Friday, July 27, 2007

Bound to Happen

Viewers of tonight's "Fox Report" saw something fairly rare, at least among broadcast journalists who presume to "give it to us straight."

During the second half-hour of the broadcast, anchor Shepard Smith pitched a mini, on-air"fit" at viewers. Apparently, a number had suggested that the tragic, mid-air collision of two Phoenix TV news choppers was inevitable, given the hyper-competitive nature of the business, and the rush by local stations to acquire (and "brand") their helicopters.

Mr. Smith suggested that viewers don't understand the nature of television news and the people who work in that industry. They're sent out on a job, he explained, and the choppers are a useful tool, providing aerial shots of breaking news. According to Smith (and local reports from Phoenix), the suspect being trailed by the helicopters instigated a one-man crime wave, holding police at bay for hours after the car chase. If you don't understand that, he told his audience, perhaps you shouldn't watch the news.

Mr. Smith's snarky, slightly condescending reaction wasn't really surprising. As a local reporter in Florida, he spent more than a few hours in news choppers, in pursuit of a story. Before arriving at Fox, Smith worked at WSVN, the network's affiliate in Miami, where a news director named Joel Cheatwood made a name for himself--and his station--with a frenetic style of coverage built around "breaking" news, accentuated with plenty of helicopter coverage. It was an approach that has been both widely imitated--and condemned--in broadcast circles, and the influence of that "model" was on display in Phoenix yesterday.

While our condolences go out to the newsrooms and families that lost loved ones in the Phoenix disaster, the viewers that upset Mr. Smith have a valid point--one that should not be ignored by TV news executives and station owners. The seeds of today's crash were sown years ago, and sadly, something like this was bound to happen.

Once upon a time, choppers were something of a novelty in television news. An independent station in Los Angeles pioneered the technology in the 1960s, then eventually sold the chopper to rival KNBC. But the number of TV news helicopters remained relatively small until the 80s and early 90s, when station managers, news directors and broadcast consultants discovered ratings gold in aerial coverage.

The trend began (not surprisingly) in Southern California, where local stations began using their choppers to cover police chases on local freeways. Never mind that the stories were often insignificant; audience shares actually increased during live coverage of police pursuits, and stations that ignored them inevitably lost viewers. With money and jobs on the line, few broadcast outlets were willing to buck the trend. Get your own chopper, and get it in the air.

But for what? According to press reports, there were no less than five TV news helicopters in the skies over Phoenix on Friday. The suspect in the high-speed chase certainly attracted media attention, but law enforcement had the situation under control. But those compelling aerial shots--and the promise of higher ratings--sent everyone scrambling to their helicopters. The choppers from the local ABC affiliate and independent station KTVK were maneuvering for their shots when they collided. Four persons--two pilots and two videographers--died in pursuit of a story that became major news largely because of TV coverage, and the ensuring tragedy.

As a result of Friday's crash, there should be a moment of introspection and reflection in the news business. Phoenix isn't the only media market with dueling choppers, and the same sort of disaster could easily happen in other cities, unless the FAA--and broadcasters--step in, and develop new safety guidelines for helicopter coverage.

And, oddly enough, there is a simple solution for the problem. If local stations decide they really need aerial coverage, they can develop a helicopter "pool," with each outlet sharing the same pictures from a single chopper. Broadcasters already use this approach for covering events where the number of cameras and reporters are restricted. There's little reason that a helicopter pool couldn't work in most markets.

But that brings us back to the "branding" concept, a term once reserved for marketing toothpaste and soap, not the day's news. In an era of shrinking audiences for networks and local stations, broadcasters are looking for any competitive advantage they can find. That's why they're willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware like satellite trucks and helicopters, so viewers will know that the EyewitnessActionNewsChannel is overhead with pictures of the latest house fire, or fatal wreck on the expressway.

It's one thing to send journalists into a combat zone to cover a war, with the understanding that they might be killed. It's quite another to send pilots and cameramen out in breathless pursuit of a highway chase, or something else that floats in over the police scanner. Journalists should mourn the passing of their colleagues in Phoenix, but they should also ask themselves a serious question: Was it really worth it, and (without necessary reforms), how long will it be before it happens again?

