• Embrace The New Technology – Like In The Olden Days

    May 29th, 2009

    I’ve been in this business for four decades – and have gone through some amazing technological changes in delivering the news on television.   In my day – we were excited about – and embraced – the new technology.  That’s why I find it curious that the current TV news generation seems to be somewhat afraid – or at the very least intimidated – by the new technology and the changes it brings to their lives. 

     This is a truly an exciting time to be in local television news – you have the opportunity to quickly deliver the news to people like never before.  Your reporting can be instant – and you can also quickly get reaction from your customers.   So, I say – embrace the new technology - like we did in the olden days!    Back then – we had a blast with the constant technological advances.   Just thinking about it rekindles some fun memories of  television equipment nearly 40 years ago.   Some of you old-timers will enjoy the journey into the past – you younger folks will most likely just shake your heads.  But please keep reading.

    I started in local TV news while I was a radio station news director in Green Bay, and a stringer for WLUK-TV there using the old Bolex  silent film camera with a three-lens turret – no zoom here.  Then I started working for WLUK fulltime, and along came a marvelous new film camera called the CP-16.  It was the first self-contained news film camera with built-in audio controls.  Before that you wore a rig with a shoulder brace that held an audio device and the camera.    With the advent of the CP-16 the old heavy brace was tossed away and this small shoulder camera went everywhere.

    We were fortunate at WLUK in those days because we were allowed to use a full 400-foot reel of film for one story.  It gave us ten minutes of film time for interviews and cover shots.   The competition had to shoot their stories in a maximum of 200 feet – a mere five minutes total.   Back in those film days a reporter had to be a master of the “pre-interview.”   You would talk to the subject of your story and ask them some questions without the camera – and then find the right nuggets to be asked again with the camera rolling.   Old folks were always a problem.  When you re-asked them the right question with the camera rolling they would invariably say – “I already answered that. “   Geez!

    Now when you returned to the station with your story you had to sit around and wait until the film processor was fired up.  This was usually late in the afternoon because it was expensive to run so most of the film was run at the same time.  In Green Bay, our film processor dude also sold day-old donuts, and made an annual trek to Colorado – bringing back Coors beer (to help pay for his trip) that he would sell to us since it was not available east of the Rockies back in the day.  Some days the dryer on the film processor would break down and film was strung down the hallways to dry.

    Once you finally received your developed film you would look in a tiny viewfinder (not much bigger than the screen on a iPod) to select your scenes for the story.  You used a cheap headset to listen to the interviews and then mark with a grease pencil on the film where the soundbite began and ended.  Then came the tricky part – you used a little magnetic tool to erase the sound before and after your interview – hoping you wouldn’t slip and erase an important part of the soundbite.

    Now it got even trickier.  You had all your film clips hanging on a rack and it was time to glue them together to form the story.  If you didn’t get new glue each day the splices would not hold and your film would break while it was playing on air.   At WLUK we did A-B rolls with the scenes on the A reel and the interview on the B reel so the person’s soundbite could be covered by a filmed scene.   Once your story was finished – you gave the A and B reels to a person who would put together a “gang reel” for the newscast – hopefully putting all the A-B reels in the right order.   Sometimes though – your A reel would play with another reporter’s B reel.  Now that was a mess!

    The next marvel came in 1976 in the form of the TK-76 a revolutionary video camera.  No more film!  No more A-B rolls!  You could actually playack an interview on the spot to be sure you had it!   You could roll on an interview without doing the old “pre-interview” because video tape could be re-used.   The TK-76 quickly made the CP-16 obsolete.

    That same year came ENG – we could actually go live from the scene.  At WLUK,  I was charged with coming up with live shots every night to show off this new technology.  I had the honor of doing the first ever live shot in Green Bay television – at a prison farm that was going to be auctioned off the next day.  Not exactly riveting television.    We also did something very curious back then – the live camera was “gen-locked” to the TV station.   Now – I’m not an engineer – but I do know that meant that if we turned off our camera – the TV station would go off the air.  Bizarre!

    A few years later when I was news director at WGR-TV (now WGRZ-TV) in Buffalo, we did the first satellite broadcast in the market as our anchor man used an NBC satellite to broadcast live from the Democratic Convention in New York.  We thought that was very cool despite being ripped off by the NYC unions.  This was 1980 – and it cost us $200 every time we wanted an extension cord plugged into a wall receptacle.

    Spin forward a few years and now I am news director at KPNX-TV in Phoenix and we get the first satellite truck in the market – and do the first satellite live shot in Arizona.   It was from a resort – again not really exciting television.  But it opened the door on all kinds of live, on the scene coverage that was not available to us before then. 

