Sunday, March 17, 2002

Nothing is real
The New York Times (link requires free registration) and the Wall Street Journal (link requires paid registration) have both recently published articles that expose the "man behind the curtain" in their respective media.

The NYT story is about television news. About forty TV stations around the country have news operations without newsroom "sets". Instead, the anchors report in front of a blue (or sometimes green) screen, and the room they appear to be in is computer-generated. In Lubbock, TX, in fact, the same newsroom serves two different stations, with completely different "looks". The current state of the art is such that the camera, and the reporter, can even move around the room, and the computer can match the perspective of the virtual set "on the fly". (That requires a more expensive Silicon Graphics workstation: If your cameras and anchors sit still, you can do it with Windows NT.)

We already know that much of local news is neither local, nor really news: Video "press releases" pop up in numerous markets, with introductions performed by local talent. Segments are borrowed from the network or from other affiliate or co-owned stations, lightly tailored for each market.

But there's still a local news anchor and content-gathering organization: It hasn't been completely replaced. Unlike radio.

The WSJ story is about "Cabana Boy Geoff" Alan, DJ for KISS San Diego. No, wait, make it KISS Santa Barbara. Boise. Medford OR. No, make it Channel 933.

It's all of the above. With a computerized mixing board, Alan can assemble a five-hour shift in less than an hour, dropping digitally-recorded voice clips into a preformatted schedule. Unless they subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, the people of Boise don't know that Geoff phones his show in from San Diego.

In-studio celebrity guests play along with the deception, pretending to be visiting Boise (or wherever).

An early indication of the impact came in Dayton, Ohio, in 1999. Dozens of teenagers showed up at a Clear Channel pop station early one morning looking for the Backstreet Boys, after hearing an interview with the band that morning. The teenagers were politely told that the band wasn't available and given promotional items. The interview was actually done earlier in Los Angeles.
"That's when we knew this could be huge," says Sean Compton, Clear Channel vice president and national program coordinator.

Nowadays, Boise's KISS has only one DJ who's actually in Boise. And one intern, known as "Smooch", who does personal appearances and answers the phone. Clear Channel uses voice-tracked programming extensively across its stations, especially among its KISS-branded FM franchise (there are 47 KISS stations). Their call-in contests feature a "fine print" burst of words informing the listener that the contest is national, the only hint that all is not as it sounds.

Is this fraud?

LATER: I still haven't decided.

In the case of television, I don't think it is. Fraud, I mean. I've been wondering for years whether the evening news is actually as live as it appears to be. The disclaimer "portions of this programming have been mechanically reproduced" covers a lot of ground. Live remotes from places where news isn't happening seem gratuitous to me. But I find I don't really care whether the set is real. Some of the financial shows on cable have placed their talking heads in front of a subtly-shifting abstract background that wouldn't be out of place as a Windows wallpaper or screensaver, not bothering to create the illusion of a newsroom, and that can be a pleasing effect.

But, so far, the television production facilities do not seem to be trying to digitally "place" a reporter in a venue he never visited. In radio, that subterfuge seems to be increasingly common.

Is it fraud to run a show from out-of-town? Certainly not -- if you admit it. There are dozens of nationally syndicated radio shows that don't pretend to be local to the markets they air in. For music-based shows, given the station format, the music is pretty much the same anyway. I don't think it's possible to run a talk show that way, and I'm not aware of any that try. (Kim Komando is probably the most up-front about it, reminding listeners that if they want to get on the air, they have to call when she's live -- and telling them when that is, and where.)

But the parts of the WSJ article I didn't quote (it is an article you have to pay to read, I don't intend to give it all away) make it clear that KISS Boise (actually KSAS-FM 103.3), their primary example, does everything they can to create the illusion that the on-air talent is live and local. Program director Hoss Grigg maintains an internal web page full of local research, events and trivia for his out-of-town talent.

A recent day began ... with a cellphone call from Mr. Grigg, who told [Cabana Boy Geoff Alan] of a Boise-area Olympic hopeful and recapped a station-sponsored party the night before at a Boise restaurant.
Sipping a large cup of coffee, Mr. Alan tried to convince himself it was 10 a.m., the time his show would air. With Mr. Grigg's briefing in mind, he told the Boise audience that last night's event was "a wild and crazy party," though of course he hadn't attended. "I personally saw a number of you hook up with people you had never hooked up with before."

Rival station KZMG ("Magic 93.1") promotes itself as "live and local", and takes calls from listeners on the air, something that "Cabana Boy Geoff" can't do. It doesn't seem to matter. KISS is ahead in the ratings -- and saving a ton of money on salaries.

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