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Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

3 Local TV Stations to Pool Resources

A little noticed media story appears to have slipped under the radar. Appearing on page A14 of the local Atlanta Journal Constitution for May 23, 2009, it was reported that Atlanta televisions stations WAGA, WXIA and WGCL had begun the practice of pooling television cameras at local news events.

If one were to try and sneak things by the viewing public, it couldn’t have been handled better. By appearing in the local newspaper (which is in a state of decline anyway), on the Saturday of a holiday weekend, buried back in the business section, this could easily qualify as an obscurity hat-trick.

Of course, costs are at the base of everything, especially these days, but television management does make a cogent point that there are just so many different camera angles. When six stations arrive at the scene of an event, there is just so much that can be done with the visual aspects of the story. Not to mention the fact that the crowding and jostling is undignified. On the other hand, this practice will be a departure from local style. Gaining its start in Philadelphia and other markets, this is presumably the way of the future.

They say that the gorilla is an endangered species. For many years, local vernacular for the television cameraman was “a gorilla“, because they had to be big strapping lads to carry the heavy cameras of that day. There was even a local affair called The Gorilla Ball, in which the various outtakes and mistakes of the on-air talent were paraded for the amusement of their fellow media mavens. What started out as the camera people gathering after hours for beer and jeering, finally blossomed into an official event, complete with black tie. Presumably, the gorilla term is no longer used since the arrival of the Betacam. At the same time, it appears that the cameraman’s role in the awards process is also being diminished.

Regardless, the pooled camera feed can be viewed in two ways. For the glass-is-half-empty crowd, this is just further proof that things are circling the drain. Given the general temper of the times, this is not an unreasonable assumption.

While there are those who view things as being in constant downward entropy, I prefer to view this as an interesting opportunity. Certainly, it is possible that two camera positions will be eliminated, but it could just as easily be viewed the other way. Instead of three cameras covering one event, you could have three cameras covering three events.

In a way, this is a refreshing departure from the zero-sum mentality of the past. The stringent economic times have made all of us look at the way that we live, the way that we do business. And out of this are coming some positive outcomes. Another television station down the street is not the enemy, the enemy is the computer screen, Nintendo and apathy.

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Television is the box in which they buried vaudeville.

Even though I’m not old enough to remember vaudeville, I am old enough to remember the products of vaudeville. That is, the black and white television of the 1950’s. Certainly there were Ed Sullivan and Sid Caesar, but I especially remember the comedians such as Henny Youngman, to whom the above quote is often credited. There were Sheckys and Joeys, and there were smart funny women from that era such as Imogene Coca, Phyllis Diller and even a young woman named Joan Rivers, the poster girl for cosmetic surgery. They were all comedians who earned their chops on the Borscht Belt circuit in upper New York State. Television had renewed their careers as the Catskill Mountains resorts such as Grossinger’s faded into obscurity.

In the early 1950’s, television was a new toy, frisky as a colt and just as entertaining. A lot of television in that era was hopelessly square, because the audience itself was hopelessly square. And nobody took the medium all that seriously because the television was new and experimental. Television stations were turned on near dawn, the national anthem was played and then perhaps a brief sermonette from one of the local religious leaders who had landed a gig in television. TV ran until when Jack Paar (then later Johnny Carson) signed off. The national anthem was played and then television went home to their families and bed.

Then one day, television started to take itself seriously and things would never be the same. You can thank Newton N. Minnow for this, be it good or bad, but after a speech in 1961, typically called The Vast Wasteland speech, television became a serious medium because it would never do to have empty minded entertainment. Part of his words in 1961:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

Which is to say, almost fifty years later, that not much has changed with television. Some things did change, however, most notably television news. In that 1960’s era, a national sense of urgency filled the land. The Russians had launched the first satellite into outer space in 1957, and the United States was eager to win the space race. The President had announced that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The threat of nuclear war was an ever present fact of life. Conventional war was ramping up, very quietly at first, in Southeast Asia. And in that era, television news had earned its place.

