“Black Hole” Live Shots:

Expensive Gimmick or Better Journalism?

by John McManus

Particularly after September 11, no one disputes the value and power of live television when an important event is unfolding. But how about when the event folded hours earlier?

Consider a recent case on Channel 2’s Ten O’Clock News.

His overcoat buttoned up, his breath a whispy cloud, Lloyd Lacuesta stood in a deserted parking lot. It was late, on a chilly November night. The darkened building behind him, dim in the yellowish neon of street lights, had been a hive earlier in the day when he interviewed folks eating free meals at the Cecil White Center.

But that was hours ago and now Mr. Lacuesta was waiting for his spot in the newscast to arrive so he could speak a few sentences “live” at the beginning and end of his otherwise taped story. And go home.

In local television news, this is known as a “black hole” live shot. Nothing is happening in the background that’s related to the story. The mobile TV lights are swallowed by the surrounding emptiness.

In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, empty live shots are common. In fact, an 11-month Grade the News survey shows that in 76 percent of the live stories during the top half of Channel 2’s Ten O’Clock News, nothing is going on in the background that’s relevant to the story. The percentage is identical on Channel 4 at 6 p.m. It’s 78 percent on Channel 5’s 6:30 newscast, and 56 percent on Channel 7’s news at 6 p.m.

(Stations were given credit for an “active” live shot if any activity connected to the story could be observed behind the reporter--even snow or rain falling in a weather-related story.)

Empty live shots are frequent because few stories break between 6 and 7 p.m. when most local news is presented. Fewer still at 10 or 11 p.m.

So why go “live” when nothing is happening at the scene?

            Critics, including many reporters, say:

o       Reporters could better spend their time gathering news and writing than lingering at the scene or returning to story locations.

o       It’s a gimmick that tricks viewers into thinking a story is worthy of special attention; why else would the station go live?

o       The capability to broadcast live diverts dollars-- that might have been spent hiring more journalists--into the purchase of hugely expensive live vans. Stations are buying live background-- “wallpaper”--at the expense of substantive reporting.

o       Because those trucks must be used to justify their cost, newscasts become shallower--more oriented toward visual, location-specific events and less about issues.

            Supporters, including many news directors, counter that:

o       Even empty live stories make a newscast more interesting by changing the background and lending a sense of immediacy.

o       Live reports are more believable than videotaped stories.

o       Live vans can save reporters time by allowing them to stay in the field and gather the latest news at the scene.

o       Live stories allow anchors to question reporters.

o       Live stories give local communities a sense that the station is out with them, “everywhere.”

Everyone agrees that going live as often in a newscast as the station has trucks equipped with microwave or satellite transceivers was suggested by consultants hired to help stations enlarge audiences. And consultants are working on the problem of live shots when no news is breaking.

“We just had a consultant come in last week,” says a veteran journalist at Channel 4, “who told us our reporters in live shots have to be walking and pointing and interacting with the scene behind them.” The journalist, who requested anonymity, says the newsroom was skeptical: “Reporters worried about walking out of their light, or there not being enough light to show details of what’s behind them in a clear enough way to point, and there may be nothing to point out.”

Everyone also agrees that live shots--with or without events breaking in the background--are likely to increase. As Tom Vacar, Channel 2’s consumer reporter, says: “Expect a lot more of them. The business is rapidly heading to the point where every photographer will have live capability. As a result, I expect that reporters will come to understand that being in the field live will be a bigger part of their jobs….”

Are live shots necessary to draw an audience?

Most of those Grade the News interviewed questioned whether a newscast without, or with few, live shots would draw as large an audience.

“Would a taped package [a story in which the reporter appears and narrates] which included a standup close at the scene be just as good as live?” asks Al Goldstein, former news director at Channel 4. “Journalistically, in most cases, yes. Would the audience feel cheated if there were no live shots in a newscast? Journalistically no. But the audience may feel intuitively that the newscast lacks oomph or that it is boring.”

Andrew Finlayson, news director at Channel 2 adds, “the viewers have consistently voted with their [remote control] clickers, choosing programs that can take them live to the scene of stories.” A consistent live presence, he argues, helps establish the reputation of the station.

“There is an energy to being live that makes for a more interesting and engaging presentation,” Mr. Finlayson explains. “As a former reporter, I always felt I was at my best when live and there were no second chances. Being live also tells an audience that you are on the scene and capable of covering news where it happens.”

There’s a flip side, according to Emil Guillermo, formerly a reporter for Channel 4 and now host of “New California Media” on Channel 60 (KCSM). “Live shots are always a hassle. It means a reporter must be super focused….”

Stacy Owen, news director at Channel 4, says live shots are important to a newscasts “pacing.” “Rather than have the anchors toss to [introduce] every story, the reporters--who were on the scene all day--can add an element of immediacy, context and perspective that is less dynamic in a [taped] package.” It “beats the monotony,” adds Mr. Guillermo.

Whether live shots are needed to maximize audience or not, says another Bay Area journalist requesting anonymity, “consultants, salesmen (who almost always run TV stations now) and the so-called news directors (who are now usually much more sales and marketing driven than news people) are rather firmly convinced that viewers respond to live shots far more than to packages that appear entirely on tape.

