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.