Shales on 'Need to Know': Blech!

A couple days ago TV critic Tom Shales participated in an online chat with Washington Post readers in which he bantered about the Betty White appearance on Saturday Night Live last week and other topics. In the mix he took a few questions about the new PBS program Need to Know (produced by WNET), including this one:

…what does Need to Know need to fix?

Tom Shales: A whole new mindset. It’s just HORRIBLE. First the ridiculous idea that you’re very au courant if you somehow incorporate the internet in your show — oh please — and then that “incorporation of the internet” turns out to be not much more than EVERY SINGLE OTHER SHOW ON TELEVISION DOES, which means set up a stupid web site that hardly ever changes and paste some leftover junk on it. …

And if you think this comment is nasty, check out the full review Shales published in the Post this week, including this little gem:

PBS promises that this dreadful “Need to Know” show, which supplements vacuous televised drivel with fancily designed Web-page graphics, “empowers audiences to ‘tune in’ any time and any where.”

Meaning that you are free to supplement inadequate broadcast material with unsatisfying Internet material whenever you inexplicably get the urge.

Shales offers a decidedly harsh assessment. But I watched the first episode and had a similar — though less violent — reaction: it’s dreck.

But I’ll do what Shales didn’t: I’ll answer the question of “what do they need to change?”

Don’t Fake Me Out with the Web

The show was hyped as a web/TV hybrid, but it isn’t that at all. If the audience is getting an “open kimono” view of the production process, I can’t see it. Viewer participation in the editorial process is also nonexistent. NPR’s failed Bryant Park Project had more participation than this — and that was 3 years ago.

Sadly, to fix the show they’ll have to scrap it and start over. If the web is supposed to be a core part of the service, start there, not in the studio. Build a news service on the web, draw in the audience, feed smaller elements over to the NewsHour for exposure and find your editorial voice and rhythm. Don’t produce a TV show until this is working well. Otherwise you’re lying about the role the web plays in the production.

Do New TV

The most cringe-inducing parts of the show were when they copied commercial news conventions, whether with graphics or camera angles or the two-way interview shots of the nodding correspondent. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought this was a Dateline parody at times.

Good God people, TV news is a plague upon the earth! DO NOT COPY THAT MODEL. If it looks and smells like commercial TV news, you’ve failed.

Get New Hosts

I know Alison Stewart has done some journalism along the way (even winning a Peabody), but I’m sorry… MTV News on the resume? That should be a disqualifier for serious news work in public media. I just can’t take her seriously, whether she asks “dorky” questions about GPS or not. But mostly she needs to go because she was hired as a mini-celebrity.

And Jon Meacham? He’s a passable stuffed shirt straight man when Jon Stewart is verbally goosing him on the Daily Show, but on this show he seemed incredibly stiff and “serious.” The false gravitas was annoying on a level almost equal to James Earl Jones saying, “This is CNN.” Sometimes I thought he was looking into the camera as if to say, “Get me out of here — I have a magazine to buy!

Get hosts that are virtual unknowns, just like the NewsHour did with their online and rundown host Hari Sreenivasan. Focus on the content, not the face. Start with the web to produce news. Start with real journalists to create the face of the program for TV. I know: corporate funders want big names attached to their dollars. But who are you serving here?

And We Pay for This?

Last but not least, if you haven’t read it already, videojournalist gadfly Michael Rosenblum addressed this new program back in March when he got wind of the project. He got several facts wrong, most notably the program length (1 hour instead of 30 minutes) and the fact that staff weren’t hired to work on the show until March or April of this year, but his rant is well worth it for entertainment alone:

The rent on Need to Know’s Lincoln Center studio is $1 million a year. The show’s annual budget is more than $10 million, according to sources.

Are you kidding me?

Are you all on drugs over there at WNET/13?

One Million Dollars a year… for rent? (and to yourselves!)

One Million Dollars a year for a studio from which you are going to produce one half-hour once a week!

And another (gulp!!!) Nine Million Dollars for some lousy website!

Are you all insane?

I don’t wanna make too big a point of this, but we over here produce 3 half-hour local news shows a day (for cable), and we do it 5 days a week for 52 weeks a year, and our TOTAL costs are a tiny fraction of your budget for one half hour once a week.

WNET’s CEO Neal Shapiro then replied on the blog and refuted several errors. But he didn’t rebut the core of Rosenblum’s idea: that $10 million a year for this kind of show is an insane amount of money. Shapiro points out it’s cheaper than network alternatives, but in a later reply Rosenblum makes this proposal:

Suppose we hired 25 of the very best journalists we could find in the country. Suppose we salaried them at $100,000 a year. I think they would like that. Now, we have spent $2.5 million. If we’re going to produce 52 hours a year, and each of them has to make 8 pieces a year (I think this is reasonable, no?). So, we have 200 pieces over our 52 hours or 4 pieces per hour. With me so far?

Lets give them video cameras and laptops and some travel budget. And they can work in a transparent way – on the web, so with wikis and citizen journalists and such, there can be lots of ‘curating’ and contributions to their stories. We can assemble this anywhere really. And we can do it live. Let’s rent a radio studio from NPR and simulcast the show or rent a studio from WNYC in NY. that’s the easy part. Or we can pre-tape the whole thing from my living room. I will rent it out for a lot less than a million a year. Is this do-able? Oh, I think so.