Most of all, this would be the beginning of a time when the reporting of news would take on a serious and complex cloak of dignity, when what the television said meant something. In that era, there were typically three choices of which news you heard. What had started out with 15 minutes grew into 30 minutes, and then an hour and maybe even an additional half hour. Since there were only three outlets, people often had the shared experience of the news. You could strike up a conversation with someone that you barely knew, starting off with “Did you see Huntley / Brinkley last night?”

So many of them had been correspondents during World War II, when freedom of thought was under serious threat and winning the war was an important goal. They spoke with the gravity of people who had been shot at during their coverage of the war. Others, such as Dan Rather, spoke with the gravity of having worked a natural disaster, Hurricane Carla; I remember Hurricane Carla, I was there. In any case, television news began its ascendency in that era, and when Walter Chronkite announced that the Viet Nam war was unwinnable, people took it seriously. No matter that U. S. troops and the ARVN had beaten back the enemy during the Tet Offensive. Truth is the first casualty of war.

As television grew out of its adolescence, its role in American life grew also. At the local level, television news became a major component in any television station’s business model. The demand was insatiable; the profits were so, too. Because the news was a rich source of revenue, spending followed along. News departments grew in size, technology followed along; satellite trucks and helicopters became indispensible. News anchors found themselves at the very best restaurant tables. Their power and influence were renown, and woe be to the politician who did not yield to their whim. Our view of the world became the view of those living in New York City and on the West Coast, because they were the ones that chose what we saw, what we read and, in the end, what we thought. Certainly one of the greatest high points was on the Johnny Carson show when a 22-year old Hollywood starlet began talking on television about how icky nuclear war is.

Of course, this was all to change; fast-forward to today. And remember the small, brief, tiny comment from Warren Buffett: “As long as newspapers were essential to readers, they were essential to advertisers, he said. But news is now available in many other venues.” He was talking about the newspapers, but he could just as easily be talking about television news. There are considerably more outlets for the news than just television, much less local television. So, what is happening to the newspapers now appears to be approaching television. One clue can be found in this photograph, which I lifted from a local blog, Live Apartment Fire. It certainly gives you a sense of the way that things are going.

The New and The Old

The New and The Old

LAF covers the local media from the inside out, and is an interesting view into that world. It reveals the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as sending reporters to “Back Pack School”. It also offers a clue to the state of mind of television management, and they have to be concerned. Certainly the television stations are looking at their numbers also and realizing that the golden days are over. This is not to say that they are going out of business.

You always end up viewing the world from the perspective of your special interests. For me, it is my beloved railroads, and what you see there can certainly reflect upon the world at large, perhaps even accurately. When the railroads were new, they were ascendant; this new technology revolutionized travel and transport. Dime novels were written about the heroic railroaders and every boy wanted to grow up to be a locomotive engineer. As with any new technology, there was the temptation to maximize profits, which is not necessarily a bad thing since improved efficiency has benefits in many areas. When the railroads began to exceed their reach, the American public reacted and Congress passed regulations which effectively put the railroads into a state of perpetual decay. As competing forms of transportation emerged, and the government systematically supported them, the railroads began to founder. In my youth, my parents were concerned about my interest in such a dying institution. Of course, in the fullness of time, the railroads would be deregulated and their natural role in transportation would return to what it is today. The railroads were too important to fail, but they were able to do it in spite of a governmental presence.

Television news has had some noble moments. The press actively covered the civil rights movement; the American public saw, and were appalled. The press can also be spectacularly lazy. One local television reporter used to do live shots from a certain home improvement store simply because it was a five minute drive from the studio. Television news will not go away, but it will change. We have relied upon the news reporters to protect our interests. Now, at a time when government spokespeople speak empty words, we need the media to determine the actual truth, not the relativistic truth of those who seek to deceive.

We are in the midst of societal changes equal to the moving of tectonic plates, and just about as visible. Periodically, rumblings from far below the surface tell you that something is happening. One thing that has been lost is a sense of common perspective. When it was just the three television networks, the citizens had a sense of being together. Now with a multitude of news sources, and not all of them broadcast over the air, things have become fragmented, we share less together.

At the same time there is some source of hope. Regardless of governmental regulations or whatever slick idea tries to force people to do something, it is the silent hand of the market that is the final arbiter.

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