The TV industry is silently changing. As smartphones sell by the millions, it’s no coincidence that newscasts are evolving. The role of the broadcast journalist is expanding to include social media, and the newsroom is shrinking as automated production systems and robotic cameras slash jobs. Technology — right down to the application of high-definition (HD) makeup — is transforming broadcast. But is it always for the better?
Trend 1: The high cost of high definition
Inside a brightly lit room on the 10th floor of the downtown Toronto CBC building, veteran makeup artist Sharon Danley unpacks foundation and brushes for her first application of the morning. She’s transforming the cast of the CBC’s highest-rated show, Royal Canadian Air Farce, into fishermen.
The show has been shot in HD since 2006. As television upgrades to HD, makeup artists have adjusted their technique and products to adapt to cameras that capture a more detailed and vibrant picture—one or two million pixels per frame according to the screen’s resolution compared to standard definition at just under five hundred, making high definition roughly five times as sharp as standard-definition television. Gone are the days of heavy, visible studio makeup, the HD camera sees every blemish, pore, bump and scar, and makes traditional makeup look overdone, so makeup must be applied lightly and evenly. An HD-ready face must look flawless and natural on camera and off.
Comedian Craig Lauzon is first in the chair. Danley dusts his face with a high-definition dual-finish powder, which takes the shine off his skin. “You don’t want anything shiny,” she says. A face glistening from hot lights is obvious in HD. While the new makeup doesn’t take longer to apply than conventional makeup—around 20 minutes for women and 10 for men—the frequent touch-ups can slow production, says Danley. The best way to avoid delay is to remain in communication with the director when you need to handle touch-ups.
Then there’s the airbrush technique, popularized more than 20 years ago by a Hollywood makeup artist. With the same pen, air tube and compressor system used for spray tanning and T-shirt airbrushing, the makeup artist applies a mist of foundation, releasing thousands of tiny dots that mimic pores. The mixture dries to a matte finish, camouflaging scars, dark circles and under-eye puffiness. Since Citytv upgraded to HD in 2003, it has embraced the lighter coverage of airbrushing. Heavier makeup absorbs more light, making the talent look blotchy if it isn’t applied correctly.
Airbrush makeup does come with some health concerns and is not FDA-approved, even if the makeup ingredients are. Guidelines given by the Silicones Environmental, Health and Safety Council of North America say that inhaling small quantities of silicone over an extended period can lead to lung problems like bronchitis and even cancer as the lungs may retain the particles inhaled from the aerosol product. While makeup artists can wear a mask during application, the talent isn’t so lucky, which is why Danley reserves airbrushing for covering large areas like the body. Otherwise she relies on brush skills and high-quality makeup. “I’m going to have to airbrush you next week when you play Obama,” she says to comedian Alan Park, “unless you want to go get a tan.”
Trend 2: TV goes a-Twitter
When Ontarians felt the ground shake on June 23, 2010, they turned to TV and social media to look for answers and to share some of their own. “This is a stack of e-mails we got within the first five minutes of the earthquake,” said CP24 web journalist Maurice Cacho to anchor Nathan Downer on that nights Live at 5 show. Cacho shares a tweet posted by @korps, one of CP24’s 38,000-plus followers: “Was sitting on my couch and the lampshades started shaking from the #Earthquake. Lasted about 45 seconds here in #Burlington.” Then the camera zooms in on Cacho’s computer to show a cell phone photo someone had e-mailed: shampoo bottles littering the floor of an Ottawa drugstore.
This kind of network-audience dance is becoming the status quo, as broadcast journalism becomes more involved with social media. Our tweets and e-mails can have an impact on news coverage, whether they tip networks off to a power outage in Oakville or a plane crash in Durham.
“News doesn’t break, it tweets,” says Brian Solis, a digital and new media analyst and author from California. “Breaking events are unfolding on Twitter and then people are turning to news sources to get the facts. Then news outlets are going back to the Twitter streams to get feedback.” Solis calls it the modern-day version of “going to the phones.” It’s no wonder experts credit the Internet with television’s revival: at least once a day, 46 percent of Canadians watch TV and browse the web at once.
The New York Times dubbed this phenomenon the “Watercooler Effect”: a virtual conversation about what people are watching. This social interaction creates a new type of broadcast job as well—the web journalist. In 2010, MTV News hired its first “Twitter jockey” to report on pop culture using blogs and social media.
Networks are capitalizing by introducing “tweetable” moments to push people to one of four screens: TV, mobile, computer or tablet. When Kanye West hijacked Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV’s Video Music Awards, the Twitterati went wild over his bad manners, giving the VMAs their highest viewer count in six years.
Solis says this social effect will force broadcasters to produce more-engaging programming and encourage viewers to watch live news so they don’t miss out. “The social consumer is looking for moments they can share,” he says. “There’s a ‘me’ in social media for a reason.” Solis’s TV is connected to his computer by an Apple network hub, allowing him to connect to social networks and tweet directly from his television. And new technology, such as Google TV, further integrates television and web by allowing viewers to browse the Internet on their TV screen while watching TV shows. A keyboard is connected to the TV and a smartphone can be used as a remote.
