April 7, 2005–Advances in television technology: where do we draw the line?–John Tracy

Advances in television technology: where do we draw the line? News Director John Tracy takes aim at uses and abuses
by Tina M. Adair

When Anchorage’s Channel 2 News Director John Tracy took the podium at the April Alaska Press Women luncheon, the long-time anchor’s number one topic was, surprisingly, not the news.

Tracy began by waxing eloquent about APW’s 2005 Communicator of Achievement, Rhonda McBride, who will represent Alaska in the national COA contest at the September NFPW convention in Washington state. He also cited her as the probable reason for his presence at the meeting: “Now I know why I was invited; Rhonda needs to ask for time off to go to Seattle.”

He was initially torn, he said, by the multitude of possible discussion topics suggested for his speech. Press Women Vice President Barbara Brown had given him several ideas that might appeal to the group. As it turned out, however, his major concern was not choosing a subject, but going “live.”

“I can’t talk for half an hour,” he quipped, “without a teleprompter or commercial breaks.”

His chosen topic, “The Future of Television Technology: Sizzle Over Substance,” gave him no pause whatsoever; it was a subject about which he holds strong, insightful opinions, and his basic premise was simple. “The role of technology depends on what you do with it,” he proposed. “It’s only good if it enhances your storytelling.”

And Tracy knows a lot about storytelling. As recipient of more than 100 awards for reporting (including three Edward R. Murrow Awards and five regional Emmys), he has more than proven himself during his 20 years at Anchorage’s KTUU-TV as co-anchor, anchor, executive producer, and news director. Yet his interest in news broadcasting began much earlier.

In recalling his early memories of television news, Tracy reminisced about the late 1950s and the ’60s, when TV consisted of only three major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. The news was reported by the likes of renowned veterans Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, and broadcasts were only 15 minutes long.

At that time, he explained, news was shot on film, which was one of the first technical innovations to debut on television. The film was processed right at the station, edited through cutting and splicing, and then broadcast to its eager audience.

“We still use catchphrases like “film at 11” and  “cutting” a story,” noted Tracy, “even though today there’s no more film and no more actual cutting.”

In the days of film, timeliness was an issue in remote areas. News film had to be flown up to Anchorage from Seattle because studios here didn’t have the facilities to process it. People watched at midnight.

One of the next big technological steps forward was the implementation of color. At the time, there were many in the industry who speculated that people wouldn’t spend the money to trade their black and white sets for more expensive color models. “Turns out they were wrong,” Tracy said.

In the 1970s, videotape replaced film. One of the primary effects of the change, Tracy says, was the lamentable loss of many good photographers. Those adept at shooting film often had difficulty adjusting to the pace of tape, and so dropped out of the business. They were replaced by novices or less experienced photographers, which resulted in a noticeable decline in quality.

“As wonderful as technology can be,” he mused, “each innovation brings some loss or sacrifice.”

The advent of tape ushered in another development: that of the “do-it-all” newsperson. Because video cameras were so much more portable and easier to use than film cameras, journalists were expected to be reporters and photographers. “But it’s rare,” said Tracy, “to find a reporter who’s good at both.”

Cameras began to get smaller and easier to use. Coupled with the introduction of microwave and satellite technology, live broadcasting became more prevalent. It was a double-sided coin, feels Tracy. It enabled reporters to give the public a totally accurate depiction of a breaking story, enhancing their understanding of the reality of news. Unfortunately, it also gave rise to such bad ideas as what Tracy calls “the black hole live shot,” which placed reporters in locales where an actual broadcast turned out to be impossible.

For example, sending a crew to do a live shot for the 5:30 p.m. news celebrating the world’s largest gathering of bald eagles in Haines, Alaska sounded like a terrific idea. Much to their chagrin, the crew didn’t realize until they were on location that at 5:30 . . . in Haines . . . in November, when the eagles converge . . . it’s pitch dark.

All things considered, said Tracy, the ease of live broadcasting has been a positive thing. It’s brought world news much closer to our living rooms, allowing us to feel more in touch with events happening in highly remote locations around the globe–something that was unheard of only ten years ago. “One recent KTUU newscast,” recalled Tracy, “featured live network feeds from Nome, Washington, D.C., Dutch Harbor, Italy, and Viet Nam. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but you have to admit, that’s pretty impressive.”

