Saturday, July 30, 2005

Morning Show Manufactured Madness

Summertime: that magical season when co-workers go on leave and I’m forced to play well with others. This week it was the early morning shift that needed a body behind the lens, so before I knew it, I was setting my bedside alarm for 4 am. I’ve written about the early shift before. Like the Marines, your average morning show news crew does more before sunrise than most people get around to all week. Perhaps that’s because the modern viewer expects so very much from the early bird broadcast - from anchors who look like they should be married to the requisite wackiness from winking correspondents in the field. Requisite wackiness: that’s where I come in.

No, you won’t see me working the morning mic - not when there’s so many more telegenic staffers at El Ocho. Take our regular morning reporter Shannon Smith, for example. Here she’s pictured working the skins as part of our preview for the Drum Corps Associates Preview of Champions. Shannon and I go way back, having covered hurricanes, murders and more American Idol happenings than either of us want to talk about. A couple of years ago, Shannon set aside her hard news chops for the softer side of local TV. Now instead of frequenting crime scenes and the like, you’ll find her flashing her dimples on the a.m. remote - be it a cooking segment, scuba diving lessons or blistering drum solo. Through it all, Shannon remains fun to be around - even when she’s hammering out a backbeat a few inches from my lens at six in the morning.

On Friday, Shannon filled in on the anchor desk, creating gaping hole in our planned preview coverage of the Buckmasters Hunting Expo. Enter Jeff Varner - weekend anchor, former ‘Survivor’ contestant and possibly the one man who knows even less about hunting than yours truly. Still, that didn’t stop either of us from plunging headfirst into the Greensboro Coliseum’s Special Events Center, where alleged celebrity Jackie Bushman met our every broadcast need with a smile and an oversized cowboy hat. Soon we found something sufficiently goofy for Jeff to do on -air: demonstrate his lack of archery acumen for the entertainment of a region full of coffee-stirrers. To his credit, Jeff nailed the bulls eye several times over, withOUT the help of trick photography. I asked him if he’d honed his bow and arrow skills in the Outback, but he assured me that’s not the case.

In the end, my forced stint of pre-dawn television wasn’t so bad,. With pros like Jeff and Shannon riding point, how could it be? Still, morning live shots ain’t easy. For every three minute segment of light and fluffy news banter, there’s easily an hour spent pulling cable, rigging lights and emergency battery replacement. These are things the viewers never see (and shouldn’t have to). Perhaps those who read this though, will come away with a better appreciation for the hokey morning live shot crew. Maybe the next time they see their local newscaster, beat a drum, shoot an arrow or any other feat of labored incongruence, they’ll think of the guy or gal behind the lens. Possibly they’ll see the morning news from a new perspective: that of the camera-grunt who suffered greatly so his region could be amused by obsequious antics and throw-away chatter...Naaah, who am I kidding?

P.S.) Do you recognize the man in the middle? I didn’t either, but his many minions soon filled me in. He’s Jackie Bushman, former tennis pro, host of two TV shows and founder of the 360,000 member Buckmasters. If that means as little to you as it did to me, don’t feel bad. Jackie doesn’t mind. He’s too busy ruling over a kingdom of camouflage zombies and dedicated deer-killers. Hey, it’s not my idea of a good time either, but one look around the sweeping Buckmasters Hunting Expo and its painfully clear not everyone sees the world as I do. That’s cool. Besides, Jackie’s a nice enough guy - a self-styled marketing visionary who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty to get his message on-screen. After shooting the breeze all morning , I came to think of him as just another dude in a cowboy hat and turtleneck. Then I stumbled across a grinning life-size cardboard cutout of the man himself. ‘Take a Picture with Jackie Bushman!’ the sign read. More than a little weirded out by the corrugated doppelganger looming over me, I backed away slowly, never taking my eyes off the eerily grinning figure.

Celebrity - it can be scary...