Would we get a great product? Oh, I think so. Let’s put the money in the journalism and not in the carpeting on the walls (which was my favorite feature at the old Hudson Hotel WNET). You don’t need offices any more. Or carpeting. Or receptionists. Or chyron people. Or camera crews. Put the money into the journalism and I will gladly open my checkbook and give all the support I can.

Next Wave TV News

We all know that local public TV stations across the country have basically no news capacity. Their relevance and impact is dwindling. But take on the Rosenblum approach and you’ll get something that looks and functions in new ways. And all for a bargain price compared to traditional TV.

The key for TV news success, to me, is to destroy most of the commercial TV conventions. Make sure the news product looks, feels, sounds and functions differently than commercial TV. Make sure everything starts on the web and lives there 95% of the time. Only go to the big screen as a wrap-up of the week or with stuff that just doesn’t function well on the web.

Imagine a team of 10 VJs hitting the streets to make video for the web and for broadcast each day. Imagine the results: new kinds and styles of stories. Topics covered that would never make it in traditional broadcast. No more ambulance, police and fire chasing. No more vacuous news anchors. Local stories told well and gathered at a rate and with a quality that’s unprecedented.

Need to Know could have led this revolution. It’s incredibly disappointing they didn’t.

3 thoughts on “Shales on 'Need to Know': Blech!

  1. I keep flipping over this object we are now calling public media. Not to be too cynical, but it mostly looks like public broadcasting with a website. We say we are reinventing, but for the most part it’s tinkering with familiar formulas. I hear that we can’t afford to really “do new media right” because production is so expensive. But what’s expensive is the entire broadcast part of the operation, from XDCams to transmitters. I’m not saying we should stop broadcasting, just stop insisting that public media requires it for legitimacy and impact.

    There’s a great book by Howard Rheingold called “Tools for Thought” in which the author chronicles the crazy people who invented personal computing. The emergence of a general-purpose computer the size of a notebook is not a trivial development, it is revolutionary. In fact a “commonplace” laptop with video editing software is a better tool for media creation and storytelling than the best-equipped TV station 20 years ago. We fail to appreciate the implications of this at our own peril.

  2. I would caution anybody who thinks Rosenblum’s model is worth considering.
    His math is overly simplistic and his loud mouth is meant to promote 1 thing. His company.
    The VJ model has its benefits.
    I was a VJ for a year and I could go into great detail about what they are.

    But in practice the VJ model always ends up being a cost-cutting measure that reduces the quality of content.

    I think that the thing that Need To Know got right was they gave a talented story-teller like Jon Larson 18 minutes of air-time to tell a story. That’s not happening many other places on television. They deserve credit for that.

    Also, there is nothing wrong with spending money on a set. If they had shot it Rosenblum’s basement it would have looked unprofessional and they would have been endlessly criticized for it.

    The only point on which I agree with Rosenblum is that more money should be spent on the journalism.
    If you want a really amazing program you find a lot of really talented journalists (both reporters and editors), you pay them a decent wage and you give them plenty of time and legal support. That’s how 60 Minutes and Frontline do it.

    Rosenblum’s assertion that ever greater amounts of quality journalism can be pumped out at half the cost in a fraction of the time because cameras don’t cost as much any more is flawed.

    Oh yeah. And “Citizen Journalism” is a lame concept that is constantly executed poorly because news executives think its a way to get something for free when in reality they’re inviting an inconsistent flow of content that barely be called as such.

    • I would agree that a 100% Rosenblum model would present problems. What I wonder about is how we might fix them in practice. Or how we might find a “third way” that blends higher-end journalism with lower-end gear and faster processes.

      I also think the audience is perfectly willing to accept lower levels of set quality and even video quality (hello, YouTube!) if the content presented is relatively meaningful / useful to the viewer. More news from your community that’s relevant to you, your family, etc. would be something worth watching, even at lower resolution, even without fancy HD sets in fancy studios.

      As for 18-minute pieces, I am thankful there’s somewhere such things can be done, but I don’t remember any piece from the pilot show that was worthy of 18 minutes. The reporting on the oil spill was basic, non-revelatory stuff with obvious quotes. The piece on the pill was worth 3 minutes, tops. The interviews were either pandering (Clinton) or too short/narrow/devoid of content (oil spill) to be useful to viewers in any palpable way.

      I’ll take a series of 8-12 short pieces per hour from all over the country shot by VJs with a little lower technical quality over what we got in the NTK first outing. However, I’d use crews of 2 people rather than single VJs to do the work.

      I think Rosenblum’s VJ math is best applied to the likes of CBS, who agreed to pay astronomical fees to Katie Couric — one of the lightest lightweights to sit at the helm of a national news program. Those tens of millions could have launched a fleet of VJ or VJ-lite journalists across the country.

      As for 60 Minutes, that’s no longer an amazing program. Frontline does great work, but as a once-a-week series with long production lead times, it has limited impact and is not scaled to the needs of communities.

      In any case, thanks for the comments. Rosenblum consistenly gives us a lot to think about. By no means should we take the advice verbatim, but then that goes for anyone out there.

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