That hand-crafted local TV newscast you grew up with? It's gone, along with unsliced bread.
is the only thing keeping local news alive. The number of people it
takes just to put a newscast on the air in a non-automated system --
I'm not talking about gathering, reporting, writing or editing the news , just pushing studio cameras and switcher buttons, turning knobs and yelling at the crew
-- is very high and most of them have to be full-time employees.
Take Indianapolis, a very competitive market ranked somewhere in
the top 30s. Of the five stations doing local news, most produce 90 minutes
between 4 and 7 p.m. That's a minimum of:
2 Directors, trading off for each 30-minute segment (it's stressful; Directors come out of the chair sweaty and frazzled after a busy half-hour).
Producers, the "editor" in charge of final scripting for each segment,
making sure all the people and video is available, fonts ready, etc. and
then running his or her segment, keeping track of timing, ensuring
remotes are ready, cueing talent and adjusting as needed to make the
show end on time.
1 or 2 TDs, doing all the video switching. ("Technical Director." The Brits call the same job "Vision Mixer," which is a little more descriptive.)
or 2 audio operators, not only running audio but laying out wireless
mics for the talent, enuring the mic transmitters and IFB receivers have
fresh batteries, etc.
1 Chyron/Graphics operator,
running fonts and fullscreen graphics in real time, supported by a "back
room" of at least one other artist. (Automation can pull most of the
basic fonts from the script, but we haven't got that, so type fast,
1 "Tape" operator, cueing up pre-recorded
segments for playback in the correct order for the TD or Director to
roll them as needed.
1 "QC" operator, shading
cameras on the fly and pulling in remotes via video-over-IP and
microwave; you can hand the latter task off to the person on the News
Assignment desk and stick the TD with shading, but it's still one more
3 or 4 camera operators. Most shows use at
least four studio cameras but one is usually dedicated to the chroma-key
weather wall and camera ops can back up one another,
1 or 2 Floor Directors, who cue talent and make sure they are pointed at
the right camera, usher guests in and out, hand out iPads and put them
back on chargers, and dole out emergency batteries for mics and IFB
1 Prompter operator, scrolling the
teleprompter displays along at a rate that suits the on-air talent -- or a
little faster, if the director tells them to. They're also probably
having to skip ahead when elements are dropped for timing.
people, plus or minus a few. Their work is used for an hour and a
half, at least twice that for Producers and Directors, and an added
hour for Audio and Floor on prep and clean-up; the full-timers work
shifts that include another hour of news at noon or 10/11 p.m., but they've got to be paid for eight hours and kept busy -- and not one
of these people is involved in the collection and reporting of news; there are 4 - 5 photographer/editors and as many field reporters per
shift (usually three shifts), assignment editors, "tape" ingest/editors
(1 or 2 of each per shift) along with anchors (probably two sets for the
90-minute evening news), Sports reporters, anchor(s) and photogs,
Weather talent and a few reporters, photographers and reporters doing
features and investigative stuff who report news and generate content.
Stations can't give up on their original content -- it's the one thing they
have that their network, the cable news networks and the competing
stations don't have. But do they need all those people just to put the
show on the air, and not even kept occupied for their full shift?
Nope. There are robots for that. Robot cameras, script software that picks up on when video segments have to be aired, which camera should be on the air, what fonts and graphics should appear when, and which audio sources should be on at any given time. But they have to be told what to do. They have no initiative. They can't guess at what you meant.
To do automation correctly, the prep work becomes detailed and absolutely vital. With a
live newscast, the Producer can hand out scripts five minutes before air time and
everyone will find their place, staying a few steps ahead if they're
good. Under automation, the Producer finishes up her script well in
advance, ingesting what the reporters, Desk and wire services have
written, marking up voice-over video and sound-on-video segments,* fonts and graphics so automation will
pull them in as needed. She hands it off to the Director with an hour
or 45 minutes to go, Director adds camera assignment sand moves, then
goes into the control room and with the TD, steps through the script
much faster than real-time, checking for anything missing, fixing any
flubs, noting stuff that has yet to come in.
The automation crew is still 2 or 3 Directors plus 2 or 3 Producers, but
after them, you have 1 or 2 TDs, 1 audio person, 1 floor person -- and
that's it. TD also shades cameras, Assignment Desk pulls in remotes in
their spare time. Graphics is *all* back room, probably one person.
Nine people, roughly -- and they have a lot less down time. There are still the same number of people as before out gathering news, though more and more of
the routine stuff is covered by "MMJs," or "one-man-bands," who shoot,
edit and report. It's not always ideal, but five MMJs are cheaper than
three two-person teams.
Was your car built by
hand, like a Morgan? Was it built on a non-automated assembly line,
like a 1932 Ford? Or did robots do most of the heavy lifting, routine
assembly and nasty spray-booth work? Your news now comes to you the same
But here's the thing: if the robots aren't
programmed correctly, they turn out junk, not cars. The guys who build
Moggies? They can't be let loose in a Japanese car plant!
The TV producer who is used to "winging it," who doesn't put the
newscast together until five minutes before airtime, who pulled off
breaking news coverage as smooth as silk thanks to a lot of people
frantically doing their jobs at the last minute? He's Plague Death for
an automated newscast! Oh, he can probably do them, but they'll look
like crap. If the Director didn't get the script in time, the shots
will be off, robot cameras looking at an empty desk, or in the wrong direction -- and there's nobody behind the camera to fix them.
Large-scale, last-minute rearrangements of the script will wreak havoc.
It takes a whole different approach to cover late-breaking news under
automation, and a lot more preplanning, with filler you can drop and
replace, and careful timing.
TV profits are
shrinking. I love old-fashioned live news but it's getting to be an impossible luxury,
especially if you still want your local stations to cover any actual news.
* Collectively known as V-O/SOT, for voice-over and sound-on-tape and pronounced "voe-sought," they're anything shot out of the studio that doesn't have a reporter in the picture, talking. This is the real red meat of news: what's happening, as it happened.
Working On A Starship
4 weeks ago