Friday, July 29, 2005

WXLV/WUPN Dumps News

As an avowed broadcaster, it pains me anytime a newscast goes dark - especially when it puts friends of mine out of work. Such is the case with the recently announced shutdown of news operations at WXLV/WUPN. It's the second time since 2002 that WXLV has eradicated their newsroom. When they resurrected their efforts under the UPN banner, few local pundits gave them much of a chance. Though the Piedmont Triad is far from the zenith of local TV news, it IS a highly competitive market where we regularly eat our young. UPN 48 had the extra detriment of being part of Sinclair's (fundamentally flawed) "News Central" business model, which mixed locally produced news with general news produced in Maryland for nationwide distribution. Perhaps WXLV/WUPN General Manager Ron Inman put it best:

"Our people have done an incredibly professional job. The reality is they were up against three 900-pound gorillas."

True Dat. I just hope the newsies I know who are out of a job can quickly regain their footing. Among those in my thoughts are two icons of local newsgathering: reporter Leonard Simpson and photographer Bill Welch. Leonard is a gentleman in a cad's business - expertly-versed in all things Piedmont-Triad and well respected for it. Bill Welch isn't as well known to viewers, but anyone whose done time at a Greensboro crime-tape convention knows the tall, balding smart-ass in the ball-cap. If you think I got stories to tell; spend a few minutes with 'Mr. Bill'. Both he and Leonard have forgotten more than most newsgatherers around here know yet, and I can't think of any competitors I'd rather hang out with at the trainwreck/council meeting/shoot-out. Surely both will soon be gracing the airwaves of their choice - provided they still want to play this silly game. As for me, I'm just glad I've had the honor of learning from them both. Here's wishing the best of luck to everyone at UPN 48 now facing a less certain future.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Robot Gets Wet

I just love this photo Little Lost Robot posted on his always-entertaining blog. In it, you see him issuing the standard "Do NOT splash the cameraman, or you WON'T be on television!" lecture." It's one of the many speeches we lenslingers employ to calm the younger crowd. A few of my favorites:

"Don't hurt the cameraman!"

"Act like MY kids and ignore me."

"C'mon, Grandma doesn't wanna see you throwin' gang signs."

"Pretend there's not a furry cameraman in your face."

"No, I don't have Tera William's 'digits'."

There's a time and a place for each response of course - but truth be told, few admonishments work on children. The mere sight of an oversized lens and instantly recognizable logo is enough to spark riots in cafeterias, classrooms and gymnatoriums everywhere. Throw in some sugar cookies, grape Kool-Aid and a half-dozen water slides and You Sir, have the making of an apocalypse. I've covered hostage stand-offs and felt safer.

Schmuck Update: Go Home Kenny!

Special thanks to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig for denying overpaid thug Kenny Rogers' appeal of a 20 game suspension. Rogers of course incurred the wrath of reasonable adults everywhere last month by throwing a tantrum that concluded with the assault of two hapless cameramen. Since then, the three time All-Star has sealed his place in the Jackass Hall of Fame by remaining smug and defiant - even accosting a third photog while authorities booked him on misdemeanor assault charges stemming from the initial incident. Minutes later, the cops bagged this rather Frankenstein-like mugshot of the Texas Ranger pitcher, though it does appear they've digitally removed his neck-bolts.

Whatever the exact reason for this dimwitted ruffian's inexplicable rage, there's something about being a pampered millionaire athlete that really pisses him off. Imagine his blood pressure now that the Grand Poobah of his sport has sidleined him for 20 games and fined him 50,000 dollars. Commissioner Selig:

"Kenny Rogers' behavior towards the two cameramen who were present at the ballpark and doing their job on June 29th, was wholly unacceptable," Selig said in a statement. "I have always placed a special emphasis on the social responsibility that each of us has in Major League Baseball given its proper place in American history and culture as a social institution. The media is entitled to perform its important role without fear of physical intimidation or contact from our players or other participants. While I listened carefully to Kenny Rogers' sincere explanation last week, I heard nothing that would warrant either eliminating or reducing the discipline imposed."

Thanks, Bud. I know this won't break Rogers' career or anything, but it's nice to think of him at home, stewing in his own juices for at least a short while. For someone who apparently detests attention, his juvenile antics sure have earned him alot of unwanted ink and airtime. I can only hope that I've played a tiny part in his continued torment. Schmuck.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Heatwaves, Ice and FM Radio

TV news is a funny gig. One day you’re embroiled in some politician’s latest debate and the next day you’re framing up citizens as they crush bags of ice with their but-TOCKS. That was the case this morning as I rendezvoused with said ice crushers at a Battleground Avenue Bojangles. The brainchild of a certain wacky morning zoo, today’s lightning round of lost dignity centered around the oppressive heat wave currently holding the greater Piedmont Triad in its sweaty grip.

