I've Seen the Future, and It's a Max Headroom Episode

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SF Weekly takes a look at KRON-4 News, a local broadcast that has been forced to become the future of TV news. Channel 4 lost its NBC affiliation a few years ago, and has been plugging the holes with infomercials, Sex and the City reruns, and my favorite, Bay Area Backroads.The station is losing money hand over fist, and as a cost-saving measure the news broadcast has moved to a policy of one-man-band "video journalists," who write, report, shoot, and edit their own stories:

Equip the VJs with handheld digital cameras that retail for under $5,000, give them a high-powered laptop that costs less than $2,000, making it possible to edit and transfer video via the Internet from any Wi-Fi hotspot—or from home for that matter—and voila! Gone is the need for videotape analog editing booths that run $50,000 apiece and traditional cameras that cost upward of $25,000.

As for those TV trucks stuffed with expensive microwave and satellite equipment? Swap them for Pontiac Vibes, the station's economy car of choice for its VJs. And, of course, that doesn't begin to address the payroll savings derived from training one person to assume multiple jobs.

The article is generally unenthusiastic about the experiment. Media eggheads and disgruntled former and current KRON 4 employees complain about devaluing the news-gathering process, while author Ron Russell misses no chance to point out the clumsy camera angles, spotty sound quality, "less than glowing reviews," and paranoia in the downsizing newsroom. The on-air talents are understandably most concerned, because lower-paid former editors and camera operators are now doing their own stories. AFTRA, which represents the on-air people, hates the idea, while the camera operators' union has gone along (in part because the VJ move has actually bumped up its members' salaries). As Russell puts it, "The product often looks good, sounds good, or is written well, but seldom all three."

And exactly when was the last time you saw a local TV news story that was all three? I'm partial to KRON 4, mostly because anchorbot Tom Sinkovitz used to take his kid to the same playground I take my kids, but also because it's been interesting to watch the station try and survive as a strictly local play. The VJ stories are not as bad as Russell indicates, and in fact they often have a fresh quality you don't find in regular broadcast stories. VJs spice up their footage with offbeat pickup shots and weird tricks. During a story on the rain situation (situation: it's been raining a lot) the shots included a bunch VJ-driving-to-work-in-the-rain angles, allowing you the thrill of saying, Hey, I know that exit! During one of the many children-are-ruining-San Francisco stories the local news is filled with lately, the VJ featured all kinds quick zooms and whiplash pans; you could practically taste the excitement with your bowels. And when KRON 4 covered this weekend's NORML conference, the report was more sober than the get-a-load-of-these-marijuana-eaters thumbsucker I expected, with issue-oriented writing and lots of footage of well-dressed speakers addressing nearly empty conference rooms.

There's some talk about the fear the VJ move has generated in other news organizations, and I suspect this is the real concern. KRON 4 struggles (against the station that inherited its NBC affiliation) to stay out of last place in the ratings for the local broadcasts, but more successful stations are going to have to follow this path eventually. It's hard to imagine any scenario where the revenue pie for local news will ever get much bigger than it is now. Is podcast-quality local TV news going to be much worse than local TV news has always been?

NEXT: Pure Rubbish

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  1. KRON’s not bad. I like the less than polished way they are doing things these days–nice and informal. In general, though, TV news just plain sucks. A common occurrence these days is the “man in the street” stories. Puleez! Could they find more uninformed and idiotic people!

  2. Ha ha! This actually sounds pretty cool. Is there anywhere I can see sample clips?

  3. *Anything* that can send local TV news as we know it to an early grave deserves wholehearted support. Even if what replaces it might suck equally badly. It’s worth the risk.

    Are we talking about “VJ”s again? Could Martha Stuart, or her muffin, be primed for a comeback?

  4. “Puleez! Could they find more uninformed and idiotic people!”

    Well, they could, but I doubt “man in blog post comments” stories would be any more interesting.

  5. The idiotic aspect of the Weekly‘s story is their fawning admiration of KRON’s “old” news coverage. The idea of a self-styled progressive weekly craving for the halcyon days of corporate news reportage is pretty hilarious. It reminds me of a Hit & Run story (perhaps Tim wrote it?) on how iTunes and others were putting Tower Records out of business, and the counterculture types groaning about such progress. Of course, five years ago they were groaning about corporate Tower Records killing indie record stores. Who says it’s the Republicans who’re the only ones enamored with the status quo?

