It’s a New Game for Television News

Though technology has vastly improved, human excellence has been decimated through pay cuts, layoffs and downsizing. Though there is more so-called “news” programming, its quality has generally hit bottom.
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I’ve long had a theory that as production gear gets cheaper and smaller, the quality of the programming produced with it goes down. Over the last three decades, I think this has proven true. Now, however, there’s real change in the air.

Some of the finest television production occurred in the live era of the 1950s, when the gear worked only in black and white, and nothing—I mean nothing—was portable or compact. The people were real professionals, trained and hammered by reality to be the best. Before the advent of video recording, the errors went on the air and they were often better than the actual program.

When I worked in news production in the 1970s, our video crews travelled the world with at least 20 very heavy cases of production gear. It was a different era. We flew mostly first class, excess baggage was usually free, and airline personnel were far more gracious than today. It was a time when news mattered, and the networks actually competed to be the best.

(click thumbnail)Flip Mino
Now, we’ve reached another threshold—one where corporate profits dominate everything. Though technology has vastly improved, human excellence has been decimated through pay cuts, layoffs and downsizing. Though there is more so-called “news” programming, its quality has generally hit bottom.

The stars, however, are now aligned for another television revolution. There are several reasons, mostly having to do with the old standards: people and technology.

NEW GEAR

First, let’s look at television production gear. In the summer of 2008, we have reached an amazing era. Much has happened involving quality, size and cost. Two pieces of new equipment symbolize the time: the Flip Mino video camcorder and the Yamaha Pocketrak 2G audio recorder.

I reviewed the first Flip video recorder in May 2007 for TV Technology. Through ease of use, it went on to rapidly capture 20 percent of the U.S. camcorder market. Now, its manufacturer, Pure Digital Technology, has introduced the Flip Mino, an even smaller $180, 3-ounce camcorder that can capture 60 minutes of 640x480 video on internal flash memory.

Jeff Maher, a reporter at KOB-TV in Albuquerque, N.M., bought one and promptly began shooting video with it for on-air stories.

“I doubt if 90 percent of our viewers could see any difference,” Maher told TV Newsday. The little camera was such a hit that KOB’s news director bought a bunch of them, even giving them to the station’s sales team to magnify news coverage in the market.

Also this summer, Yamaha introduced a tiny, pocket-size audio recorder weighing 1.7 ounces that records full CD-quality 44.1 kHz, 16-bit WAV files. This virtually weightless wonder, costing about $350, holds more than three hours of audio on internal flash memory. Never before has such a small device recorded this level of sound quality.

(click thumbnail)Yamaha Pocketrack 2G
When the user is finished with either the Flip Mino or Yamaha Pocketrak, an internal USB connector snaps open and the device is plugged into any Macintosh or PC. The file—video or audio—is dragged to the desktop. From there, editing can be accomplished with virtually any modern post-production software.

These new production tools are only the tip of the iceberg in media game changers. The Flip Mino, or slightly more expensive HD counterparts, eliminates video crews and the heavy gear associated with location production. The Yamaha does the same for audio. And the extreme low cost of each device places them in the hands of anyone, not just what used to be called “media professionals.”

TALENT NEEDED

But, as we’ve learned so well, tools alone don’t make good television. It takes the skill of talented people using them. And that’s where another opportunity presents itself today.

As the media corporations attempt to redefine news production to its lowest (and least expensive) quality, the opportunity exists for a new generation of news and information organization to fill the void. It has already started, but it will get a big boost beginning next year.

When the analog television switch is shut down in February, I suspect it will be the beginning of the end for many of these marginal local television news departments. Like afternoon newspapers before them, most will simply go out of business. A huge hunger for good local media will be left.

The good news is low-cost video gear means the full democratization of television technology. That has long been a dream of many in television, going back to the half-inch days of the 1970s. No longer is it true that just a few very wealthy corporations can afford to use television technology.

With the affordability of basic production tools and the many skilled reporters who are unemployed, there’s now the perfect opportunity for the formation of unique kinds of news organizations. Using the Web as a base, these groups will be free of mindless FCC regulation and the expensive newsprint that confined their predecessors.

BREAKING NEW GROUND

This has, of course, already begun. Blogs are breaking new journalistic ground, and online video is moving beyond simple clips to embrace new forms of storytelling. Some activist citizen journalists made headlines in the recent presidential primaries. Lower-cost technology has spawned a new generation of long-form documentaries and feature films.

There is no rule—unless one is selling commercials—that news must fill a 24/7 linear channel. Perhaps the best reporting will pull back from this news around-the-clock format and begin to focus again on quality. We can only hope.

A few good newspapers are already morphing into full multimedia operations. A new generation of high-speed, high-definition cameras is already impacting photography—blending the work of still photographers and videographers. New visual forms, such as the slide show that takes the best of video and stills, are emerging on the Web.

Though television began as a medium so expensive that it could only be produced by large corporations, the landscape has now changed. News and other television production appear to be returning as a freelancer’s game.

The best and the brightest reporters, owning their gear and working alone, are already breaking down the walls to the next generation of media. It’s what so many of us wanted four decades ago, and now it’s a reality.