TVN’s Newsroom Innovators | Gray Builds InvestigateTV Into An OTT Brand
Exposing some of the most destructive players in what one expert called “the worst drug addiction epidemic in United States history” isn’t easy. But with tens of thousands of Americans dying every year from opioid overdoses, the team behind Gray Television’s OTT offering InvestigateTV didn’t mind combing through what turned out to be millions of records to deliver a compelling, 46-minute documentary about the crisis.
They embraced the opportunity.
“Investigative reporting takes a commitment, and I am thankful that Gray Television is committed to doing this type of work that I think is important,” says Lee Zurik, InvestigateTV’s director of investigations.
In his mind, journalists are most vital to the public in two particular instances: when those in power must be checked and when people need to be informed during an emergency. The 2018 InvestigateTV documentary Licence to Pill, which detailed the bad practices of doctors who write exorbitant numbers of opioid prescriptions, fits into each category simultaneously.
“I’m proud to work for a company that is committed to both of those, and I think we show it,” Zurik says.
The Gray investigative reporting unit has been responsible for dozens of hard-hitting, informative segments across all the station group’s nationwide networks since forming in 2017. It’s fronted by Zurik, who works primarily out of Gray’s New Orleans Fox affiliate, WVUE, where he’s also an anchor.
The team initially consisted of four members and has since expanded to six. In addition to supplying Gray stations with stories — either fully-formed pieces or at least enough data to allow them to produce local stories — since June 2018 they’ve been branded InvestigateTV, with a dedicated OTT channel, available on Roku, AppleTV and Amazon, and its own website housing a video archive.
InvestigateTV also partners with organizations like ProPublica and journalism schools, such as Indiana University, on stories, and they amplify local investigative stories from Gray stations with reposts on the platform.
“I don’t think there’s anything else on OTT like it,” Zurik says of InvestigateTV. “We’re gathering from our stations, from our partners; we’re producing our own content, so it’s really maximizing all the resources and the reach we have.”
InvestigateTV is the brainchild of Zurik and Sandy Breland, Gray’s SVP of local media. Breland says the pair hatched the idea for the platform while discussing ways the station group could produce more investigative works and reach a larger audience.
“There’s definitely an appetite for this kind of work,” Breland says, calling InvestigateTV ultimately a “unique” and “dynamic” collaborative effort across the entire station group. Zurik notes that the InvestigateTV OTT platform metrics reveal high viewership of some of its stories in markets like New York, Dallas, and Atlanta, where Gray does not have a station.
The digital nature of InvestigateTV also means its team isn’t beholden to linear broadcast’s time constraints on stories. This allows the team to go as in-depth as they feel a piece requires, while Gray gives them the freedom to report a story over weeks or even months.
“That allows us to do good, in-depth, strong work that has an impact,” Breland says.
Among the most impactful pieces InvestigateTV has unveiled is Measure of Hate, a 24-minute look at the FBI’s failure to report data associated with hate crimes — a breach of a congressional mandate. The piece aired not only on InvestigateTV’s OTT platform, but on all of Gray’s broadcast stations.
“After our reporting, the FBI relented and started reporting its own hate crimes last fall for the first time,” Zurik says.
Measure of Hate earned Gray an NAB Service to Community Award this year.
According to Breland and Zurik, Licensed to Pill led to one doctor’s indictment with another seeing a federal investigation launched against him. Some Gray stations partnered with their local police departments to set up dumping sites where people could rid themselves of opiates in their possession. After telling him a dumping site garnered a vast amount of pills, Zurik says one police station representative said, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
On the tech side of production — which Breland and Zurik say has overall been elevated since the platform’s launch — InvestigateTV uses Sony FS7 cameras and Adobe video editing software. They also manufacture their own graphics using Adobe After Effects.
“There are some graphics that take 12 hours to render,” Zurik says. “We’re trying to make them look as crisp and sharp as possible and really help tell these stories, so we put a heavy emphasis on the storytelling and the visuals.”
Zurik and Breland say part of what makes InvestigateTV cook is the enthusiasm behind the work and the top-down support it gets from station group brass.
“InvestigateTV provides a quality resource for our newsrooms and viewers,” said Gray Chairman-CEO Hilton H. Howell Jr. by email. “We’re proud of their work that has resulted in meaningful change.… At Gray, we are committed to this type of in-depth journalism that exposes wrongdoing and examines important issues.”
With a Gray presence in 93 markets, Zurik says it’s difficult to track when an InvestigateTV story has aired in one. But he’s often tipped off when he gets an email from an appreciative viewer.
Breland says the quality of the work helps build brand awareness and viewer trust, which in turn aids in viewership numbers.
“When people have so many choices today, so many outlets for content, as a local broadcaster, [you ask yourself,] ‘What are some of the things that can set you apart?’ ” Breland says. “We believe investigative reporting is one of them.”
She also calls the form a “responsibility.”
“It shines a light on things that are important in a community, it uncovers wrongdoing, it results in real change,” Breland adds. Seeing such results “makes you proud to see that your company is putting in the resources and the commitment to produce this kind of work. And we’re doing it and it’s having an impact.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles will examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.