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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.

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.

News 12/the Bronx was the first station to use PVTV, signing up in March 1998 and debuting three months later, and even though the station was put together with the system in mind, Webb conceded that there was "a lot of guinea-pigging. They took a lot of information from us directors and went back and reworked it to add things we thought should be added. There's been at least ten facelifts since then, and it took a lot of patience on people's part, because it takes a completely different way of thinking. But it's been very successful."

Thanks to PVTV, News 12 runs lean and mean. On most newscasts, the station employs a single anchor, a director and a producer whose task is to update stories or simply keep track of time. But according to Webb, "If the producer has to go and do something else, it's fine. And if one of the producers calls in sick, we don't have to get somebody else in there. The director controls the whole system, and he can handle it." He added, "Knowing ParkerVision has really advanced my career. People contact me all the time trying to steal me away because I know it. This is really where the industry is going -- automation and reducing the size of the control-room staff. Instead of having a crew of fifteen, you have three, or even one."

Kurt Stoneburner, the PVTV director for KBAK, the CBS affiliate in Bakersfield, California, croons a similar tune, and why not? He's working in what is well on its way to becoming the most ParkerVision-heavy market in the country. Stoneburner learned how to use PVTV in early 2000 while working at Bakersfield's NBC outlet, KGET. Shortly after switching over to KBAK, he arranged for the installation of the system there, too; it came online in February. That means only one Bakersfield station with a news operation -- KERO, an ABC specialist -- isn't on the ParkerVision bandwagon. But that's about to change: KERO's newscasts convert to PVTV in January 2002.

To Stoneburner, Bakersfield's rush to Parker-Vision makes perfect sense for several reasons. "Obviously, there's the cost savings," he says. "But another advantage is consistency. Every director on every newscast who goes to a double box on screen does it the same way, and that really helps maintain quality. Plus, directors spend less of their time with show preparation. For a half-hour newscast, I might not have to start my preparations until an hour before it starts, giving me more time to spend on doing other duties. It makes everyone more efficient."

Everyone who's still got a job, that is. Stoneburner says KBAK trimmed "five or six" employees from its staff after embracing PVTV, prompting noteworthy cost reductions. So far, this money hasn't been reallocated to other portions of the news operation, as took place at News 12/the Bronx: "We've been able to reinvest in the journalism aspects, which is what really matters," says operations manager Webb. But without ParkerVision, Stoneburner suggests, the staggering economy and advertising shortfalls in the wake of 9-11 might well have hit KBAK much harder. "Cuts would have been a distinct possibility without it," he notes.

Networks, too, see ParkerVision as a way to lower expenses. In August, ABC announced that it had installed a PVTV studio in its New York headquarters for use late on Fridays and Saturdays. The company previously kept a squad on hand during these periods in case of breaking news. But with PVTV, the number of people required to hang around waiting for calamity has been substantially reduced.

Channel 7, whose late-news ratings remain anemic, diminished its workforce via high-tech upgrades prior to taking on PVTV. Last year, a "digital service center" in Indianapolis took over master control duties for the outlet and two other stations owned by its parent company, McGraw-Hill, with several positions lost along the way. "There was some nervousness before we made that change, just as there was when we went to robotic cameras," says Velasquez. "But now I don't think anyone would question the way we're switching or would want to go back to manually operating cameras.

"These new technologies are going to change the ways we deliver the news. And we want to be part of it."

What's the big deal?: Most big media transactions take place in secret, with power brokers working out details in private long before the public has an inkling that anything is going on. But that's not how Chicago's Tribune Company is handling things in regard to its three radio stations in Denver: the classic-rocking Hawk, adult-contemporary purveyor KOSI and nostalgia-themed KEZW. On November 6, the firm issued a press release under the heading "Tribune to Explore Trading Denver Radio for Television," in which it explicitly expressed its desire to swap the outlets for "television assets" somewhere in the U.S. Also included was a sales pitch from Tribune president and chief operating officer Dennis FitzSimons, who said, "Our Denver radio stations are great businesses run by great people, and we plan to find the best way to maximize the potential of these valuable properties while further expanding our core media assets."

The desire to trade the stations rather than simply sell them may seem odd on the surface, but it makes sense to accountants. Known in CPA circles as a "like-kind exchange," this sort of high-stakes bartering allows the seller and the buyer to delay paying taxes on the various properties -- a definite draw in a slumping economy that's already causing concern at Tribune, which also owns Denver's Channel 2. According to Crain's Chicago Business, the company's flagship newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, will bring in $300 million less in advertising revenue this year compared to 2000.

