My Friday Nighttime At Nightline

The Nightline set is, to be kind, tiny. The street traffic behind the anchor plays off a server and is shown on a rear projection TV. Is nothing real?

When I came to WTNH the director of our evening newscasts was a young guy named Jeff Winn&#185. He had the thankless task of directing our newscasts on a chromakey set. This is much too complex to explain here except to say any mistake Jeff made was glaringly obvious to even a casual viewer. It was that obvious. Luckily, Jeff was good at what he did. Mistakes were few.

He left us and went on to bigger things. Again, too complex to explain here, plus if I thought about his career versus mine I’d openly weep. Jeff has seven Emmys, as do I. His are the much larger, heavier, impressive, national ones. Jeff won most of them directing “Real Sports” on HBO. He still does that on a monthly basis.

Jeff’s day night job is directing ABC News Nightline. Originally Ted Koppel’s nightly wrap-up of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and then a daily single subject half hour of hard news, Nightline post-Ted is flashier, lighter and more feature oriented. It’s also stronger in the ratings than it’s been in years, recently beating Letterman.

I’ve been meaning to watch Jeff direct for years but never had the chance. I went last night.

The drive to New York was speedy and without incident until the Bronx. What had been a wide open highway became a slow moving bumper-to-bumper grind. I broke free, headed down the West Side Highway and pulled into an open and totally legal parking space on Columbus Avenue directly across the street from ABC’s entrance.

Really–I found legal on-street parking in Manhattan. I’m available for autographs later.

When Nightline first went to its rotating three anchor configuration it came from a windowed studio above Times Square. Even now you can watch the traffic behind the anchor. Don’t be fooled (as I was). They moved around a year ago and now come from TV-3, the same studio as World News with Charlie Gibson. The Nightline set is, to be kind, tiny. The street traffic behind the anchor plays off a server and is shown on a rear projection TV. Is nothing real?

For much of the evening Jeff is ‘on a leash,’ even when there’s nothing to do. If a major story broke, he would direct live coverage across the full network. That is no small responsibility. ABC has standby staff just-in-case 24/7.

We took the grand tour to the control room passing through Nightline’s sparsely staffed offices. Most of the action happens here during the day. The show is anchored live, but the packages are mainly pre-produced at a more convenient hour. TV work isn’t as glamorous when you consider so much of it is “second shift.”

ABC’s New York headquarters is a confusing collection of mainly connected buildings on Manhattan’s West Side between 66th and 67th from Columbus Avenue to Central Park West. There are a few apartment buildings interspresed, but most of the block is ABC’s.

Back when I did some freelance work at the network (weather fill-ins on Good Morning America–you never call anymore–I’m crushed) I never ventured far from my studio (TV-2) lest I get lost! In some of the interconnections the floors don’t even line up!

The control room itself is very impressive with two rows of arena type seating, a few individual positions farther back and a separate audio booth. The production crew face a winged wall of large high definition flat panel monitors. Each monitor is split to show individual inputs as needed. Most are pretty standard cameras and servers, but I also saw tie-lines to Washington and Europe (feeding Arab language broadcasts back to New York last night).

Jeff sat down and with the technical director and assistant director went through the show’s scripts page-by-page making sure each input was properly marked and available. As far as I could tell only one small change was made during this run-through. A courtesy font for a photograph came positioned over the person’s face. It was moved to air in a less intrusive spot.

As 11:35 PM approached more and more people drifted in. By airtime there were around a dozen people at work. Actually, the show starts 15 seconds early as an animated countdown streams to the network. I’m hoping that’s a tradition carried over from the good old days, because by now the affiliates had better have synchronized clocks, wouldn’t you think?

One floor down Martin Bashir anchored. His only contact with the upstairs crew was electronic. I enjoyed when he read about someone being taken to the hospital and in his British English left out the article “the.” “He was taken to hospital,” was what the audience heard.

The show was flawless… at least it looked flawless to me. In many ways the production resembled a local newscast, but with longer packages, no live shots and more help. The producer even shuffled extra promo content in to help fill the show’s scheduled time.

Jeff and the team were relaxed and playful as the show aired. These are people working together every night. They know their jobs and at this level I suspect screw-ups aren’t tolerated long.

A little after midnight we were done.

&#185 – Our other director was Tom O’Brien, who moved out of directing to sales and then management. He is now general manager at WNBC in New York after a long stay as GM at KXAS Dallas.

Asking Tough Questions

This is a small blog with minimal schlep. I’ve been asking where our country’s response to Hurricane Katrina has been for days. Now, through Internet audio and video, I have watched others – mainly journalists with network weight, asking the same questions.

I’ve found most of the links on Crooks and Liars. It is a site I had never seen before today and, quite honestly, I don’t know anything about it or its political slant.

The answers I’ve heard haven’t been satisfying to me. The fact that these journalists now feel empowered to ask tough questions is a good thing.

I watched Anderson Cooper interview Senator Landrieu of Louisiana. He was having none of whatever she was saying – especially her glad handing other politicians for their diligent work in this catastrophe. He brought her back to dead bodies and suffering people.

In the past I have criticized Anderson Cooper for his ‘cowboy’ reporting in the face of imminent natural disasters. My opinion of Mr. Cooper has greatly changed, and to the better. I have seen thoughtful and insightful reporting on his part. He has won me over.

I’ve always enjoyed Jack Cafferty. Whoever at CNN decided to let him speak his mind did us all a great favor. Whether I agree with everything he says, I always listen and ponder.

In a piece of video I just watched, Cafferty used his age, 62 years old, as a reference when speaking that he had never seen a response like this to any disaster – ever.

I’m am watching Ted Koppel in a segment that has been captioned:

He had no interest in the spin, and began at least five questions with “With all due respect Mr Brown, but…” Koppel is leading the growing chorus of speaking truth to power.

Ted is interviewing Michael Brown from FEMA. This is not a good day to be Michael Brown.

Ted Koppel – Who Knew?

I just read an article in the Wall Street Journal considering the future of Nightline. I remember the origins of that show, during the Iran Hostage Crisis. In the beginning, the nightly show would even give the count of days since the hostages had been taken.

I remember the first time they strayed from Iran and covered some other breaking news. It was sharp, learned and the only show of its kind in that pre-cable age.

Now, the article says, ABC might be trying to kill off the show.

I usually get to see the first minute or two before leaving work. Though thoroughly associated with Ted Koppel, he’s not there too often. Now, I understand why.

Mr. Koppel’s contract expires in 2005, and he is unlikely to sign a new one that involves many changes to his current situation. His contract gives him nearly two months of vacation, a three-day workweek and a provision that the show is rarely broadcast live — a grueling option that characterized “Nightline” in its heyday. Mr. Koppel also takes home a paycheck thought to be near $10 million — on par with top-paid figures in network news. A spokeswoman said Mr. Koppel was not available to comment.

$10,000,000! I’m in the wrong busine… Oh, hold on. Same business. Never mind. And, with all due respect to Mr. Koppel whom I consider a gift to television journalism – grueling? Please!

I’m not sure if Nightline could make it today as a live show. We had longer attention spans twenty years ago. There was less competition.

Sometimes good things just outlive their usefulness. It will be a shame when that happens to Nightline, because it was so special.

A New Word for Me

I just read Senator John McCain’s letter to the president of Sinclair Broadcasting concerning their decision not to air Ted Koppel’s reading of the names of our Iraq War dead.

As is my policy here, I won’t venture an opinion on this war… or even Sinclair’s decision. However, in reading McCain’s statement, I was presented with a word I had never seen before.

It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves.

Opprobrium! It’s there to add effect to an already brutally harsh paragraph.

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