Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

The Look of News

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Network Logos

I’m dating myself, but I remember when there were just three channels on TV.  Well, not really just three.  There were the PBS channels and everything else that lived above Channel 13 on UHF.  But in most places, viewers watched network programs through their network affiliates that existed somewhere between Channels 2 and 12.  For the most part, they still do.

I am thinking about how much the local channels try to look like their network parents and what that really means.  If you are a connoisseur of the look of TV, you might get what I’m saying.  With the years I’ve spent behind studio cameras, in master controls and at home, the feel a station wants to convey with its look is very recognizable and distinctive to me.  And I am convinced that they each have had decades long recipes for how their picture looks to the world and what they’re saying about themselves with those pictures.

CBS, it seems to me, has colors that have higher than average black levels.  Black level is one of the components of a TV signal that becomes your TV picture.  High but not too high black levels make the pictures rich in their clarity and sharpness but not overly bright or overly colorful.  The feeling I get from a CBS image is credibility, authority and power.  So with that in mind, it’s probably no coincidence that the old nickname for CBS headquarters is “Black Rock”.  Anyway, their picture is what you might see with your own eyes if somebody else was controlling them on the assumption that you wanted to see the most real reality* possible.  That may sound a little woo-woo, but I think that’s how CBS has always tried to present the world to its viewers; in a digitally sharp, not a lot of frills, down to business, just the facts ma’am manner.  Local CBS affiliates mirror the network look and feel as much as they can.  If CBS’s look was a setting, it would be an office.

NBC, by comparison has a film-ish look.  Not grainy exactly, not soft focus exactly.  But when I watch NBC, I think of history in the making.  Also, for many people, film is to images like vinyl is to sound.  There is just something about the earlier mediums that feel original and thus, more true.  Film makes the things we’re seeing more authentic and believable in part because film is what we all grew up with.  That’s why almost all of the movies we see don’t look like a TV news story and instead, look like, well … life.  Even movies that are shot digitally are made to look like film.  You can bet the engineers, producers and executives at NBC, as well of all of its affiliates know that’s how people see them and that is a perception they want to protect.  If NBC’s look was a setting, it would be a library.

ABC has always struck me as the most immediate network.  I think that mostly because of the colors.  Colors always seem most intense and lighting always seems brightest to me in ABC programming.  I see this especially on ABC news programs although I also noticed it on the old After School Specials and see it in many current prime time shows.  Of the three networks, the action on ABC programs seems to move fastest, with quicker edits and effects, more in-your-face use of sound and overall pacing.  The feel I get from watching something on ABC is it’s a wind in your hair kind of experience.  To me, ABC creates a mood of immediacy and energy with the way it presents itself.  And again, local ABC stations seem to follow suit.  If ABC’s look was a setting, it would be a party.

What I’m talking about here is how television engineers light for the camera to create a world that exists on a continuum from stark reality to dreamtime and everything in between.  Each of these networks has settled on a recipe for a picture of the world that mirrors how they see it, and they attract people who see it the same way.  They and their affiliates, present that world but we each have a preference for how we want to see it which is why many of us choose one network over another.  Of course, if a better show is on a different network, that’s where the viewer goes.  But networks are brands and they have brand loyalty based in large part on how people have come to expect they will look and feel to them.  There are distinct differences which is no accident.

*BTW, Aaron Schachter of PRI’s “The World” also used the superlative “real reality” in an April 7th radio story but I hadn’t heard it yet.

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