Things continue to change. News is now shot on digital tape and cut on computers, enabling producers to monitor the progress of a story from start to finish. Internet news has also flourished, Tracy commented, despite the fact that few considered it a viable news medium when it first came into being. The KTUU-TV web site generated more than 800,000 page views in March of this year, and is presently one of the top 15 most-viewed “Local News” links on the MSNBC web site.

“We may be a small market,” he added, “but on the Internet we can be just as big as anyone else.”

The question remains, however: will people stop watching TV newscasts if they can get up-to-the-minute news on the web? Tracy says no, especially with the coming of high-definition television, or HDTV, the proliferation of which has been bolstered by Congress’ mandate that all television signals be broadcast digitally by December 31, 2006. The change will essentially require consumers to buy new digital TVs, broadcasters to create new digital content, and delivery systems like cable and satellite to get the programs delivered. Channel 2 and Channel 7 (KAKM, Anchorage’s PBS affiliate) will begin phasing in HDTV broadcasting by June of this year.

“It’s costing us a lot of money to make this change,” remarked Tracy, “but this is the future of television.”

Constant technological innovation seems to be the nature of our world today, but Tracy warns that just because it’s available doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. “We should continually ask ourselves any given innovation is really necessary. Are we actually using technology for our advancement, or are we just doing it because it’s cool?”

Even such beneficial developments as live broadcasting and the Internet are subject to occasional misuse, and Tracy was vocal about some of his pet peeves. He revealed that at the Radio Television News Directors’ Association, he’s considered “the guy who throws rocks at technology.”

“First on my list,” he declared, “is the television car chase.” The ease of live broadcasting has given rise, particularly in Los Angeles, to the broadcast of ongoing car chases via helicopter, some of which have even been televised nationally. “This is just a waste of time. I’ve called and complained numerous times, and now they seem to have stopped.”

Another error in judgment enabled by technology, he said, is the overuse of graphics. “Some national news stations seem to have decided that the more you put on the screen at one time, the better. I’ve seen stock quotes, breaking news, interviews, live commentary, and a news ticker all on the same screen. It’s just too much to read.”

Tracy continued to muse about the unfortunate side effects of technology. “For instance, now that we can digitally cut and paste wire copy into our own stories, should we? Or do we then lose the personal perspective we gain from interpreting and rewriting?”

Tracy also mentioned the non-viability of twenty-four-hour news stations. News is, by its nature, something special, so to be inundated with it takes away much of the excitement. “Often they struggle to fill the time, and viewers end up with garbage instead of real news.”

HDTV was not exempt from his list, either. “Maria [Downey, his co-anchor] and I wonder about that high-definition camera. Is it really such a good thing for reporters our age?”

“And now,” he went on, “we’re about to get on-demand news updates via cell phone. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this really necessary? Are we going too far?'”

But Tracy is optimistic about the future of the news business, especially here in Alaska. One of his dreams is to develop a news bureau in the Mat-Su Valley later this year. “Now that’s a great use of new technology,” he declared. “It won’t be live, but it’s a beginning. Since Mat-Su is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, we need to get moving now.”

Summing up his feelings about Alaska news, Tracy described a recent KTUU series generated by reporter Jason Moore and photographer Ian Planchon, who accompanied local firefighters to Thailand in late December to aid in the tsunami relief efforts. “They shot stories on a home video camera, in as subtle a way as possible,” he said, “so as not to draw attention to themselves. They wanted to show things from the actual viewpoint of the people affected by the tragedy.”

The stories were then sent using file transfer protocol (ftp) over the Internet, taking about 2 hours to transmit to Anchorage. “The result was amazing,” Tracy went on. “They were with the people of Thailand, in the villages, among the wreckage and the down-and dirty relief efforts, and got better coverage than the nationals did.”

Tracy smiled. “That’s the best example of what technology can do for the news. It should help you get the real story, up close, with no bells and whistles, no fireworks. Just the real story, about real people.”

John Tracy

John Tracy