  6. News is aimed at soap-opera women.

    They’re 40% of women, 20% of the population, but they’re the largest reliable audience, and so they edit the news for everybody.

    Naturally everybody else tunes out.

    Unfortunately, there’s no market for hard news at all. People say they want hard news, but don’t tune in daily (think city council meetings), and so can’t support the business.

    It’s soap opera women or nothing for the news biz.

    Probably it will be nothing, as disgust grows even among the attracted, in their better moments.

  7. I regularly produce professional quality video with a $1,500 Sony 3-CCD Handicam, a $200 wireless mike and a $1,000 laptop. I just shot a marketing infomercial a few months ago. I do weddings, events and have been getting into more creative projects.

    I’ve often wondered why T.V. stations still produce video the way they do when the technology to produce really great stuff is so dirt cheap and the creative drive is so plentiful.

  8. Big deal. New York’s “NY1” (channel 1) has been running this same one-man operation for years.

  9. How will any one person, no matter how well trained, single-handedly take on a story like “hungry puppies kept in unsanitary conditions by unscrupulous dog dealers?”

  10. “you could practically taste the excitement with your bowels”

    You may want to consult a doctor about which end of your body you’re supposed to be inserting food into, Tim.

  11. dead elvis,

    I think you meant Martha Quinn. Martha Stuart and “muffin” does not sound appealing.

  12. I was thinking that the Scientologists should buy the station for its appropriate name, and show video of Tom Cruise eating placenta 24 hours a day.

  13. Re the KRON/Max Headroom comparison: If almost five decades of roaming this planet have shown me anything, they have shown me that there is no satire so outrageous that it will not someday be the virtual blueprint for someone’s everyday existence. That is to say, it is a poor bet to dismiss today’s satire, as it may be your real life soon enough.

  14. Big deal. New York’s “NY1” (channel 1) has been running this same one-man operation for years.

    Toronto’s CityTV has been running this way for decades. They’ve backed off of it a lot now that Moses Znaimer has a lot more capital (and a lot more stations) but the CityTV “everywhere” newsbeat videographers with their giant-sized shoulder-cams were a staple of Toronto in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    They used to have a pair of shows called “Night Drive” and “Night Walk” that consisted of nothing but a guy with a shoulder-cam driving or walking around the city late at night with the mic turned way down, and the soundtrack playing cool jazz. I think it was billed as a sleep aid for city insomniacs.

  15. …there is no satire so outrageous that it will not someday be the virtual blueprint for someone’s everyday existence. That is to say, it is a poor bet to dismiss today’s satire, as it may be your real life soon enough.

    Which reminds me I need to file that patent application for my seven (or is it eight?) blade razor right away.

  16. Ron Hardin
    “People say they want hard news, but don’t tune in daily (think city council meetings), and so can’t support the business.”

    I..uh…well…DO watch about 80% of city (and county) council meetings, either on the tube or on the net. Man, what does that say about me?

  17. This local stories stuff will never cut it. You miss all the “Man from Left Haversack somewhere finds Jesus’ face in a bagel” news.

  18. robots…we need robots telling us the news.

  19. dead elvis, I think you meant Martha Quinn. Martha Stuart and “muffin” does not sound appealing.

    Holy crap, I knew I was inebriated last night but I didn’t realize I was *that* far gone.

  20. I think Mojo Nixon needs to update his song.
    If Elton can rewrite Candle in the Wind for Princess Di, I know my man Mojo is up for rewriting his classic for Ms. Stewart.

    It’s a good thing.

  21. “The station is losing money hand over fist, and as a cost-saving measure the news broadcast has moved to a policy of one-man-band “video journalists,” who write, report, shoot, and edit their own stories”

    Odd. The station I worked at has been doing the one-man-band method (at least with some reporters) for quite awhile. Then again, we were poor and you just about had to destroy a broken down 70s-era piece of equipment with a bat just to get it replaced.

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