Sadly, that moment of reflection will last until the next ratings book, the arrival of a next news director, or that next, urgent transmission on the police frequency. That's the deplorable nature of local TV news in the 21st Century, and that's one reason that four men died in a mad scramble over Phoenix.


amr said...

I had commented as you posted at another site. Additionally the police have warned off the media before as I remember but no lessons were apparently learned. What I failed to realize, brought out by other commenters at that site, is that the pilot is also the one passing the verbal feed on to the station; so he is also watching the monitor. Piloting a copter in a situation with at least 4 other copters (no police copter was present?) AND doing the reporting is an accident waiting to happen. It was posted that the reporters have been pulled off of the media copters to save money. True? I don't know but sounds plausible.

The Prodigal Student said...

I saw Shep blow his cool, too, and immediately felt the same as you. In fact, I think that the Fox News broadcasts, excepting Brit Hume's show, have been steadily moving down market in their coverage of news. The hype of drama and tragedy in daily life is becoming slightly annoying. Like others, I suppose, I can't stand the bias of the MSM, and the "crap" that is moving into cable news is becoming just as disturbing. Maybe that is why I and others find the internet and blogosphere to be better places to get our information.

SwampWoman said...

I have often switched on the television when I finished work in the afternoon to see what had happened during the day. More times than I care to remember, there was some sort of police "chase" which was extremely boring as well as annoying.

If movement is so important to ratings, perhaps on a slow news day they could set up cameras at various anonymous day care centers and film the little perpetual motion machines running around playing and crying and getting into mischief, or perhaps at the monkey habitat at the zoo.

As long as there aren't aerial shots of the action.

bruceb said...

you are much kinder than I was in my blog. Shepard can go to hell if HE doesn't understand that the instant reporting of these stories brings MORE danger to police, to victims, and to the general public than if they were reported conventionally.
How can he IGNORE that innocent civilians are being endangered and that some nearly lost their lives Friday (a chopper blade stuck a pickup truck and then embedded itself in the asphalt)?
His self righteous ignorance INFURIATES me.
He bitched that the public mistakenly thinks these air cowboys volunteer for their job rather than being specifically assigned to it. That is insulting to all of us.
NO ONE is forced to get in that chopper and fly it into a law enforcement scenario.
Shepard can eat shit and die. As I posted on my blog, I pray he is hit by a FOXNEWS van when he leaves work as it responds to a shoplifting incident down the street.

REPORT the news Shepard, stay out of it and don't involve innocent bystanders in your pursuit of fame.

I will never watch FOXNEWS again after the insults spewed by that self serving asshole.

Geekster said...

Corporate UAVs will probably make the issue moot over the next decade.

John J. Coupal said...

With 24/7 news coverage available to almost every news junkie, the crash was inevitable.

Competition for viewers' eyes in ratings ensures future crashes, or variations on them. Such news- gathering tools are becoming more lethal.

It will take the deaths of civilians by "news" providers to prompt a change in tactics.

The helicopter pilots/news reporters should volunteer for military service in Iraq, where their talents would actually do someone some good.

Augurwell said...

Well you know... this whole thing here reminds me of that movie "Natural Born Killers"... why, I don't know but it does...?

Snake Oil Baron said...

"Corporate UAVs will probably make the issue moot over the next decade."

True. And everyone will know where something is happening because the skies will turn black over that part of the city. Some media UAVs will travel with combat escort UAVs to ward off those of other stations.

Geekster said...

"And everyone will know where something is happening because the skies will turn black over that part of the city."

I don't believe so. First of all UAVs are smaller so is is less physically likely that they will collide and they won't need more of them. Each media outlet would probably have one and the major networks are generally affiliated with a local station so the networks woudl get their feeds.

Some stations might have more than one for traffic reporting and such in large metros but it is going to save an enormous amount of money in fuel, insurance costs, and upkeep once the UAVs make their way into the civilian market. And there is a group of trained pilots and maintainers of these vehicles thanks to military training.

I believe we are going to see greater use of UAVs from civic authorities (police departments, etc) and media outlets and there will be few collisions and when one does happen, far less damage on the ground will result.

TheOther said...

What I also find disturbing is the proliferation of "iReports" - video taken by civilians who just happened to be there. It's only a matter of time before people die trying to get their 15 minutes. I mean, more people.