Thursday, November 29

A Good the Time

It was 130 years ago this month that Thomas Alva Edison first demonstrated his phonograph. His system of using a stylus to recreate sound by reading grooves cut into a tinfoil cylinder—and later into a revolving disk—wasn’t just the first, it was also the preferred method of recording and listening to music until late in the 20th century when CDs became ubiquitous.

Edison also perfected the incandescent light bulb, which lit the world until LEDs (light emitting diodes) came onto the scene just a few years ago.

Edison had hundreds of other patents. His inventions continue to shape our lives today. Great ideas stand the test of time.

I invented something. I came up with a concept for television news that swept the country. I saw my brainchild used in nearly every TV market over a period of ten-or-so years. Now it’s gone. Over. Done with. Obsolete. Defunct. My great idea stood the test of time for about as long as an egg salad sandwich left out on a picnic table on an 85-degree day. Oh, well.

Here’s the background.

When I graduated college and got into television news in 1969, local news meant local news. News gathering was done on film. Videotape? Huge machines the size of a dining room credenza that recorded and played back 20-pound reels of 2” videotape. Satellites? No, not yet.

At every TV station in the country you got your network programming—morning shows, soap operas, the evening news, prime-time and late-night—down a dedicated line from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. In a real pinch you could reverse the line and send something back up the line to the network; but it took a lot of engineering expertise. In my five years at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids we did it twice.

There was time each day when the networks—all three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) were “down” after the soap operas. During that time, usually 4:00-5:00 p.m., your network would feed down for your local use a handful of national and international stories. You’d record them on 2” tape and make whatever use of them you could.

Mostly it was crap—stories that weren’t worth time on the network news, or outtakes from Washington news conferences (whatever film was left on the cutting-room floor after it was chopped up for Cronkite, Huntley/Brinkley, or whoever was anchoring on ABC in those days). There were also four or five sports highlights from games played the night before, and maybe a weather shot that, with luck, was less than 24 hours old.

You were, of course, permitted to tape the network evening news. That was how you got decent national/international coverage (meaning pictures) on at 11:00.

And that was that. Until…

Until…videotape and satellites. When videotape came into widespread use in the early seventies suddenly there was a wider variety of stories on the feed, and stories could be turned around more quickly.

The folks at “Group W,” the old Westinghouse stations group, had an idea for something they called PM Magazine. They’d swap feature stories with other stations around the country and produce a daily half-hour feature magazine. If memory serves, you’d do one highly-produced local feature a day—plug in two or three or four features from around the country—front them with local hosts—and Instant TV! And—again, if memory serves—it was Group W that started using satellites to deliver material around the country. You’d ship your stories by your local hosts off toe Group W, and they’d beam them around the country.

Then Group W’s owned stations—Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore—started using satellites to swap news stories every day.

Soon a lot of stations had those huge C-band satellite dishes in their backyards. And pretty soon the “Group W Newsfeed Network” was born. The idea was that instead of one feed a day, there’d be three: just before your noon newscast, before your dinner-hour broadcast, and again just before 11:00.

Can you guess what happened next? Those three feeds became four—and five—and six—and then almost non-stop. The three networks saw themselves being outrun and outgunned and answered with satellite delivery systems of their own. And before too long we went from five or six usable non-local stories a day to dozens! More than we could handle. More than we could shoehorn into a newscast.

I thought about it for awhile, and remembered John Cameron Swayze anchoring the Camel News Caravan—NBC’s 15-minute national newscast from the early fifties, sponsored by Camel cigarettes. And I remembered him talking about “hop-scotching the world for headlines.” And it dawned on me that now we had something Swayze hadn’t had: pictures!

A little more thinking, and collaboration with WNEP Production Manager Bill Christian, and in the mid-80s we had “The World in a Minute.” In the upper-left corner, a spinning globe (actually tied to a string, spun by hand and taped). In the upper-right corner, same size, a 60-Minutes-style stopwatch. And—in sixty seconds—four, five or six “neat things to know” pieces of video. The Pope visiting somewhere. Soccer riots somewhere else. And—say it with me, now—the water-skiing squirrel!

Anchor Nolan Johannes had fun with it every night. On slow days, he’d drag it out and get to the end saying, “That’s…the…world…in…a…minute.” On jam-packed nights it was “thassaworlinaminut.”

Our consultant from Frank Magid Associates, Stuart Kellogg, came in—loved it—and asked if he could put it on a Magid idea reel. Next thing you know, “The World in a Minute”--or a variation—was in every market in the country, and in some cases (under different titles) on more than one station in each market.

And it was my idea! Don’t believe me, ask Stuart. He’s GM at WAPT in Jackson, Mississippi these days.

Great idea. And after about ten years it became old hat and was left in the dust.

Hey, even Edison must have had an idea with a short shelf life.

My other big idea isn’t worth wasting your time on. It was bigger than big for two years. Sort of like inventing the best buggy whip ever and setting up shop next to Henry Ford.

Aw, hell. Back to the drawing board.

Wednesday, November 28

The "Scoop Newsworthy" Story

That wasn't his name, of course: it was his nickname. I guess I could use his real name here. He's been dead for many years, died young in fact. But what the heck, why ID him now? And behind his back he was called "Scoop Newsworthy" as a sort of running gag, a commentary on the fact that he was an "absent-minded professor" type.

How absent minded?

One day he was out on a story when we got word back at the station (WOOD AM-FM-TV in Grand Rapids) that he had been rushed to the hospital. No information available.

Not much later photographer Larry Robison came into the newsroom, walked up to my desk, and with an honest-to-God tear in his eye and a catch in his voice said, "I lost my reporter."

"Scoop" and Larry had been sent to cover a desperate search for a handful of missing kids. The youngsters had apparently been seen entering an open sewer grating downtown. There were miles of sewer tunnels under Grand Rapids, and hundreds of ways to get yourself killed if you didn't know what you were doing.

Police and firefighters picked strategic locations around town, pried off manhole covers, donned gas masks (sewer gas can be deadly) and started a methodical search.

Our two-man crew caught up with the Fire Chief at the command center set up at one of the key search locations. Our reporter stepped over, past, around and through a series of yellow cones to talk to the headman: "Chief, I'm..."

And Scoop Newsworthy fell 35 feet down an open manhole. Now the search turned into a rescue operation as firefighters worked out a rope-and-pully system to drag Scoop up and out strapped to a stretcher. If memory serves he wound up with something like 60 stitches on the fleshy inner part of one thigh, caught on a hunk of protruding metal on the way down. Way, way down, I guess.

Robison was mortified. He felt that knowing Scoop's dazed and confused nature he should have been watching out for him more. Something along the lines of not letting your five-year-old play in traffic.

I don't really mean to make fun of Scoop. There are plenty of people who live successfully in their own little Walter Mitty worlds. Not many work in television news (OK, maybe an anchor or two, but not many in the field). Scoop wasn't a bad guy, and not stupid, just sometimes oblivious to the real world.

I guess this is a "ya hadda be there" story. Ya hadda be there to see the shame on Larry Robison's face as he told the story--and to hear the little in spite-of-himself giggle that followed.

And the missing kids were found unharmed.

Monday, November 19

Please Mr. Postman

Some years ago two interesting pieces of mail crossed my desk in a one-week period.

It took me awhile to figure out who "Simon Edita" was; but after a little cogitating it dawned on me that the letter-writer must have called the station to find out where to send a news release and was told, "Assignment Editor."

The second was easier to figure out. It was addressed to "Paul Stud." Obviously, word had gotten out.