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


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?