Not that the three people grinding ice cubes between their cheeks were the least bit interested in meteorology. They were in it for the free airline tickets. You see, the first person to turn these frozen chips into a puddle of mush won airfare to anywhere in the continental U.S. - a prize well worthy of a soggy pair of icy shorts. So as the contestants rocked back and forth on a saddle of ice, I bided my time in the safety of my viewfinder. Meanwhile, the van’s loudspeakers emitted a braying screech - the jarring sound of some clown named Murphy laughing at his own stale jokes.

Minutes stretched into days as the small talk faded and the erstwhile ice-crushers got down to the nitty gritty business of bustin’ up cubes. While the lone gentleman spread his considerable backside over his frozen bag, the young lady in the middle employed a method of grinding friction best left unexplored in such a forum as this. In the end, it didn’t matter. Contestant number three, a lovely lady named Lydia, managed to dissolved her cushion of frozen water chips long before the other two melted their last icy morsel. As Lydia cleared her throat and launched into a victory acceptance speech, I zoomed out and centered up - recognizing a manufactured radio moment as the good cheesy TV it was.

Still, I’d much rather listen to "Two Guys Named Chris"...

Online Journalism Wiki

In between the blogging and the television, I'm delighted to be taking part in a new kind of collaborative journalism this week. Mark Glaser of Online Journalism Review kindly invited me to be one of five writers involved in crafting a wiki-like article on what I've come to think of as The Rosenblum Proposal.

Here's how it works: Over the next two days, I, along with four others (including Rosenblum himself) take turns adding our thoughts to the ongoing rant. It being a wiki, we five blowhards endlessly publish and edit our opinions while OJR readers submit questions and steer the discussion. At the end of the two days, Glaser will render a final edit that will live on-line forever afterward. Or at least until the Pod People come.

So if such a discussion should interest you, hop on over to the Online Journalism Review for a bracing give-and-take on 'Video journalists': Inevitable revolution or way to cut TV jobs?' If you'd rather take a screwdriver to the eyesocket than suffer through yet another blistering diatribe on the decline of Weatern Television, well then, rest easy and know that your friendly neighborhood lenslinger is keeping busy...

Monday, July 25, 2005

County Commission Theater

Ahem...the opinions expressed in the following piece are the sole posession of the author, not the broadcast outlet he so proudly schleps expensive gear for.

In an effort to avoid heat-wave duty out on the interstate, today I opted for an assignment more political in nature: the residual controversy surrounding two Guilford County Commissioners’ recent trip to Hawaii. Ho-Hum. Don’t get me wrong; fiscal responsibility on behalf of our elected officials is righteous fodder for us newsies. In fact the ensuing debate over Chairman Bruce Davis and vice chairman Paul Gibson trip to Honolulu for a five-day National Association of Counties annual conference has chewed up enough bandwidth and paper-space to choke a goat. But, minus a ticket on the Scott Yost Express, it makes for lousy television. So I was a little reluctant to play clean-up on a dying dispute, until I spotted a fellow photog searching for the giant thermometer we use to demonstrate ‘just HOW HOT it is in this parked car’. On second thought, bring on the brouhaha.

The first stop Nico Belha and I made was at the offices of Guilford County Commissioner Chairman Bruce Davis, a man I once interviewed while being nearly crushed to dust by thousands of rabid Fantasia fans. But there were no screaming street urchins waiting for us today, only the diffident Mr. Davis who ushered us into his office with understated graciousness. Nico, new to the area, didn’t let her lack of back-story stop her from nearly grilling the Chairman on the details of his trip. As Davis’ eyes narrowed, I locked and loaded the viewfinder - making sure to keep the Hawaiian lea draped over a lamp in my frame. Though reticent to provide a detailed synopsis of his junket to a reporter he’d never met, Davis remained ever polite and conveniently vague. When pressed to respond to the many critics of his taxpayer-funded trip to The Islands, he delivered a line that sounded eerily rehearsed.

