When I came to WTNH the director of our evening newscasts was a young guy named Jeff Winn¹. 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.
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.
¹ – 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.