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.

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