The Digital Journalist

Survivor Island is
Looking Pretty Good

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

This month marks the third anniversary of our Platypus Workshops. There have been six since the first one in March of 1999, at the University of Oklahoma. We will graduate our 200th photojournalist to whom we have taught the basic language of television storytelling.

A decline in the availability of display space in print publications, especially long-form photo essays, necessitated the concept of the Platypus. Also, it was clear that as huge conglomerates assumed control of magazines and agencies, there would be a downward turn in the market for new photography. We set our sights on the burgeoning world of cable television, and the ultimate deployment of broadband, high-speed connections on the World Wide Web, to create new marketplaces where visual journalists could find room and support for their work.

Three years later, with the clarity of hindsight, we can say that the first part of our premise came true. Those conglomerates did indeed swallow entire publishing companies. Corbis and Getty have changed the basic role of the photographic agencies such as Sygma, Liaison, and Saba. The idea of supporting new major long-form projects is frowned upon as the owners attempt to "professionalize" the notoriously low-profit and messy business of journalism.

We understood that one of the by-products of the proliferation of cable, which took the previous annual airtime of the three "major" networks from 53,000 hours to fill per year, to over 2,500,000, would be to fractionalize the mass audience. This would inevitably mean less money to spend on producing shows. The idea of the Platypus was to use this fact as leverage in the market. The idea being, if you couldn't send a three-person crew to cover a story because of cost, perhaps the model of the lone photographer who has always been employed in still photojournalism would be welcome.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. One of our Platypus students, Bill Campbell, a contributing photographer to Time Magazine, writes this month about his real-life experiences in trying to adjust to the world of television documentaries.

Bill and I attended this year's Real Screen Summit, a conclave of independent non-fiction producers. There were over 500 of them, all trying to pitch projects to the likes of CNN, Discovery Networks, The BBC, The Food Network, and Court TV. We were astonished to discover that the producers, mostly from small independent companies, were essentially going through the same thing that we, as still photojournalists, have been facing for the past five years. The downward pressure on the creative's compensation, and the move to grab up all rights to the product. Just like still photojournalists, it is the right of the artist to keep and continue to sell the work that is the key to long-term survival.

Today, with these huge, vertically-integrated corporations, the buyer wants ALL rights to ALL the material, so the work can be cut apart and re-purposed for other TV properties, print, and the World Wide Web. At one of the panel discussions, broadcast executives were peppered with questions by the producers about how they were expected to make any money, let alone a living, in this environment. One network executive admitted that the acceptable profit point for a producer to build into his or her budget has fallen in the past decade from about 15% to less than 7%. Furthermore, in our extremely litigious society, more time and effort is going into simply acquiring and demonstrating the necessary legal clearance before the final payments will be made to the producer.

Recently, a magazine photo editor told me he was shocked to find hardly any photo projects coming "over the transom." This means an unsolicited story, shot on spec, by a photojournalist has virtually ceased to exist. The simple fact is that hardly any photographer, especially with the demise of the agencies, can afford to take on self-funded projects. Eventually, this leads to a terrible erosion of product quality coming from publications and TV.

The reality series "Survivor" was very much on everyone's mind at the RealScreen Summit. Of course, the networks love the show because it requires no actors, writers, or expensive sets. The show has saved Thursday night for CBS.

Will a writer's and a Screen Actors Guild strike, both on the horizon for this spring, mean that these reality shows and reruns are all the audience will get to see? Actor-turned-producer Richard Dreyfus dismissed the show, saying, "Survivor represents a spasm in our culture. It will not even survive in the list of great fads of the 21st century."

On the other hand, Survivor deploys more camera crews than at the Super Bowl. Unless something changes, it may be that the only visual journalists left will be the ones on Survivor Island.

(Read Dirck Halstead's report on the 2001 RealScreen Summit,)