Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Making Deals with the Devil

It’s the Devil You Know

Quietly local television stations KTBC (Fox), KXAN (NBC), KEYE (CBS), and KVUE (ABC) have been sharing news video of what are considered routine events for around a month now. News managers have a quick five-minute conference call in the mornings to decide which news conferences or events could merit coverage with one camera.

I noticed one obvious instance of shared video a week or so ago. It was a news conference at the Austin Police Department. More than one station used the same sound bite, probably because it was the most interesting thing said. The camera angle for the shot was the same. It was shared. Of course, news conferences and events are edited at each of the station, so no two stories should look exactly the same.

Interestingly, only one news director will talk about it. More than one person told me that news managers were cautioned or told not to talk about their arrangement with “News McNabb” or, presumably, any other reporters. “Given the proprietary nature of your question, I will respectfully decline making a comment,” said Michael Fabac, KXAN News director. Earlier confirmation of their participation in the video sharing arrangement did come from Eric Lassberg, station president and general manager.

I find it interesting, even amusing that people who are so used to asking questions and expecting answers are now on the other end of the questions, and the managers who would be outraged by a “no comment” will not talk. Please know that I am not calling out Michael Fabac; he did answer my email. Further, Fabac is a good guy. This video sharing arrangement, I think, so runs against the grain, there is no happy answer. No news manager who was an idealistic journalism student “back in the day” would have ever dreamed that video sharing with competitors would be part of the daily routine. To be fair, there is precedence. Pool coverage of major events is normal. On those occasions all of the stations work together to make it happen for the benefit of their viewers. No one, however, would have thought that this would the daily norm, however.

Frank Volpicella, KVUE TV news director, is willing to talk about the arrangement. “It seems to be working very well. Really, no complaints,” Volpicella says. “We’re getting video that we wouldn’t have been able to shoot before. Too many news conferences are held at the same time of day. No station could possibly shoot them all.”

“The pool evolved from one station being pool for the day, to every station shooting one or two stories a day. That seems to work well. It doesn’t burden one station with the daily pool, and it allows us to share more video.” Volpicella says.

One could make the argument that the video sharing could lead to shallow coverage. Certainly, if a station relies on the pool to fill the news hole, the stories will be wallpaper—ugly wallpaper at that. It is also true that participation in the pool can also allow stations to better use their limited resources, resulting in stronger stories for the audience. That may have been the case when KXAN chose to send its satellite truck and reporter Shannon Wolfson to Laredo to cover the murder of an Austin priest. KXAN owned the story. Other stations relied on telephone reports and affiliate video.

Is this collaboration only the beginning? No. I don’t think so. In other markets, TV stations are teaming up with local newspapers, even to the point of combining newsrooms. “I’m sure this consolidation will continue industry wide. Stations are sharing helicopters and other resources, so it will evolve as well,” Volpicella says. For years, the KVUE weather staff has presented the weather forecast in the Austin American-Statesman.” It is part promotion and part shared content.

It should be noted that Univision and News 8 are not participating in the pool. News 8 News Director Kevin Benz is not sold on the concept. “I’m not sure that there is a benefit to us,” Benz said. News 8 has more cameras on the street than any other newsroom in town, Benz says. Never say never, however. “I’m leaving the door open,” he said.

As households using television (HUTs) go down and profit margins narrow, media, broadcast and print, will continue making deals. When the audience does begin to sense shallowness in the stories, the audience will render its decision in the ratings or in circulation.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Lisa Glass said...

Yeah, this sticks in my craw as well. You know what else really irritates me? When did it suddently become OK to loop the same few shots of video on a VO? Utter laziness in my opinion. Even my non-TV-news-savvy husband has pointed this out.

Daniel G said...

KEYE reporter said rosemary beads instead of rosary beads. She said this on tape. Yikes.

Anonymous said...

How are the stations getting the video from each other? E-mail? Fiber? Drop-offs?

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's note: I didn't include the method of sharing, thinking that no one would care. Since somebody does, here's the explanation per KVUE News Director Frank Volpicella: "We are sharing video using external hard drives. The video is ingested into our server, and then dubbed onto the hard drive. The hard drives are then left at the front desk of each station for pickup. If a station wants the video, it has to pick it up at the station which shot it."
News McNabb

Anonymous said...

I have a prediction to make... are you sitting down? National networks will morph into "Channels" and drop local affiliates altogether. Think about it, the locals were needed to deliver the product, and it was a nice relationship... networks had the shows, the locals had the eyeballs. Now, thanks to a billion cable/sat channels and the internet the networks will no longer need the locals to get those eyeballs. So NBC will launch 1 or more NBC channels on cable/sat/internet. 24/7/365 NBC programs with no local programming, just like Discovery networks.

So what happens to the locals? Only the strong will survive... and they'll be forced to create all local programming, all day, all night. News, features, sales tie-ins, whatever. People will still need to tune in for local news and info, so there will be a need. But, how big? Two, three outlets? It's a changing media landscape people... and your maps are out of date.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: I hate it when someone is one step ahead of me. I've been sitting on a post waiting for more input from local broadcasters regarding rumors that networks are going cable.
Kudos to "Anonymous". Get you're own blog! Just kidding.
I'll have more on this topic soon.
News McNabb.

Anonymous said...

If the economy worsens, the first bill you drop is cable... it's easy to call and cancel, no contracts, no penalties and in many cases, it's the least stressful change you can make to save $100 a month.

So what if you rent a few movies, or actually (GASP!), watch local channels... in the end, when dumping a house, car, medical or food bill is not possible, going the way of the rabbit ears certainly is... and what's funny... the quality is actually better and in HD.