“There’s some degree of irony in this,” he continues, “as most of the ‘inserts’ or ‘donuts’ in live shots are pre-produced and taped. Often, only the ins and outs are truly live.”

Recently someone posted a question about live shots on a website frequented by broadcast journalists across the nation, www.tvspy.com. Almost all of those who responded in the website’s “water cooler” section disparaged live shots. Several called them a gimmick the public is beginning to see through.

A typical comment: “The CON-sultants told those manager types that ‘LIVE was the way to go.’ They said that ‘people will actually stop what they are doing’ to see why a given station was going LIVE. It must be important, or they wouldn’t be going LIVE…NOT!!!!

“For awhile the public bought that train of thought (sorry to say,) but guess what? The public got wise, and as a matter of fact, it pisses them of [sic] to be fooled, and now they DON’T CARE IF it is LIVE (wolf cried too many times).”

Another writes: “As long as there are producers and consultants, there will be useless live shots. It is the bane of meaningful television news.”

Do live shots stunt reporting?

A University of North Carolina journalism professor who spent 16 years in local TV news recently surveyed local newsrooms in 211 media markets. “Reporters who responded said again and again that their ability to gather news and tell stories suffers when they are tethered to a camera tied to a live unit providing pictures of nothing,” C.A. Tuggle wrote in the March/April edition of Columbia Journalism Review. “Because they cannot leave the site of the live report, reporters are, in fact, unable to dig for additional facts, to add context--in short to report.”

Bay Area journalists split on the question. “Reporters complain about it all the time,” says a journalist at Channel 4. “It really diminishes their ability to report the news. It takes time away from…interviewing sources, writing and producing a story that is more cogent and journalistic. It makes local TV news even more shallow.”

But Channel 5’s Tony Russomanno says, “I really don’t think it takes time away from newsgathering.” The live vans, he points out, often allow journalists to prepare the story for air without returning to the studio. What about searching for news or developing other stories? “When I’m out in the field covering a news story,” he explains, “I’m fully engaged with that story.”

Mr. Vacar of  Channel 2 also says live shots usually don’t detract from newsgathering, but notes an exception: “Live shots can be very bothersome if the shot must happen close to or precisely at the time an important element of the story (such as a news conference) is underway. So, if you’re preparing a story for the Ten O’Clock News but the Noon News needs a ‘live’ shot just at the time the Public Utilities Commission is voting on a rate hike, you have to stop down on the story, write the script, produce it, deliver it and then return to the ongoing story.”

Grade the News analyzed all live stories sampled to see if they were short-sourced relative to taped stories. We compared the number of identified general and expert sources in those stories with taped stories of similar length. The live stories had somewhat more of both types of sources. That could be because only the top stories of the day get live treatment and it’s their importance that leads to greater sourcing rather than any advantages from staying in the field for a live shot. In any case, going live in the Bay Area has not lead to under-sourcing.

Are live shots more credible?

Channel 2 News Director Finlayson says viewers find live shots more believable than the same reporter at the same spot speaking on videotape gathered a few hours earlier. “I think being live speaks directly to people in a way a taped stand up never does.” 

But Mark Harmon, a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Tennessee, and a former TV newsman, says he has seen no studies proving that live shots are more credible. “If there is some data out there, it’s proprietary,” he says. Such private research by consultants is widely questioned by academics who doubt its rigor. 

Prof. Harmon says empty live shots may in fact diminish news credibility because “they’re designed to give the illusion of immediacy when there is none present. I would think a thoughtful viewer would wonder when there’s a dark live shot surrounding a daylight taped portion of the story.”

Prof. Tuggle says his research also shows skepticism among viewers when live shots seem gratuitous. Viewers “agree, overwhelmingly, that there are times when live reports are meaningless. One viewer characterized this as a bait-and-switch tactic. He looks at the screen thinking ‘live’ indicates important news. Yet he is often disappointed to find no ‘real news’ at all.”

Do live shots encourage more episodic and less thematic reporting?

You might suspect the trend toward live shots would increase the tendency of local TV news to cover simple events or episodes with a distinguishing scene from which to broadcast live. That would mean fewer stories about themes or issues that lack an obvious location for a live shot. 

Grade the News analyzed all live shots (both empty and “active”--those with relevant activity in the background) and compared them with taped “packages.” At all four Bay Area stations live shots were significantly more likely than taped stories to be episodic--about a specific event such as a crime or accident--than about an issue or theme.

We defined episodic reporting as concerning a simple event, taking place at a specific time and place. We defined thematic reporting as any story about an issue or pattern among events. Any story about an issue--virtually any government story and most about politics, economics, education, etc.--were classified as thematic, even if they happened within a meeting or press conference at a particular time and place. Stations were given the benefit of any doubt; such stories were placed in the thematic category, because issues normally have greater impact on more people than simple events..

The analysis also showed that live stories can be thematic, however. Some live shots took place outside of buildings where meetings were held, or at a location chosen to illustrate the story theme.

           

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