Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Future of Breaking News Coverage on TV

In the last few years local television news has seen some major changes. Technology now allows crews to go live quicker and in places they never went before. New cellular based devices that allow video to be sent back over mobile phone networks really have been a game changer. We can now go live on trains, roofs, cars and boats. When news breaks we can bring live video to the viewer’s home or smart phone faster than we ever could before. Coupling this new technology with old school news tools like police scanners means almost instant coverage. For years news crews have monitored Police, Fire and EMS communication systems to find out where the news is happening. Now they can rush crews to a scene and be live on TV before the patients are loaded in the ambulances.

I have been covering breaking news events since the late 1980’s. I got into the TV game with little more than a camcorder, still camera and a single police scanner. I love this business. In my younger years I needed something to keep me on the straight and narrow. Chasing TV news excited me, then in my 20’s as much as now in my 40’s. I love the chase. I love the adrenalin that comes with rushing to the scene of breaking news. When a call crackles across the scanner about a shooting, accident or fire, it winds me up. It reminds me how short life really is. It keeps me out of myself and distances me from the selfishness that consumes many people today. I am constantly reminded that other people are going through things that are very difficult, tragic in nature and that my world is so small.

These last few years we have seen a huge increase in the use of smart phones. The cameras inside those phones are getting better and better. They will never replace the skills of a trained videographer, even in a You Tube world were people are much less concerned with the quality of video. They will however fill a void that is expected to become larger over the next few years. Things are changing in the world of local TV news.

As many emergency departments switch to the next generation of radio communication systems, the ability for media to monitor those systems will be reduced or eliminated. New systems will be digitally encrypted and scanner users will no longer be able to listen in. Many people are saying, “Don’t worry some new type of scanner will become available. Just like they always have over the years as various systems were rolled out.” That probably isn’t going to happen this time around. Unless police, fire and ambulance are willing to allow access to media, these systems will not be monitored and chasing breaking news with information from scanners will become a thing of the past.

Perhaps it’s the Yin and Yang, the natural progression of events. Many may think that news was becoming a little too instant. Don’t get me wrong, the live coverage of charity events and weekend festivals will continue, but the near instant broadcast of tragic events may end. It will be a game changer. It will change the type of stories you see on the news. No station will commit precious resources to cover a shooting that happened 12 hours ago. The scene is gone, the witnesses have wandered away and it’s not nearly as exciting as it was when it happened.
Many young people don’t even tune into local news the way their parents do. When they want to be entertained by moving pictures they turn to the latest viral puppy video or music video on YouTube. The ratings have been on the decline for a long time. They call it fragmentation. Most outlets are now pushing news coverage out to many different platforms in order to reach as many people as possible.

I’m not sure where all this is going. I’m not an expert and have never been able to see the future. If I could do that I would have bought stock in AOL back when I first connected to the Internet. They had a few hundred thousand subscribers. We used modems to connect at 2400 Baud and watching video online was a fantasy. Today billions of people are connected and that still only represents about 20% of the world population.

I got an email this morning from a freelance cameraman in the Hamilton area. He seemed worried by the fact that the City of Hamilton is about to switch on a new digitally encrypted radio system. He pointed out that the Fleetnet radio systems used by Regional EMS and OPP are all up for discussion, as contracts come up for renewal in 2012. He may have good reason to worry. The game rules are definitely changing. The rush to encryption may come even sooner after many media outlets broadcasted radio transmissions by a fallen officer recently in York Region. Just to be clear, media had the ability to do that for years, although to many a line in the sand has been crossed. It takes us back to that rush to get all and any news on the air. If it were up to me that tragic audio would never have been broadcast. I listened to it unfold as it happened. We should have had more respect for those involved.

I would love to hear from some of you first responders out there. How do you see the future of television news? Do you worry about out of sight out of mind? Will less coverage of breaking news events be a good or bad thing? Will the public be willing to blindly sign off on ever increasing operating budgets without ever seeing why they are needed? Is it important for people to see what really happens on the mean streets?

Please post your comments and thoughts.

( Note: I am currently a videographer for CBC Television. I cover breaking news on the overnight shift by choice. I love what I do. I have worked for or sold video to just about every media outlet in the GTA.