen, certainly on CNBC.

Whistleblower: The Case Against Abanks Mortuary (CBS, 2019): Well, all I can say is it helps when your main character is a total character, which Alabama funeral director/embalmer Barry Taul certainly is. What a nice man. He deserved every penny of his settlement for the hell he went through. And somehow he maintains a sense of (gallows) humor about his ordeal. Folks like that make my job enjoyable—and easy. Shooters like the amazing Leigh Hubner make it even easier.

Born in the Wrong Body: Girls Will Be Boys (MSNBC, 2008): After I created and named this series, MSNBC commissioned several more episodes. For one of them I decided to focus on trans men. I set myself a seemingly impossible task: find three biological females who were making the final surgical transition to male. A good producer can make just about anything happen, but I surprised even myself on this one: Not only did I find three great characters, but they were all having their surgeries performed on the same day, in the same hospital, by the same doctor…a female who was born male. Got all that? It was sort of like finding the holy grail.

Two or so days into filming with my team in Trinidad, Colorado, where this was all taking place, I got a call from home that my husband was in serious condition in the hospital. I had to fly home, tend to him and my two (then) young children, and manage the shoot remotely. We got the job done, and thankfully my husband was okay. And the show got noticed…

When writing this, I recalled that Girls Will Be Boys was a runner-up in the TV Journalism Newsmagazine category at the 19th GLAAD Media Awards. We lost to a Barbara Walters report on 20/20. But what I didn’t know – until right now – is that it was awarded first place in the Excellence in Network Television category by the Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Twelve years later, I had no idea we were ever even nominated for that!

Dead Men Talking: Eternal Neighbors (MSNBC, 2008): In the summer of 2008, NBC sent me to Michigan to run a team of fellow videojournalists embedded with the Macomb County Medical Examiner. We worked in eight-hour shifts, filming 24/7 with the M.E.’s investigators. When they got a call, we got a call. One of us would jump out of bed, meet up with the investigator, and ride shotgun to wherever the death had just taken place. With camera in hand, we would have to approach the grieving family. Can you imagine? “Hello sir or ma’am, I’m from NBC. We’re doing a story about the medical examiner. I’m deeply sorry for your loss but would you mind if I film in your home?” Needless to say, the first few attempts did not go well. But after that, we somehow figured out the right words, the right rap, and more families than not allowed us to film. When MSNBC sent us to Michigan, we were told to get whatever we could in the few weeks we were in the morgue. The network would’ve been happy with one hour. We shot enough material to fill three. And they were damn good hours. Smelly, but good.

Shooting Stars: The New York Paparazzi (A&E, 1999): When I was a producer for Extra, I covered the red carpet and celebrity beat. Every night I would see the same surly pack of paparazzi elbowing each other trying to get a shot of the big celebrities of the day. I was fascinated by these oddballs and wanted to know what made them tick. The best way to do that, I figured, was to embed with them, and chase the same celebrities—while chasing them (the photographers). I percolated this idea in my head for two years and finally got to produce it when a boss pitched it to A&E in 1998. For six months I worked alongside that bunch and boy, did some of those people hate me. I was attacked, scratched and threatened, but still I forced myself to stand there alongside them every night. The result was a compelling hour of television that went beyond the red carpet, step-and-repeat scene and into the homes and lives of four “paps.” It’s still one of my favorite hours because of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it.

Is that not an impressive array of skills, I ask you? Can they not be pivoted to any number of related industries? And how about those synonyms (see top)? I don’t know that I’d put “sagacious” on my resume, but let’s talk about “resourceful” for one more quick second. One time I was trying to track down a serial killer’s sister in Zephyrhills, Florida for Inside Edition. This is way before the Internet; I didn’t even have an address for the woman. I stopped by the Zephyrhills Police Department to see if they’d tell me where she lived. They said they were under strict instructions from the woman to not divulge her information if the press came looking for her. Let’s just say I ended up with a police escort straight to her house. And I got the interview.

Resourceful? If I had to pick a famous quote to describe TV producers, it’s this old saw from Jim Morrison:

I am the lizard king. I can do anything.

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