Broadcast Blues

Technological innovations are saving stations money but putting TV professionals out of the picture
Illustration by Kelly Schykulski

It’s called the Sony ELC-MVS01. You’ll never see it, and at least one local television station hopes you won’t notice it in operation. But it could change the way TV news is delivered in Detroit for decades to come.

It’s an “enhanced live-production control system.” The complex-looking, flat-screen device allows a single engineer, “the pilot,” to switch and focus multiple cameras, play videos on cue, add music and graphics, open and close microphones — essentially, to perform most technical functions traditionally handled by a team of professionals working behind the scenes.

While a New York spokeswoman for Fox Television Stations neither confirmed nor denied it (all inquiries regarding Detroit’s Fox 2 (WJBK-TV) are referred to corporate headquarters), sources close to WJBK say the station is the first in the market to implement the one-person automated control room, tested it during daytime newscasts, and will begin using it full time this summer. Accordingly, more than a dozen Fox 2 production staffers received layoff notices in May. “And those jobs aren’t coming back,” laments an insider, speaking under promise of anonymity, who adds, “Morale here is not what it used to be.”

WJBK, which has reported layoffs at other Detroit businesses with unrelenting accuracy, may be experiencing the same combination of advancing technologies and economic realities that forced other industries to make hard decisions. And they’re not alone.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, local newscasts have been losing viewers nationwide at about one share point a year (equal to the percentage of all TVs in use at a given time) throughout the past decade. Fox 2’s prime competitors, WDIV (Channel 4) and WXYZ (Channel 7), haven’t adopted the “enhanced live-production control system” yet, but, “We’re looking at it,” admits Marla Drutz, a Detroit television executive for more than 20 years and, since 2008, WDIV’s vice president and general manager. “The technology one station has is typically technology a lot of stations are looking at. There’s no stopping it, technology, and it’s going to create some efficiencies. What’s it going to do to the employment picture at a television station? Reasonably, I’d be a liar if I told you it would make no difference.”

Content sharing between stations, bidding goodbye to high-profile (and high-salaried) reporters, and aggressively training “multimedia journalists,” or MMJs, who report, shoot, edit, and broadcast their own stories like the self-contained Edison Carter on the ’80s TV series Max Headroom, are among other measures being employed by Detroit stations to combat declining revenues and cable news networks while scrambling to maintain a cost-effective news presence. Ironically, these strategies are being pursued while stations are delivering more live local newscasts than ever. Drutz notes that WDIV added a full hour of news in the last three years, totaling five-and-half hours of newscasts daily.

Since April 2009, WJBK and WXYZ have pooled cameras and shared resources at “general news events” to save expenses and reduce duplication. Two of their most heavily promoted investigative reporters, Fox 2’s Scott Lewis and Channel 7’s Steve Wilson, both parted company with their stations within a two-month period. While Fox spokeswoman Jessica Moss maintains that “the ‘Problem Solvers’ franchise continues to be a significant part of the station’s news coverage on a daily basis,” the fact is that Lewis, the man most closely identified with that franchise, was allowed to leave and take decades of reputation with him.

“Your investigative people are usually your more senior reporters, usually higher paid,” says Wilson, who’s now working to establish the nonprofit Michigan Center for Investigative Reporting. “Stations aren’t going to stop covering breaking news or weather, but if they whack an investigative reporter, they can save a good chunk of their budget.”

Tim Pamplin has been a one-man band with his “Local 4 Nightcam” for years on WDIV, but E.W. Scripps Co., owners of Channel 7, is pushing to train a swarm of such MMJs to cover Detroit, claiming Wilson’s salary alone could fund a small army of do-it-yourself reporters.

“Have we implemented that process throughout the entire newsroom? No,” says WXYZ’s Ed Fernandez, who in April became the first Hispanic vice president-general manager of one of Detroit’s “Big Three” stations. “But the premise is to find ways to create even more content to put on air, online, on mobile, and whatever other screen might be out there. It’s an evolution of our business.”

Even the only Detroit newscast produced out of town has undergone significant changes, and improvement. My TV20 News at Ten, a major-market embarrassment when it launched on WMYD/Channel 20 in July 2008, switched production sites last August from Davenport, Iowa, to the My Network affiliate in Fort Wayne, Ind., giving the half hour an entirely new anchor team and on-camera look. “Our product is much better than it was before,” says WMYD president and general manager David Bangura. “We have creative control over it, and it has a lot more bells and whistles to sell.”