TVN Focus | Stations, Vendors Meet Challenge Of Nonstop News
Despite the hurdles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, local broadcasters have met the challenge of keeping their audiences informed amid a hectic 2020 news cycle that featured other huge stories including protests over social injustice and a divisive presidential election. To do so, they have embraced new technology and new workflows as well as new responsibilities for many staffers, such as creating their own home studios.
While stations took a financial hit in the second quarter as advertisers pulled spots, they still enjoyed strong ratings from news-hungry audiences. Now they are finishing the year strong after a record wave of political advertising. But to maintain their competitive footage against new digital competitors, stations need to continue to embrace new technology while producing an even higher volume of news content, said a panel of broadcast and technology experts who gathered last week for Managing the Never-Ending News Cycle in a Changing Media Environment, a TVNewsCheck Working Lunch Webinar moderated by this reporter.
WNYW-WWOR New York had employees at the “ground zero” event in the suburb of New Rochelle so the impact of COVID-19 “hit home immediately” for the Fox-owned duopoly, said SVP and GM Lew Leone. Without a playbook for dealing with such a crisis, the station situated a trailer and satellite truck on the street in front of its studios and also created an outpost in New Jersey in case the station had to fully evacuate. It never came to that, though WNYW-WWOR has had the majority of its employees working remotely for months.
“What started out for us as a sprint but has become a marathon,” Leone said.
Things were going well in terms of both news production and the COVID-19 infection rate in New York, and WWOR-WNYW started to bring more staff back to the building earlier this fall. But now the duopoly has reversed course and started to put people back out of the building.
The first to return to working from home studios were the meteorologists. With winter storm season on the way, Leone said, “if one of them is exposed or gets sick it puts us at a real disadvantage.” The station is also moving writers and assignment desk staffers back to remote work.
Producing WNYW’s flagship Good Day morning program and filling 5.5 hours a day without having any in-studio guests has been challenging, Leone said, but he’s been pleased with the staff’s productivity in its shift to remote workflows. An interesting note is that Good Day’s audience has shifted later with more people working from home. After years of New York stations competing to have the earliest morning news, Leone is considering juggling the schedule to start it later in 2021.
“There’s really no audience now at 4:30 in the morning,” he said.
Bob Ellis, VP and general manager of Graham Media’s WJXT-WCWJ Jacksonville, Fla., said his staff is tired from 2021’s myriad challenges, particularly since the independent WJXT produces 11 hours of content a day including 10 hours of news. But he is impressed by how they have adapted and found new ways to do things, whether it’s figuring out how to attach microphones to a paint-roller extension or how to shoot a Zoom interview on a cellphone.
“Their resiliency and creativity, from where I sit, has been pretty inspiring,” Ellis said.
He added that the shift to Zoom interviews has in many instances made it easier for his station to book guests, and often land higher-profile ones than in the pre-COVID days.
“We can get a much higher quality expert on a subject when we do a well-produced Zoom video from someone’s office,” he said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
Gray Television’s stations have maintained productivity by pivoting quickly in their use of technology, said Director of News Services James Finch, and “doing things from home that I just couldn’t imagine we’d be able to do.” There was an initial loss of the creative interaction that’s typically experienced in a newsroom, such as dialogue between anchors and producers. But Gray has been able to use videoconferencing tools like Microsoft Teams and Webex and “to recreate some of those typical conversations and move forward,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift to new tools such as cloud-based editing and remote access to content systems that Avid has been developing for several years, said Craig Wilson, global broadcast and media product evangelist for Avid. Avid’s focus in its Media Central content management platform has been to first provide a diverse toolset in one application, with the ability to write a story, edit video, add graphics and publish to social media. The second step is ability to access it from anywhere with the same experience whether you’re at home or in the station.
Wilson noted that while he’s based in the U.K., the systems that he uses to give demonstrations to customers are located in the Netherlands and he’s able to work with them as if they were in the next room. Given that capability, he said customers are assessing what they’ve done since the March lockdowns, looking at what has worked well and what they can apply in the future.
“The way journalists have had to deal with this year will prompt a bit of a rethink of, ‘Do we need to have everyone in the office? How can we work in future?’ ” Wilson said. “And what does that mean for the office real estate, potentially, that the stations have?”
Paul Adrian, CEO and co-founder of file transfer specialist Latakoo, said that COVID-19 has certainly changed the playing field for technology vendors as stations move away from investing in hardware solutions that live solely on-premise. He said interoperability and an ability for customers to purchase technology on an opex basis, instead of making a large capital investment, will be key to future success, a point echoed by Wilson.
“If you go back in time, the business model for a lot of this industry was proprietary lock-in,” Adrian said. “Everybody trying to create an ecosystem— if you buy one part of my system, you live there and hopefully only live there. That doesn’t fly anymore. The companies that are going to do well in the future have evolved significantly beyond that.”