Saturday, December 01, 2018

News Robots

     That hand-crafted local TV newscast you grew up with?  It's gone, along with unsliced bread.

     Automation 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).

     3 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.)

     1 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, kid!)

     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 person.

     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 receivers.

     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.

     Fifteen 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 assignments and 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 way.

      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.


B said...

But you can still get un-sliced bread....

Roberta X said...

Of all the kinds of bread on the shelf, how many are unsliced, and how much more expensive are they than the mass-produced stuff?

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I never knew how many people it takes. I would have guessed about 8-10 behind the cameras along with the 4 on air news readers. Thank you for the look behind the scenes.

Our local independent/ FOX channel starts at 5 pm and does two hours, and then a new added third hour on the digital sub channel 9.2. They then do an hour at 9pm and another half hour at 10pm.

I also noticed all the stations recycle a lot of material and even rebroadcast the same story. Channel 9 does it at 5, 5:30, 6, 7, 9 and 10; then a couple times in the morning from 4:30 to 9, and at the one hour 11:00. I think they may even repeat it another day if it was a slow newsday? Sometimes they do edit and update it if it is a real news story, but not if it is a human interest story like a toy drive.

Roberta X said...

Generally, V-O/SOTstories get shot once, and the news anchor's part may or may not get much rewriting in subsequent airings unless the there's more to add. "Packages," where the whole thing was shot in the field with a reporter might be recut, but usually not, especially the feature-type things -- though those may be produced in a few different versions, longer or shorter, to air in newscasts over the next 24 hours.

The long newscasts are essentially a "news wheel" a half-hour long, and there's a lot of recycling from one half-hour to the next. In a populous ares, there will usually be two or more stories unfolding in real time during the newscast, with live reports and evolving information, but there's a lot more that happened overnight or the previous day that gets used every thirty minutes without a lot of change: the President flew somewhere and did something the day before, a local team won or lost a game, a plane went down...they don't really call for rewriting.

Anonymous said...

and who determines the political slant on the news?

Roberta X said...

Nobody, at least at the local level. It's not supposed to be slanted. There's a certain amount of personal preference in what stories get covered, but news is news, murders get covered, fatal fires and fatal traffic accidents get covered, wrecks that shut down the freeway get covered -- and for events and protests, the ones with compelling news releases are more likely to get covered. If you don't send one out for your event, don't be surprised if it never makes the evening news.

Sit down some night with a notepad and watch your local news. Give each story a score for "slant," from -5 to +5, with zero as "no slant" and the +/- consistently applied to Right and Left, and a word or to as to why. Then do the same for the network news. You may be surprised.

Aesop said...

If it has to be completely in the can nearly 2 hours before broadcast, it ceases to really be "news". And when you get rid of the 10+ people you're thinking you can live without, who's programming all that content every day?

Lemme guess...about 10 people? So, what savings?

If you want your nightly news to be regularly scooped by radio, the morning newspaper, and some guy with a laptop, a GoPro, and WiFi, this will work out great.
If you want to totally give up on all breaking stories, because nobody knows how to do that anymore (in a couple more years), better still.

It will turn nightly news into "60 Minutes", and about as unpredictable.

Worse, it will be stories designed to outrage you, from any place but within 50 miles of your home.
(After wanting to shoot the TV for the 500th time for wasting 2 precious minutes out of 23 telling about a plane crash in Trashcanistan or Sh*tholia, which affects me not one freaking tad, instead of talking about the mayor or city councilweasel hereabouts ripping the entire city off, I finally gave up on the whole canned Punch & Judy enterprise.)
It will be like watching weather reports from Borneo 24/7, and the latest on elections in Burundi.
Fascinating for Borneans and Burundians, no doubt, but a matter of complete indifference 8-12 time zones away.

The difference can be seen now between locals on their game doing actual news, and network and cable tourist doofusii trying to do their version of it, like Anderson Cooper standing in hole to make a flood look worse while people walk by in ankle deep water behind him, or that Weather Channel schmuck leaning into the not-a-hurricane winds while two kids in shorts are strolling upright through the live shot.

Dan Rather went from South Texas yokel to NYFC because he could accurately tell a compelling story on his feet during Camille. (He lost that gig forty years later because it turned out he could make up an unconvincing bogus story the same way. Live by the sword, die by the sword.)

You'll also eliminate completely the farm club minor-league system of people breaking in at every position from stations in Podunk and Bugknuckle, working their way up to town, then the big city, then the Top 25, then the network.

Of course, for the latter, since the entire story was decided on before talking to anyone, that'll be a feature, not a bug. They can spend their time mining "spontaneous" statements from paid Crisis Actor men-on-the-street, getting the catch in their voices just right, and shedding a glycerine tear on cue.

They can just start casting the news like a reality show, and shooting it a few weeks in advance, and fixing it in post-.

Details like accuracy and honesty, let alone relevance?
Let someone else worry about that crap.

And with Nielsens in general cratering like all other legacy media, and news on TV now regarded as about as reliable as the used car ads and less reliable than the election year political spots, that may not be much of a problem either.

The bigger question will be "Why is there news on TV at all?"

Garage channels on YouTube will scoop TV on everything except stuff that requires Big Media to have a guy inside the press conference, summit meeting, etc.
And foreign stories will be told by people you don't know, whose motivations you can't trust, and you'll be stuck with that, because it'll be all there is, other than the Party Line from any given Official Spokeshole of TPTB over at Big Brother Network.

Orwell's 1984: Still not supposed to be a template.

Tam said...


Most people are too dumb to tell local news from national news.

It would not shock me if the commenter conflates everything that happens on their local CBS affiliate with "Channel X" (when X=their local affiliate.)

Roberta X said...

Aesop, the stories are already assigned in advance; photogs and reporters are on the scene of routine news with plenty time to spare. That B-roll doesn't record itself! Smart producers leave "filler" that can be dropped for breaking news. And stepping through the run-down (with time to fix it) needs only start 45 minutes before airtime.

And remember, the lost jobs are pushing studio cameras around, pushing buttons in Control and Tape rooms and typing into the graphics system, NOT reporters, photogs or producers. Those are the jobs that cover news and THOSE are the jobs that are kept.

Perhaps you'd like to reread what I wrote?

On the other hand, anyone who believes in "paid Crisis Actor" BS is beyond reaching.