TV News a la carte.

Friday, September 25th, 1998

I’m laptopping this week from San Antonio, the brutally hot-and-muggy site of the annual grand bazaar of broadcast news. The Radio and Television News Directors Association conference has a collection of seminars and speakers that gives it a thin veneer of legitimacy, but the get-together really centers around an exhibition of the stuff sold in the name of “improving” newscasts.

So, get out your checkbook:

You can pick up a new news set here, all gleaming chrome and rich wood, for fifty grand and up (WSB’s new set was way, way more than that), or you can buy a Forward Looking Infrared Radar for your news helicopter-and if you don’t have a chopper, they’re had at the RTNDA for a price, too.

But why buy a real set when something upwards of six figures will get you a virtual set, changeable at the click of a mouse, always perfectly lit and scuff-free?

Shop for satellite trucks in aisle 1, and duck inside a Sony booth crammed with cameras and tape machines in aisle 2. Automation systems and robotic cameras, sit next to weather computers that will spin you sickeningly in three dimensions around the meteorological disturbance du jour. (Be thankful: you’ve been spared the experience of listening to Texas-accented weatherfolk trying to pronounce “Georges..”)

But transcending all the pricey hardware is the real commodity: programming. I’m talking reporting, features, and even those sweeps week specials that are poured identically into newscasts around the country.

Pick up customized live shots a la carte from Fox NewsEdge (they say it’s “the feed you need”) or the enormous CNN Newssource booth plopped in the exact center of the exhibition floor. For a price, you can get reporters you’ve never heard of reciting stale facts from the wires while they stand in front of the crashed plane, bus, or Presidency. A quick packaged report, and then the moment news directors are really paying for-when the guy at the crash site-live!-answers questions and tosses “back to you, Amanda and Russ.” And moments later, he’s saying “back to you, Stacey and Tom” to some other place, some other audience fooled by this televised slight-of-hand.

News Directors, faces painted with the anxiety of job insecurity, ask the sales person to make them just as cool as KCBS, or to get that WSVN kind of impact. Deals are made with a snappy exchange of cards and email addresses, and yet another market (we all live in a market, y’know) looks a little bit more like everyplace else. Think it’s only in Atlanta that stations are “live, local, and latebreaking,” “dedicated, determined, and dependable”, with “coverage you can count on”?

You know better.

But do the NDs? As fewer and fewer people watch local newscasts, more and more of what is poured into these broadcasts is pre-chewed, unoriginal, over-consulted, and if you ask me, unwatchable. So fewer people watch.

The programmers of television news might catch on to the pattern here. Sometime.

But until then, and for now, we’re live in San Antonio. I’m your name here, Eyewitness News. Back to…uh…back to you.

The past future of television.

Friday, September 18th, 1998

I watched a tape of the future of television the other day–but it was an old tape of an old future. My friend had been to a reunion for employees of the first experiment in interactive television, and he brought back a dusty VHS filled with 1977-vintage optimism (and fashions).

They called it Qube (pronounced as if they had meant to type a ‘C’), and it was run by what is now Time Warner out of a remodeled appliance store in Columbus, Ohio. It would qualify as mediocre cable today–offering an then-unprecedented 30 channels of television. Ten ‘premium’, or pay-per-views. Ten local and regional channels. And since there was no national programming to speak of– HBO was a newborn, and WTBS (then called WTCG) snuck into a few cable homes via satellite–the Qubians spent what was then a bundle concocting hours of original, often-live, local programming to fill up those last ten blank spaces.

Imagine how stunning this was at the time–thirty channels! Why, that was, like, unlimited choice! Endless entertainment! This ancient tape showed interviews with experts who sagely predicted that this might just be too much of a good thing, that people couldn’t cope with that many channels of television. But heads didn’t explode, at least as far as I remember. Those same predictors added, by the way, that no matter how popular cable became, it would never make much of a dent in the audience share of the big three networks.

This bounty of choice was dialed up by proto-couch-potato Ohioans on a chunky remote control the size of a fat Bible, wired, yes, wired to a large set-top box. But what was cool, what made this must-have TV was a row of five buttons down the right side that gave viewers–gasp!–the ability to “talk back to their television set.” At any time, the hosts of “Columbus Alive!” or “Mr. Qubesumer” (terrifyingly and unquestionably Clark Howard’s direct ancestor) could ask the viewers of America’s Most Generic City their opinions on…well, how they liked their eggs. “Touch now!”, the flashing screen commanded, and moments later, the breathless hosts reported that 32% like them sunny side up, and…gee, it’s hard to see why this two way TV never caught on.

The real irony is, in and around the “Touch now” crap, there was actual, watchable (if uneven) locally-produced programming, including a channel for kids that evolved into Nickelodeon, sports coverage and local politics. It was stuff that hasn’t been consulted into a national melange that looks the same whether you’re in Georgia, Oregon, or Kansas. The local programming isn’t why they did it–the two-way features gave them a great excuse to wire the city into the impulse-buy heaven of pay-per-view, and in the days before video stores, that was a very attractive deal.

But it did fill a void, and here and now, in our city, amidst dozens of channels of indigestible “choice”, I’d touch any button you’ve got for some local programming that feels like here…like us, like how we like our eggs.