    It also resulted in an interesting event.  During the changing of government leadership in a Mexico border town a news crew from our competition in Phoenix had been kidnapped.  We rolled our sat truck down for the story, while the competition was forced to charter an airplane to get the video back for their noon newscast.  Well, seconds before the noon newscast the news crew from our competition was released – and we had them live on our noon newscast.  Their own TV station had to do a reader on the situation.   The news director called me and asked for a copy of the newscast.  He sent it to his corporate folks and a sat truck was soon on the way to his station to stay competitive.

    Well, that’s enough reminicising for this blog.   But I hope you get my message.  We were a bit intimidated by this new technology too – and many reporters back in the day were horrible on – and scared to death – of doing live shots.  But it became part of their new job description.  Your job descripition is in disruption right now – but if you embrace the new technology – you will be more valuable than ever to your newsroom.  Go for it!

    Jim

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  • Mixing Local News and Local Views

    May 12th, 2009

    At AR&D we are great believers in the power of social media.   I have been working with a number of client TV stations on ways to integrate viewer tweets, emails and blogs into their newscasts.    For a couple years I have also been urging my clients to ask for, and use local pictures and video in their weathercasts.    They don’t just use them on stormy days, but instead integrate them into their daily weathercasts to help tell the weather story of the day.   This has also paid off with exclusive video and pictures of breaking news.

    We have learned some interesting things along the way.   It is no surprise, for instance, that the more you use viewer-contributed pictures, and give them credit in the newscast – the more pictures you get from them and others.   We’ve also now added phone calls to those contributors so they can describe what we see in their pictures during storms and other news events.

    When we started out to create special local newscasts that interact with viewers on all levels of the social media revolution, we based them loosely on the cable news channel programs that show viewer chat and comments throughout the show.   It now becomes apparent that TV viewers draw a big distinction between those cable programs and their local news.

    When it comes to local TV newscasts viewers want the strong emphasis on NEWS not social commentary.    Now, they want to participate in many cases, and are interested in what others have to say – but in short doses – that do not interfere with your delivery of the local news.    While viewer comments rolling along on the bottom of the screen may be very acceptable in Rick Sanchez’ program – local TV newscast viewers find it to be a distraction from the main mission – clearly delivering the local news of the day that affects them.

    So, we have changed the emphasis in those newscasts from putting up comments on a number of stories  and scrolling many comments on the bottom of the screen – to finding one or two of the most important, controversial, or interesting stories of the day – and asking viewers to weigh in with their feelings and comments.    Those comments are then sprinkled throughout the newscast, and of course, all the comments are posted on the station’s website.

    This seems to be a better balance and helps you avoid at all costs the biggest mistake you can make – asking for comments on stories no one cares about just to fill a slot or two in the newscast.   That, I believe, is a surefire way to send viewers to the remote control.

    I also urge you to have your anchors engage viewers on Twitter, Face Book, via email and text messages, or by blogging every day leading up to your newscasts.   This is the new – more powerful way – to topically promote your newscast – by having your anchors talk about important news of the day viewers can see on your newscast.   With afternoon TV viewing close to hash marks in many cases, traditional topical marketing has become nearly worthless.  It is time for you to move in a new direction.

    Jim

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  • TV Is Not A Necessity!

    May 3rd, 2009

    48% of people in America say TV is not a necessity in their lives.   That may be a shocking number to those of you who still feel that people drop everything to be sure to catch the local TV newscast at 6 p.m.   This research by Pew looks at social and demographic trends.    And it uncovered some very interesting items as the recession grips America.

    Now, the TV question was not asking about local news – just whether having a TV set is a necessity or a luxury these days.  Well, having a television dropped 12 points in importance since 2006.   Less than half of respondents said it was a necessity – the lowest level since Pew began this research in 1974.

    The number is even lower with the under-30 crowd.  Only 38% of that demo said having a TV set is a necessity – down 15 points from 2006.  But having a TV also dropped 14% with the 30-49 demo.   Another number jumped out of the Pew survey – 24% said they had reduced or dropped cable or satellite TV service for their homes.

    Yes, the recession caused big drops in other categories too.   The necessity of having a clothes dryer dropped 17%, having a home air conditioner dropped 16% (I think this is very specific to where you live), and the necessity of a dish washer fell 14%.   The biggest loser was the need to have a microwave.  It dropped 21%.

    But technology seems to be surviving the economic downturn.  The necessity of having a cell phone remained the same at 47%.   The necessity of owning a flat-screen TV jumped 3% to 8%.   Respondents also increased the need to have high speed Internet by 2%, and an iPod by 1%.

    So, the recession has created another “must do” besides making your local newscasts compelling enough to have viewers make an appointment.  You need to get them hooked on your newscasts enough to even feel the necessity of having a TV set in the first place.  Oh, and it would be good if the networks started creating real “Must See” TV in prime time too.

    Jim

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