August 23, 2000


by Lynn French, Photographer, WRAL-TV Raleigh, NC

I was born at the wrong time, about 20 years too late. I missed the crest of TV news and caught it just as it crashed on the shore and turned to foam.

A good friend at work, Brian Shrader, shares my appreciation for the finest days of television news, the grainy transition from film to tape, better known as the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. We relish anchors with helmet hair, weather drawn on shiny maps with oil pens and magnetic icons, helicopters shaped like martini olives. We love textured beige backgrounds and lavaliere mics the size of puffed cheetos. In the two years at my present station, Brian and I take a monthly field trip into the attics, catwalks and hidden spaces of WRAL to recover the deteriorating history of Raleigh TV news. We have uncovered boxes of glass slides that once produced the pictures behind the anchors, rainbow colored promotional items considered garish by today’s serious standards, and occasionally a tape or two showcasing television journalism in it’s purest state.

Earlier in the week one of our senior photographers had the arduous task of retrieving 20-year-old tapes from a hot tin building at the station’s transmitter site. Along with the requested footage, Keith Baker brought back some forgotten archives of tornado coverage in 1984, a random newscast from the 70’s and other assorted clunky 3/4 inch tapes. When he popped the first dictionary sized cassette in the antiquated VCR, I could not pick up the phone fast enough to call Brian to the edit room to see such fine television. I got his voice mail and left a message with the urgency of breaking news (that is now decades old).

Sunday night, Brian proclaimed an impromptu viewing party. After I finished editing my stories for the 10 o’clock news, we went to the grocery store to get appropriate snacks. Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Tootsie Rolls, chips and cheese dip and Fresca seemed to fit our craving for sweet nostalgia that we were too naive to appreciate at the time.

The first selection in our exhibition was a newscast from a regular day in March of 1977. Two national stories led the newscast and a major train derailment in the DMA was after weather. The local stories were long and all encompassing, running in excess of 2 minutes, but by the end I knew everything and more about the issue. The transitions to commercial breaks were short, the anchors were on camera, there was no music. The video was film and it was beautiful, not for the composition or the color, but for the sheer fact it was film and I have attempted to realize the daily feat of getting that footage on the air. The commercials were gut busting hilarious, Don Meredith putting an icicle in his Lipton tea during deep winter, car commercials featuring a finned Cadillac longer than a school bus and perky women in pony tails selling kitchen appliances. But outside of the adorable archaic details, in the bigger picture was this: it was the news of the day and nothing else. There were no demographics being targeted, no network tie-ins, essentially, no crap, just news. It was simple and innocent in concept---getting the news to the viewer. Yet so much harder and journalistically correct compared to today.

Next was a day in May of 1979, the oil crisis was in full swing and there was one in-depth story about high gas prices. No team coverage, no team smotherage, just the facts peppered with people’s reactions. There was a visual mix of film and tape. But the most noticeable thing about news photography of that day: it is the same damn thing we do today. We have invented nothing new. We have not re-chiseled the wheel anytime in the
recent past. There were sequences, cut aways, good lighting, wide…medium…tight, all the same things we do today. I felt a combination of pride in my photojournalism heritage and disappointment in the lack of advancements. Just in the two years between these two newscasts, there was a marked difference in local emphasis, shorter stories, higher story count, more edits in the video and more production in the overall newscast, the consultants were creeping in.

Then came 1984. It was local news at it’s absolute finest, a text book version of what local news should be for it’s viewers. The night before a tornado swept over half of eastern North Carolina killing 50 people and doing millions upon millions of dollars in damage to small towns and tight knit communities. They were everywhere, in people’s homes, the hospital, emergency management centers, all the places we go now, but it was so much more real than today, the people were not so media savvy, the reporters were more concerned with getting you an in-depth story than padding out the spot news portion of their resume tape. The anchors were sharp and serious without being over dramatic. The most impressive moment was when the silver back gorilla anchor popped up in a liveshot at a damaged house and apologized for not being on the air earlier. We realized that he was most likely in the rundown as the lead story and tanked for half an hour making stories shift and liveshots float, and we the unsuspecting viewers never had
a clue. They did this extensive coverage without cell phones, laptops and self-timing computer generated rundowns. If this was local news’s crowing moment, I don’t feel so forsaken as we spiral downward further away from journalism.

Finally we watched 1987. There was a familiar slick floating on it: Mic flags, SOT teases, station logos slapped on each bump to commercial. We could see the traits of today’s news in the 13-year-old lost signal, like looking at your grandparents’ baby pictures, the evidence of intent was there. The cocoon was spun and a moth would soon emerge where a butterfly was hoped to be born---news was no longer a service, but a product.

The July ratings period closes next week. As I managed to survive without watching a single episode of Survivor and my life is probably richer for doing yard work rather than wallowing in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" November now approaches. Here between the least watched month of television and the most important 30 days in the broadcast year, the networks will premier the fall line up, we will do primetime tie-ins, demographic targeting teases and promotable pieces. I realize the world is different now, and local news had to change with the times. But as Brian and I sat watching these newscasts for two hours, absolutely mesmerized by their qualities, it makes me wonder what kind of numbers would a station get if they played re-runs of old newscasts to remind us how far we have come and show us how good we used to be.

Lynn French


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