Reporter's Notebook

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Posts Tagged ‘NBC

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.

A Rough and Rowdy Time

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I just read “Long Night at Today” by the New York Magazine’s Joe Hagan.  Excellent play-by-play of the meltdown on the set and in the boardrooms of NBC’s flagship morning talk show property.  Since Dave Garroway and Joe Garagiola and Jane Pauley, the Today Show has been where millions of people go to have their hands held as they meet the new day.  But as Mr. Hagan so pointedly explained, if the network makes their audience love its hosts, it shouldn’t be surprised when they react to what they perceive as a stink from 30 Rock Studio 1A.

See, the thing about that strategy, and make no mistake, it is a strategy; it’s always a doubled edged sword.  You want viewers to fall in love with the people they “invite into their homes” to coin an ancient broadcasting cliché.  But, because the broadcasting business is so full of brutality, you have to decide if throwing somebody out of a window after they have outlived their usefulness will cost you more than you expect to make in the long run from the slow, painful but expected recovery.  So it’s a psychological calculus marinated in the economics of cost benefit analysis. It’s got little to do with viewers because if it did, networks would save the money they waste on set changes and tweaks to theme music and repeated attempts to force the tired back down their audience’s throats.  

At the end of his piece, Mr. Hagan quotes several principals who say they don’t know whether the departed anchor was innocent or purposeful in her refusal to help the show repair its image by playing nicer with sitting hosts.  But that reminded me of a quote by Malcolm X., upon learning that the 1964 Civil Rights Act had become law.  On an airport tarmac, he said (paraphrasing) “Why should I thank somebody who sticks a knife six inches in my back and pulls it out three?” 

I once worked for an organization for which I had lost my love.  But I had taken dozens of photos in the course of my time with it because, in happier days, I intended to create something that I thought would help me memorialize its legacy in a positive way.  When it became known that I had taken these personal photos with my personal camera, I was asked by a nemesis for the photos because no other such record existed and I would be seen as a “team player.”

In that moment, I practically vomited the photos from my posession, mostly because the idea that this person, representing this Delilah of an organization, would speak to me about “team” with the sincerity that a Cuttlefish tries to hypnotize it’s prey before striking, was uproariously revolting.  And since I wanted nothing that connected us, they and the photos were jettisoned, as if by peristalsis, and forgotten.

On some TV studio sets, as well as in countless other organizations I’m sure, the concept of cutting ties by not trying to help them out of a tough spot may not be so foreign.  As a former intelligence analyst said of policy failures during the Bush administration, “We might be willing to take a bullet, but we’re not going to take a whole clip of bullets.”

Written by Interviewer

March 26, 2013 at 09:36