A new era came quietly to television news at 7:oo last night. Chances are our Detroit-area viewers barely noticed. But it sent shock waves through the entire broadcast industry.
It’s an old nemesis…or hero…depending on your particular viewpoint. Automation. Last night at 7 WXYZ pulled the switch on the aptly-named “Ignite” which is described on its website as “a scalable, hardware and software solution that allows a single operator to manage control-room devices used to produce live newscasts and event programming.” In other words: you don’t need a lot of people to put on a show.
It’s important right here that I stress that I am not anti-automation. In fact I fully understand the business rationale behind embracing technology. Automated systems don’t need days off, they don’t get sick or have babies. They don’t need health care or pensions that last long after their productivity ends. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to see all the empty parking spaces when I drive into work.
At the risk of sounding like an old fogie, I remember the days where our production crew consisted of 3 or 4 camera operators, a lighting technician, set carpenter, stage manager, teleprompter operator, audio engineer, playback engineer, graphic operator, director, associate director and technical director. It took 15 people to put on a newscast–not counting the anchors, reporters and newsroom staff. With Ignite that number will eventually be reduced to one.
This isn’t the first time the TV business has been downsized by technology. Video cameras got rid of the need for film processors and editors. The next generation of combined cameras and recorders got rid of the need for grips and audio engineers. In the studio robotic cameras allowed one operator to do the work of three or four camera operators. We in the business moaned that it was the end of TV. It wasn’t of course. Being resourceful humans we soldiered on. Now in big markets like Detroit–even at the network level–some reporters and even a few anchors, me included, shoot and edit our own stories. That means fewer photographers and editors.
Then, at 7:00 last night we went on the air with “Ignite” and a lot of good people watched from the sidelines. To them the sleek monitors and computer interfaces of the new high tech control room might as well have been a big pile of pink slips.
I am both happy and sad to report the newscast went off with hardly a hitch. Nothing you would have noticed at home. Being resourceful humans, those of us remaining covered for the computer’s few shortcomings. In the coming days more and more newscasts will go on the air with barely a skeleton crew at the helm. In time all the bugs will have been ironed out and eventually even the last excess meat on that skeleton crew will be carved away. And you watching at home will hardly notice a difference.
We in the business, however, will moan that it is the end of TV. It won’t be…just as automation wasn’t the end of the automotive industry. Like our brothers on the assembly lines we are becoming necessarily leaner and meaner. We are not the first station in the the nation to do this…we’re not even the first in Detroit. But you won’t see any of us running promos about THAT!
A lot of you reading this right now are involved in emerging and growing industries…marketing, social media, software development. Businesses where the only direction seems to be up. I used to be in an industry like that. I believe I will be again. But that doesn’t make it any easier to look at all those empty parking spaces.