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Getting big-time news out of small-town affils

Jun 24, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Once upon a time, when big-city news hit a small TV market, the town became a circus. But today, technology can bring the scene under control. Local TV stations in small or medium-sized markets can respond to breaking news of national significance with speed and efficiency, thanks to technological advances and efforts by affiliate services to outfit stations with the necessary tools.
It wasn’t always that way.
“I remember people running down to the airport, finding flights to that city and paying a regular passenger $20 to carry a tape,” said Ralph Toddre, president and chief operating officer for Sunbelt Communications, which operates KRNV-TV in Reno, Nev., market No. 110, where Mr. Toddre is stationed.
“You would call someone on the other end and describe what the person was wearing. If you did that now, you could get arrested,” he said.
Such measures are no longer necessary. When the news of the mailbox pipe bomber broke in Reno in the late afternoon on May 7, the station, outfitted with a satellite truck, a stationary uplink and microwave live units, was ready. NBC NewsChannel paid for satellite time so KRNV could send a live feed to the affiliate feed service.
Preventing telephone overload
NewsChannel has also supplied its stations with a squawk box, which operates like a public-address system and allows NewsChannel to tell its affiliates not to call the station where the news is breaking but to call NewsChannel instead, said Jon Killoran, news director with KRNV.
That helped smooth the path for the station’s reporter to focus on generic and custom live shots for affiliates and for CNN and Conus Communications when the pipe bomber story broke. KRNV sent its helicopter and a live truck to the scene and fed the signal from the truck to the station and then to the uplink.
“What’s amazing to me is how well it came together,” Mr. Killoran said. In fact, KRNV generated a lot of good will from its coverage.
The following week, the station sent a reporter to Washington to cover the National Peace Officer Memorial. “NewsChannel bent over backward to make sure we had a satellite truck and covered a portion of the costs. So from that end, it sure helps out in a time of budget crunch,” he said.
Another technological advance that has reduced the swarm of affiliates and networks in a small station’s newsroom is portable edit gear, said Troy McGuire, news director with KTVN, the CBS affiliate in Reno. With many different tape formats today, it’s easier for broadcasters to rely on portable gear rather than worry about whether the station hosting the news will have compatible equipment, he said.
Still, the first 24 hours of coverage of a major story puts pressure on a small-market station. “First and foremost, what people want is our video. The quicker we get out our video, the less we have to do,” Mr. McGuire said.
For the pipe bomber story, CNN Newsource purchased six hours of satellite time for KTVN to transmit video. As KTVN is a CBS affiliate, the stipulation was that CNN had to allow CBS to access the feed as well, said Mr. McGuire. As soon as network and affiliate crews arrived the next day, the pressure was alleviated.
Regional stories are also a little more taxing on small stations because most affiliates will send a crew but no truck, and the local station will need to provide more resources, Mr. McGuire said.
The feed services have made tremendous strides to make life easier for affiliates. More than 90 NBC affiliates now have uplinks, and for those that don’t, NewsChannel has developed a proprietary process known as Newsmail to send broadcast quality video over the Web, said Bob Horner, president, NewsChannel. The system is designed to help gather the news that NewsChannel then distributes digitally through the Pathfire system.
ABC helped fund the installation and purchase of uplinks and satellite trucks for its affiliates. The network has 93 affiliates with 100 trucks, since some have more than one, and 40 of its affiliates have fixed uplinks (about 20 of those also have trucks). If an affiliate is without an uplink or a truck, NewsOne turns to NNS, the consortium it formed with ABC, CBS and Fox, to procure video from one of those stations in the market, said Don Dunphy, VP, affiliate news services, at NewsOne. Still, there are some areas of the country, such as parts of Montana, Nebraska and Texas, where stations can’t get video out until a satellite truck arrives. “We’ve come to accept it. It doesn’t occur that often,” he said.
CBS NewsPath said 140 of its affiliates have uplinks that have been installed over the past 10 years through a co-op program.
Since most news happens in locations without an uplink, the feed service decides whether to send a satellite truck, use a commercial uplink in town or fly in an uplink, said John Frazee, senior VP, news services, CBS News.
NewsPath has tested technology to deliver video over the Web, but the tradeoffs aren’t worthwhile, he said. “Typically, you can’t feed live, or you do and it’s video-conference quality,” he said.