Steven Trent Smith

There's No Business
Like The News Business

“No one ever lost his job covering the news.” So said CBS News New York Bureau chief, Christie Basham, twenty years ago during one of the innumerable budget cuts.

Today, I’m not so sure Christie’s statement holds true. The world of television news has changed dramatically during those two decades. In 2001 the bean counters seem to hold sway over the journalists, and it is entirely possible that someone could be fired covering the news.

In 1976, Martha and I were one of the first crews to change from film to video (3/4" U-matic back in those early days). As a result, we got a lot of work because there were so few freelance ENG crews. And the system worked much differently– the networks actually covered news stories themselves, rather than rely (as today) on local stations and news services.

Someone recently wrote that the late 1970's and early 1980's were the “Golden Age” for ENG crews. Balderdash!, I thought when I read it. But upon reflection, it’s probably true. Those were the halcyon days. Martha and I got to travel around the world, several times, on stories that today would not warrant sending a crew. For example, in 1981, CBS pre-positioned two crews in Ankara for the visit of secretary of state Alexander Haig. Then, while he went on to another stop, we were to jump ahead to Rabat to await his arrival there. Two crews! For the secretary of state, no less. There’s no way that would happen today. I’m not even sure the networks would provide that kind of coverage for the president.

The 1986 presidential election in the Philippines was probably the most extravagant use of news resources I can recall. CBS had seven or eight crews, a private satellite uplink, and the ability to take in live feeds from three different locations at one time. The network even sent over a team from their polling service to setup exit polls at the voting stations (a monumental failure). The Philippines was, in many ways, the last hurrah.

Times have surely changed.

Twenty years ago it was the norm to send a crew to cover even the most mundane of stories. We got hundreds of assignments over the years to shoot things like: a pile of coal at a Pittsburgh-area power station during the 1977 energy crisis, a shot of former president Gerald Ford getting out of a car at the Army War College (and tripping over the curb), the imploding of an old hotel in Atlantic City. In all cases, getting to these places required 3-5 hours of travel, just to tape a single element for a larger story. In 2001, if the network even deigned to use such imagery, they would pick it up from their affiliates at virtually no cost.

Back in the 70's and into the mid-80's, CBS News had a “Net First” policy. That meant that the hugely popular “Evening News with Walter Cronkite” could declare first dibs on any story or images. Net First ensured that the
video would be exclusive to the Cronkite show, and only after it had aired there would it be released for distribution to other CBS broadcasts and station affiliates. In 2001, the images you see on the “Evening News” have already been shown all-day long on outlets like CNN, and then again on your local news. The chances of seeing exclusive footage of breaking news on the nightly network programs is now almost nil.

This is due mainly to the growth of news feed services, with names like Newspath and Newsource. The concept has been around for decades. ABC used to call its daily late afternoon half-hour relay of stories the Daily Electronic Feed. ABC/DEF. Get it? Today, one of these “video wire services” may relay one or two hundred pieces each day, sometimes operating 24/7. The feeds create two phenomena: 1) they reduce the importance of the daily network flagship news broadcasts, and 2) because hundreds of stations across the country, and even around the world, are swapping stories and pictures, the cost of covering national and international events has decreased (and that makes the financial people smile).

Another change from the old days: in 2001, the number of freelance video people has increased from a phone booth full to a stadium full. Nowadays, anybody and everybody can, and does, shoot video. Seeing amateur images on the nightly news is common - some of the most infamous images of the past decade were made by non-professionals (e.g., the Rodney King beating in LA, the fiery Concorde flying to its doom).

None of the front office people seem to understand that the photographer’s skill is a finely honed one; that experience in the field is a valuable commodity. I guess the decision makers figure that if they can shoot their sons’ birthday parties on their little handycams, a producer or a reporter can shoot a news story. CNN is trying this in a big way, having purchased multiple sets of mini digital cameras and edit packs to hand out to non-photographers. This system might be fine for those rare personalities who possess a strong auteur streak, and who excel at the myriad skills necessary to produce, write, report, photograph and edit a story. But for the other 99.9% of broadcast journalists, the collaborative nature of news coverage works just fine, thank you very much.

Even the prestige news broadcasts are not immune to the bean counters. A producer friend at a highly esteemed morning news program told me recently that his executive producer called him on the carpet for letting a camera crew put in for overtime. It seems that the crew worked for a different broadcast one day, traveling that night from New York to Ohio to be ready for an early morning interview for my friend’s show. The OT was charged to his show, not the other, and hence the reaming out.

Things aren’t a whole lot better at a top rated weekly magazine show. Producers there are watched over by a Senior, who happily second guesses their needs and tells them they’ve booked too many shoot days. “Cut $10,000 from your budget,” is a familiar refrain there today. And this is a show that brings the network tons of revenue.

So where does this all lead us in the coming decade?

Crikey, I dunno.

I suspect the bean counters will continue to prevail, squeezing deeper and deeper cuts out of the news divisions (or getting out of the news business entirely). The globalization of news coverage by a steadily diminishing number of outlets can mean huge cost savings for the conglomerates, but at the cost of journalistic diversity and integrity. And I fear that. Do I really want AOL/TimeWarner, Viacom, Fox and Disney to control the vast majority of the news I can watch or read?

We should be scared by “synergy,” where the conglomerate’s various divisions interlink their efforts, usually in the nature of promoting a product. The synergistic possibilities at AOL/TimeWarner are mind boggling. Warner can produce a film, the making of which can be promoted on HBO, the opening of which can be hyped on AOL, and reviews of the film can appear in Time Magazine and on CNN. Still other synergies come to mind. The film’s finances can be covered in Fortune and Money and on CNNFN, and celebrities can be splashed across the pages of People. A year down the road, HBO can show the film, and, after it’s become a classic, TCM can air it too. The line between news and entertainment, already blurred, stands to disappear altogether.

And jeez, what happens if a good story is inimical to the parent company? A journalist may say, “run it.” But a corporate manager may say, “run it and you’re fired.” Sooner or later, that kind of pressure will force the real journalists out, to be replaced by corporate-compliant people (a phenomenon that is already beginning to happen).

The business of television journalism today places too much emphasis on the bottom line and not enough on serving the viewer. The Golden Age of TV news is dead. And, unfortunately, I don’t think it will be too long before Christie Basham’s maxim is proved wrong. Will the pendulum ever swing back? Don’t hold your breath.

Steven Trent Smith
Contributing Writer

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