Trend 3: The rise of the mojo
Nick Wynja covered the 2010 Vancouver Olympics equipped with only his iPhone 3GS. The former radio-broadcast student at London, Ontario’s Fanshawe College live-streamed the arrival of the torch in Vancouver and captured the opening day scene when protestors faced off against police. He and members of his team edited stories on the steps of Robson Square, in line at Starbucks, and on the slopes of Whistler. With a few finger taps, his footage was instantly uploaded to an online WebTV player, YouTube and his school’s website, where local stations picked up his stories. Wynja is part of the mobile journalist revolution.
A mobile journalist, or mojo, is known for minimal equipment, faster production speed and the ability to thrive outside the newsroom. With its HD video and prowess in low light, the iPhone4 is the tool of choice for mojos, who recoil from heavy cameras, tripods and lighting kits. “The phone’s extended battery life helps too,” says Wynja, who struggled with battery drain on his iPhone 3GS at the Olympics. The new model also has a front-facing camera for stand-ups, and video calling for live hits.
With apps like 1st Video by VeriCorder, journalists can record, edit and send stories straight to the newsroom, the Web or an ITV player. This collapses three jobs —reporter, editor and cameraman—into one.
“For TV reporting, there are still some hurdles,” admits Wynja. The iPhone has no white-balance, no zoom is available in video mode, and the device requires a handheld mount to reduce shaking. Still, quality doesn’t seem to be an issue with web content: more than two billion videos are watched on YouTube every day, a site notorious for low its low resolution. Even TV viewers accustomed to HD perfection are forgiving of poor video quality when the only footage of a major event came from a Smartphone. New apps for the iPad will bypass these limitations now that mobile journalists can shoot on camera and import and edit footage on the iPad.
Tech issues aside, a mobile journalists’ isolation can sometimes lead them into dangerous territory. They don’t have a crew to help investigate a story, and it’s even more difficult to correct something once the news goes viral. On September 17, 2010, Toronto Maple Leaf’s general manager Cliff Fletcher told long-time sports reporter Damien Cox that ex-coach Pat Burns had died. Cox was first to post the news on Twitter. He was also the first to get a call from Burns himself saying he was still alive.
Trend 4: The disappearing control room
Inside a dimly lit production control room in Montreal, nothing looks out of the ordinary. But with just minutes to show time at RIS News, a 24-hour sports news channel owned by CTV, the room contains just one operator instead of the usual five or six.
RIS uses an automated production control (APC) system, which eliminates control room staff and gives one person master control over a newscast’s production devices. The APC operator today is Oz, who’s controlling the switcher, lighting, audio, video, graphic effects and robotic cameras, which three to nine operators would have traditionally controled, from a single touch-screen. In the newsroom of the future, only the tech-savvy, multi-tasking journalist need apply.
This isn’t the first case of automation depopulating the newsroom. First, three or four people who ran the master control became one. Then came the demise of the cameraman, replaced by robotic cameras that move along an H-shaped frame to create the effect of a full crew.
With APC, all editorial decisions are input into the system, mapping out the show before it airs. Each section of the newscast is assigned a picture icon that represents the type of shot and tells the operator which audio channels and cameras are being used. Like an assembly line worker, the operator follows along, only intervening if something goes wrong, or to add or kill a story while the show airs. Since the scripted events are prepared ahead of time, on-air camera and switcher mistakes can be avoided, or quickly fixed by the operator, before the mistake appears on air.
Automated production is used in 35 to 40 per cent of stations in North America, and the rate is accelerating, according to Brad Rochon, marketing product manager for Ross Video. The company develops and sells the Overdrive APC system used by 15 stations in Canada, 100 in the U.S. and 35 internationally. Since 2008, Canwest, now known as Shaw Media, has used high-tech camera robotics at regional production centres in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton to control its 14 Global stations. The Nova Scotia newscast happens in a Halifax studio, while production occurs 6,000 kilometres away in Vancouver. Nova Scotia Community College became the first Canadian school to teach production automation when it installed Overdrive as part of a $1-million upgrade in 2009.
The system’s main selling point is its ability to reduce production errors, streamline workflow and lower operational costs. That’s corporate-speak for eliminating jobs. Global’s switch to remote automated production resulted in over 200 layoffs of local news control room staff. Peter Murdoch, vice-president of media for Canada’s largest media union, the Communications, Energy and Paperworks Union, blamed the cutbacks on high levels of concentrated media ownership, according to a Canwest press release. He was also quoted as saying that the centralization of broadcast, as well as print divisions, will slowly erode local news across the country.
But proponents of automated production claim it can reduce mistakes, since all decisions are pre-programmed before the show. The APC system never gets tired, sick or distracted, and if the system malfunctions, as all computers do, the operator can either switch to a backup system or jump on to the switcher and get to the next shot. “But if you’re the only operator, there’s only so much you can do. Therefore many levels of redundancy and backup are developed into the system design,” Rochon says. With camera operators long gone and the control room down to the bare bones, a small technical error could bring a lot of dead air.