Automation Killed the Video Star

Posted: June 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

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.

Stephen

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Comments
  1. Jeff says:

    Stephen,

    It was a huge change and like you said, it is harder to see the empty parking spots in the parking lot. We went to automation in April with OverDrive but at the same time we went to High Definition so it was a win-win for the company. As of today about two months into automation we only lost three people. We had to get a new newsroom system, did you have to change from iNews?

  2. Rachel says:

    In a world where people are applying in the thousands for single open positions, it’s depressing to hear of even more ways in which Detroit jobs are being cut… sometimes it feels like a black hole effect.

    While automation can certainly have extensive benefits in any industry, I think one of the things that is grossly underestimated is the power of the humanity in it. The social aspect, the creativity, the basic but powerful impact of the guy you pass in the hallway nodding and you and asking how your weekend was.

    Nicely written, appreciate the reflection.

  3. jamiek says:

    This is very sad to me Stephen.. I call this the Adobe Generation ~or~ Innovation X because it seems that the more Adobe and other technologies advance, the more jobs are lost. Graphic Designers in the biz that used to do work by hand were handed pink slips by the adobe generation. It’s nice to know how easy it is to share creativity, yet not. In this balancing act, I’m not for the empty parking spaces caused by innovation. It’s almost like the culture of having a “team” effort is going bye-bye. Very sad indeed.

    Thanks for posting yet another eye-opener Stephen, these are truly scary times for the small people in graphic design and video production.

  4. I have been hearing about the jobs cut in the radio business for about four years now. Thank you for starting this blog to let everyone know this isn’t a radio problem but everyone’s problem from print to broadcast.

    Emerging technology is great and I agree with it but you need traditional standards. I believe in traditional media even if I don’t watch or read them as much as I should. Standards are created for a reason and even if something is cheaper it does not mean it is more efficient.

    Thank you for opening my eyes to the modern day newsroom.

    Jamie

  5. John M. Chambers says:

    I am an Ignite Operator and have been for the last five years. Our station was the first station in the world to go the air with Ignite. Our station was a startup so there were no empty parking spaces to begin with so I haven’t experienced that. What I have experienced over the last five years is an exciting job which I still love to go to every day. We don’t need a crew of 15 to be up and running. The result is that we have been able to adapt so much faster to breaking news because once video is in the digital servers, and the story is written, only one person has to make the changes during newscasts and for quick Breaking News cut-ins. We are also a one-man-band station. Our reporters and anchors shoot and edit their own stories and they rarely miss a deadline and are really good at what they do.

    I do not lament the old days when it took a crew of 15 or more to run a newscast. It doesn’t take much more than that to run our entire station, including our sales staff. We worked out the bugs in the system for the most part, and for the rest, Grass Valley has been remarkable in assisting us with technical problems. Because the systems are constantly being upgraded and improved, I believe bugs may always be present. The fact that equipment and software is continuously being upgraded to adapt to technological changes is a feather in the cap of our company which has been excellent in continuing to invest in their employees and in equipment upgrades.

    By necessity television needs to evolve. We are no longer simply producing newscasts for television, rather we are adapting to the changing ways people are ingesting their news, whether it is from a traditional television, mobile devices or through social networks. A smaller, quicker more efficient station is going to be in the best position to monopolize on these changing viewing habits of our viewers.

    Rather than cause a decrease in the social or creative aspect of television production, this automated system necessitates more communication between the directors, producers, reporters, live-truck operators, anchors and everyone else involved with the newscast. Something I noticed at “traditional” stations is that there was rarely interaction between production, talent, and technical crew. From the moment I arrive at work, directors immediately begin collaborating with the producer, anchors and reporters to create graphics to be used in the news rundown and start making adjustments to the rundown. And the energy level doesn’t stop until the end of the last newscast of the day. What I don’t see is a lot of bored people waiting around between newscasts because there is nothing for them to do. Rather than cut the number of employees from our station, we have had to increase the number as positions such as promotions director have been created. We are also investigating the prospect of increasing the number of newscasts we will be airing which will further increase our numbers. Automation hasn’t killed TV or the Video Star, it has however made the television station a much more energetic and creative place to work.

  6. John says:

    I am an 8 year PVTV director, and my station recently switched over to Grass Valley Ignite. We didn’t lose any jobs in the process. News automation is the way of the future, in many markets it is the difference of whether or not the station can maintain a live newscast, given the current and projected future economy.

    The old days were fun, I’ve been on board since 1975. But you have to be willing to adapt and stay with the times. I can tell you the older you get, the more difficult it is. Stations used to allow the “old dead wood” to sit around and rot until retirement came, those days are gone. Find a way to stay with the technology and ride the wave.

  7. MY husband’s station has switched to the Ignite system and yes about 9 people lost their jobs. They even had to help get all the new equipment out and help set it all up, It was sad seeing so many people lose their jobs and have to set up the very equipment that made them lose their job. Anyway, my husband was lucky because they chose to keep him and he is now an ignite director. MY question and concern is about long term job security. When he is at the station, he is the only director at that time there and he is working alongside producers, a td guy and 2 producers and of course the reporters. I’m just wondering and hoping that there won’t be anymore job cuts due this ignite system and he can work their until he retires. What do you think the job outlook is like for an ignite director? Also, with everything changing with media and how we choose to get our news, I wonder what the future holds for local tv stations. We live in Oklahoma where terrible, deadly storms happen constantly so I can’t imagine a day when we don’t have a local station to broadcast weather, local events, and stories. I know the ratings have dropped some since people can go online but I’m curious what others think in regard to all this. I hope he has nothing to worry about now that his station has already transitioned to IGNITE and my husband is doing very well as a director. Hopefully, his job is secure now but as a disabled wife with a 2 year old child, I’m concerned…. Thanks for any input.

    • sclarkwxyz says:

      Thanks for reading and responding…its been a few years since I wrote this post. I’d say your husband’s job is pretty secure….if he’s good at it. Our station continues to hire and train new operators because we continue to add new newscasts (thank the savings in labor costs Ignite brought to the station. Newscast are even cheaper to produce). Our directors, though have had to become very flexible and adaptive. Plus we all know that more “streamlining” is possible. We still use a director, technical director and lighting director. Ignite is designed to operate with just one person so two of those jobs may still disappear.

      My advice to your husband is to embrace the technology…fighting it is futile. Our directors who spend time figuring out new and creative efficiencies find themselves consistently called upon to do more…which is called “job security”.

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