TORONTO U.S. TV news operations are facing the current recession head-on by finding smarter ways to use their resources cost-effectively. Better yet, the strategies they're devising not only hold the line on editorial integrity, but offer the chance to cover more news stories even when money is tight.
NEWSHOUR GETS LEAN
PBS' flagship program, "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" has long relied on in-depth international reporting to hold its viewers. But sending multi-person crews with equipment overseas is extremely expensive; especially for a nonprofit broadcaster whose budget comes from public donations.
In today's recession, "we are really trying to stretch every dollar," said Rob Flynn, vice president, Communications and Marketing for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. "In the past, we would send a full news crew out for a couple of weeks, then have them come back with 5-6 pieces which we would edit here and run over an extended time period. But today, we only send out 1-2 people per crew; say a cameraperson and a reporter producer. Their job is to get in and get the story, edit it on a laptop, and then send it back fast via satphone or the Internet. The results are reports that are more timely and cost far less to produce. Yet, because our people are now carrying far less equipment and can edit on the spot, they can provide more coverage than before."
Thanks to this lean model, The NewsHour is saving money on manpower, hotels, airfare and weight charges "for all those silver cases, which the airlines salivate over," Flynn adds. "The model is working so well, that we are now going to apply it with our domestic shoots as well."
There are certain events that news departments cover, where pool footage makes sense. These include news conferences, check handovers, Santa Claus parades and breaking news events that require helicopter footage.
There are certain events that news departments cover where pool footage makes sense. Despite this fact, competing TV news stations have long insisted in sending separate camera crews to cover such events. Most of the time, the result is duplication and a waste of resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. Sometimes the result is fatal, as was the case in Phoenix on July 27, 2007 when news choppers belonging to KNXV-TV and KTVK-TV collided in mid-air while covering a high-speed chase. Four people (one pilot and one photographer per aircraft) were killed. The accident was subsequently covered by the other three news choppers that were also in the area.
"This crash raised a lot of questions among local people," saif Gerry Kaufhold, founder and principal analyst for In-Stat's Converging Markets And Technologies Information Research Service. "They asked, why were all these helicopters chasing the same event when a pool feed from one of them, shared by all the local staions, would do? It would have cost much less, and been far safer."
FOX & NBC
This logic of pool feeds has been embraced on the local scene by Fox Television Stations and NBC Local Media. Starting in Philadelphia, with plans to expand to all 10 markets where both companies have stations, the two have jointly founded LNS (Local News Service).
LNS is designed to function "like the AP," said Mike Renda, vice president/GM of Philadelphia Fox O&O WTFX-TV. "Both our station and NBC O&O WCAU-TV [NBC 10] have provided cameras and photographers for use by LNS, which is run separately from both our newsrooms. [Editor's note: LNS has offices at both stations, but is not based in either news facility.] "They decide which events make sense for pool footage, then send crews out to cover these events. The raw footage is then posted on a shared server, from which both stations can pull material via their LANs."
Worth noting: LNS' sole function is to provide complete raw footage of assigned events. Should stations want to add their own spin to a story, "they are free to send their own crews and reporters to the event," Renda said.
As for the risk that all of the pool-based reports will look the same? "It is up to each station to decide which parts of the pool footage they will use, depending on how each one is covering the story," Renda said. "Besides, there is nothing to stop each station from getting their own exclusive footage related to the story, by talking to people outside of the event to add more context and information."
The real benefit of LNS is that it ensures that its member stations get the must-have footage they need of planned events and breaking news, while freeing up their resources to cover other stories.
"People fear that the sharing of pooled footage will somehow lead to a sameness between stations, but nothing could be further from the truth," Renda said. "In fact, thanks to pool footage, WTFX is free to cover stories that you won't find anywhere else in Philadelphia. But not having to duplicate coverage at news conferences, we can get stories that make us more distinctive to our viewers, not less."
Renda said the model works for both stations and could be extended to others. "It is our hope that other stations will join LNS; both to share in its advantages—and the cost—and to improve their own cost-effectiveness."
Sharing local news footage does not worry Ed Esposito, RTNDA chairman and vice president of Information Media at the Rubber City Radio Group in Akron, Ohio.
"As an industry, news has shown that it knows how to handle pool coverage, whether it be for newspapers, radio or television," he said. "The only question is how does the assignment process work; how do you decide what should be covered by the pool, and what should be left to individual stations?"
As for the fear that pooled coverage could lead to 'cookie-cutter' local newscasts? "That's like worrying that six eyewitnesses seeing the same event will provide six identical reports," said Kaufhold. "As we know, that just doesn't happen: Each witness sees something different. The same is true of pooled news footage. Each reporter has their own take on what happened and how it should be edited and reported.
"In other words, don't confuse shared footage with shared reporting," Kaufhold continued. "Shared footage does not hamper a station's ability to tell its own story, nor to stand out from its competition. What it does do, however, is provide a cost-effective way to reallocate resources, or to reduce use of them without reducing its on-air product."
Kaufhold predicts that the Fox/NBC LNS will catch hold in local news; not just for TV stations but radio as well.
"We already know that, when it comes to a TV play-out center, it makes economic sense to handle many channels from one location, reducing per-station costs for all," he said. "The same is true for pooled news footage, and there's no downside to it. In fact, you could say that pooled news footage is in the public interest, because the resources it frees up allows stations to cover more news locally."