“Well would it make them happy if we held it in Death Valley?”

Thirty minutes later Billy Yow jumped at the chance to answer that question.

“That’d be a good place for him, right out in the middle of Death Valley would suit me fine.”

Yow seethed at my lens, looking like he always he did - like he just finished digging a well. Since that’s actually what he does for a living, I’ll spot him the dungarees. In fact it was over a gaping hole in a nice lady’s yard that we caught up with the homespun lightning rod that is Billy Yow. As he unleashed another torrent, I looked over at Nico, who despite having never heard the name Yow before today, certainly knew a walking sound-bite when she met one. Standing before our camera, Billy Yow bristled with vitriol over what he considered his colleague’s wasteful spending, using a southern-fried sarcastic tone that always reminds me of the small-minded baseball coach I suffered under as a kid. To be fair though, Yow now employed no more venom in Davis’ absence than I’ve seen him use while seated beside the man at one of those impossibly contentious Commissioner Meetings. There have been a few where I’ve eyed the emergency exit should a wrestling match break out.

Which brings me to a conundrum I’ve often wrestled with while loitering by the tripod at the back of the room. How come successful, educated, seemingly rational people run for public office only to devolve into infantile behavior once they‘re seated? I’m not just talking Guilford County, either. I’ve done time in County Commissioner and City Council meetings from here to the coast. No matter what issue was at hand, I’ve been summarily flummoxed by the childishness exhibited by the low-level politico. Black, White, or Plaid, the foolishness knows no racial bounds. Something about achieving a local constituency makes eight out of ten well-meaning civic geeks go absolutely bat-shit. Why that is I don’t know, but commissioner hissies and councilman tantrums are as common an occurrence as that dork on TV, the one broadcasting live(!) from the backseat of some housewife’s grocery-getter with a giant thermometer in his sweaty grip.

There, I feel better now.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Rosenblum VS the Photog Nation

Michael Rosenblum is out to change the way TV news is procured, processed and ultimately viewed - and he's pissing alot of people off in the process. Exhibit A: The astounding amount of bandwidth being consumed by a raging debate over principles and practices. With WKRN the first in the nation to pursue an all-VJ newsroom, the crustier halves of seasoned camera crews are understandably up in arms, (and sore shoudlers). What Rosenblum sees as the natural evolution of technology and TV strikes the average lensmen as rubbish, if not outright heresy. Rosenblum himself has launched head-first into the fray, arguing his points to a legion of threatened skeptics. Consider his latest:

In conventional television news, the reporter is the star of the piece. If you think about the grammar, the audience is kind of looking through a keyhole, 'priviledged' to see a conversation between Katie Couric and the hostage's mother...or whatever. We have made television into a purely voyeuristic experience, and in doing so distance the audience from the immediacy and power it should impart. When we work in the VJ model, I try to get the VJs to think of themselves as surrogates for the audience. Shoot where your eye takes you naturally. Follow your instincts in asking questions of following stories. Make the audience feel as though they are there, in the moment. I personally think it is a much more compelling and egaging way to do journalism than to have some reporter do a stand up and then shoot the side of someone's head as they answer questions.

As I said a long time ago, this is about alot more than small cameras. This is about developing a new style for television journalism. I am not sure what it will be, but I am sure that it is more than ready for a change. The real dynamic will come when more and more photogs like you guys pick up the cameras and start to play with the format and the approach. You know what you are doing, but there are lots more ways to do this. And no one is more qualified that you to try.

Look, you can spend the rest of your lives repeating what you already know how to do quite well. But I think we can all agree that TV news sucks. For lots of reasons. Story selection, content, length of pieces, name it. You are in a unique position to help and drive a change.

Much of what Rosenblum preaches rings true. I've practiced many of those concepts for years, as an off-air and on-air one-man-band. But whereas my finished product emulates that of a two-person crew, Rosenblum seeks to forge his own brand of downsized auteurism. I'm listening, but I ain't sold yet. I'm all for street-level journalism, but take away the power and precision of my heavy glass and I get more than a little antsy. You would too, had you slung the damn thing all over the place as long as I have.