Robo News

Channel 7 readies a new computer system that makes the newspeople behind the scenes all but obsolete.

Thanks to movies like Broadcast News and television programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, most people have a clear image of how TV newscasts are assembled. We're familiar with the camera operators, the lighting and sound technicians, the control rooms filled with crew members in thrall to a director calling each and every shot.

As it turns out, much of what we think we know is wrong. For instance, a sizable percentage of local news operations are presently using robotic cameras that require a single robot operator instead of one human per lens. Moreover, new technology recently purchased by Channel 7 drastically reduces the number of individuals needed to helm other news-reporting tools. When all is said and done, it will be possible for a single person to put on a newscast at the station.

ParkerVision, based in Jacksonville, Florida, is the company behind the PVTV Production Automation System, and while this creation is not yet the industry standard, it could be soon, for two simple reasons: The appliance makes newscasts more uniform even as it allows payrolls to be slashed.

Mark Andresen

For obvious reasons, representatives at PVTV stations are more eager to talk about the former than the latter, but all acknowledge that such outlets need fewer support personnel than those who've yet to upgrade. Currently, says Cindy Velasquez, Channel 7's vice president and general manager, seven people are required to get the average newscast on the air at her shop. But with PVTV, she expects that total will be immediately reduced to three, thus eliminating about a dozen positions, or approximately 5 percent of the station's workforce. And since many PVTV users have found that two staffers per newscast are plenty, further cutbacks remain a strong possibility.

Velasquez emphasizes that employees have been given ample warning. "It's not something that's happening this week, with pink slips on Friday," she says. "That's not the way we do things around here." Instead, PVTV is being phased in over the course of nearly eighteen months, with one shift scheduled for automation in each season of next year to give workers time to mull over buyouts or early-retirement plans the station has made available. But they can't put the decision off forever: By December 2002, Velasquez says, Channel 7's newscasts will be entirely under the ParkerVision umbrella, joining just over a dozen news operations nationwide, with more sure to follow.

Scott Matics, marketing manager for Parker-Vision, describes PVTV as "a large computerized system that controls a whole lot of the gear that is usually part of a newscast." This includes digital video switchers, Chroma Keyers (the blue-screen devices used in weather reports), digital and analogue audio mixers, teleprompting equipment, manned cameras and more. Every name, banner, graphic, crawl or video box seen on screen is fed into PVTV, as are dozens of less noticeable commands, such as turning microphones on or off. These orders are then sequenced within a template previously constructed for each newscast to generate what Matics calls "an event-driven timeline."

PVTV controllers track this timeline using "a dual-computer-monitor display," Matics explains. "They can just press 'Go' and watch everything happen if they need to, but usually they follow along with the script." He adds that some operators do everything using a computer mouse, but most prefer "a foot pedal. They use it to advance through the show, leaving their hands free to make last-minute adjustments." Vroom, vroom.

At first glance, this gadgetry would seem to have at least a couple of flaws -- susceptibility to a computer failure that would leave the operator helpless and an inability to deal with news bulletins or unexpected events of the sort that have cropped up frequently since September 11. But PVTV is designed to handle both of these possibilities. The system features a backup "mirror" drive that springs into action if the main contraption goes down, and it stores templates set up specifically for surprises that are triggered by "late-breaking-news-programmable keys," Matics says.

"Let's say we're in the middle of a newscast, and everything's running along fine when we hear there's a train wreck, and there's a truck there with a reporter monitoring the situation," he continues. "It's possible to build a set of commands that would include going to that truck, bringing up a graphic that says 'late-breaking news' and loading in audio commands. Once the decision is made to interrupt the timeline, somebody will speak to the talent over the intercom system, saying, 'After this segment, we'll go live,' and the director clicks that key, expanding the timeline and throwing the program into the next segment."

That sounds complicated, but Brian Webb, operations manager at PVTV pioneer News 12/the Bronx, says it's actually quite straightforward, and there's plenty of evidence to back up his opinion. Webb was contacted for this column only hours after one of many horrific events to take place in New York City of late -- the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in the Belle Harbor section of Queens. News 12, a 24-hour cable news channel with sister services in Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey and Connecticut, was in the throes of covering this disaster, but Webb said, "I can talk now -- no problem," even as the neighborhood was burning. PVTV: the ultimate stress reducer.

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