The stations in question aren't Denver's most priceless, but they're certainly all players. According to the latest Arbitrons, KOSI is the sixth-most-listened-to station in the city among listeners age twelve and older, the Hawk comes in at fourteenth place on the same list, and KEZW, the highest-ranking AM outlet specializing in music, finishes in seventeenth position. Jane Bartsch, vice president and general manger of Tribune Denver Radio, sees all three as attractive buys. "KOSI had a down ratings book, but it's still in the top three for its demographic, women 25 to 54, and the Hawk is doing very well with men 25 to 54, even though the market is so -- if you'll pardon the expression -- over-rocked. And KEZW is the only game in town when it comes to adult-pop standards."

Under most circumstances, executives at competing stations would probably dispute these characterizations -- but with the outlets on the block, they respond with valentines. Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications, owner of Alice, the Peak and many other radio and TV properties, is doing some belt-tightening these days, having reduced the wages of 2,500 workers by 10 percent; in return, those employees get Emmis shares equal to the amount of salary they're losing. Even so, Emmis's Denver boss, Joe Schwartz, says, "Obviously we're interested in exploring the idea of a trade. The CEO of Emmis, Jeff Smulyan, is on record as saying he would absolutely like to grow in Denver, and I feel the same way. I think they're three wonderful stations that would make great additions to our properties in Denver if and when we made a deal." Oh, yeah -- several years ago, Emmis did a TV-for-radio exchange with Tribune in order to obtain New York City smooth-jazz station WQCD.

Other possible suitors are a bit more cautious. Bob Call, vice president and general manager of Jefferson-Pilot Communications, which owns five stations in Denver, including top-rated KYGO-FM, didn't return a call seeking comment; Steve Keeney, who holds the same title for the Denver branch of Infinity, owner of three signals (KOOL-105, Jammin' and KIMN/the Mix), says, "If we're looking at them, I'm not aware of it. But I assume we're talking." Keeney adds, "I think they're all terrific radio stations. KOSI is a heritage station in this market, the Hawk has done a wonderful job of finding a place as a more pop-based classic-rock station, and KEZW is that rare AM station that's probably making money. It's got a unique niche format that serves an older audience that's interested in music, and it's doing it on the AM band. That's why there's so much interest in the stations."

Of course, it's also possible that a corporation not yet in Denver could make Tribune an offer it can't refuse, or that a deal won't happen at all until the economy improves. But if someone pulls the trigger, the result will be the biggest shakeup in local radio since Clear Channel's 1999 merger with AMFM, which subsequently required the sale of six area stations.

In the meantime, Bartsch says it's business as usual at the Tribune properties. "We're moving full steam ahead, and that's a credit to Tribune for being so aboveboard about this. Everyone appreciates the company giving us a heads up that this is a possibility instead of us waiting to hear it from our competition -- which is usually always wrong, anyway."

Station to station: Beginning on December 3, Channel 4 is altering its weekday news block, reducing its hourlong 5 p.m. broadcast by half, moving the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather from 6 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and debuting a new half-hour news show at 6 p.m.

In doing so, the signal is turning its back on counter-programming. Previously, it offered a local alternative at 5:30 p.m. to NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw on Channel 9 and ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings on Channel 7; likewise, it placed Rather's national broadcast opposite local news on channels 9 and 7. From now on, though, viewers will get national news at 5:30 p.m. and local news at 6 p.m. on all three major-network affiliates.

Marv Rockford, Channel 4's vice president and general manager, says this move was made largely because "as the metro area continues to expand and the population continues to grow, commute times get longer and longer, and we want to be available in news time periods when people are available to watch. And increasingly, the six o'clock hour is one of those periods."

That comment requires some translation. Audience numbers are growing at 6 p.m., when the CBS Evening News has been airing -- but since that's a national broadcast, Channel 4 doesn't make as much money off advertising as it would from a local news program. Hence, it's choosing to compete head-to-head with local offerings on channels 9 and 7, figuring that it'll make more money during that span, no matter what happens. Dan Rather's numbers will probably suffer -- he's trailing both Brokaw and Jennings nationally and is apt to get squished in Denver -- but Channel 4 is gambling that it'll still wind up ahead.

"This is a strategic issue," Rockford says. And like so much strategy, it comes down to dollars and cents.

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