In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no more visible piece of equipment in Atlanta TV news than the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter employed by WXIA. Dubbed “Skycam,” the blue and white helicopter floated among the tops of Atlanta skyscrapers every weeknight whether it needed to or not. Its affable, swashbuckling pilot-reporter, Bruce Erion, was one of the most familiar on-camera faces in town.
Our recollection is that WXIA was the first TV station in Atlanta to use a helicopter bearing its logo. Skycam is still in business as a promotional entity. But WXIA is no longer using its own helicopter.
WXIA has reached an agreement to use WAGA’s helicopter for aerial footage, live and otherwise. WAGA’s assignment desk continues to control the helicopter. But whenever the aircraft goes up, WAGA must notify WXIA. Likewise, WXIA is now obligated to call WAGA when WXIA hears about breaking news that may require aerial coverage.
Each station has forty hours of “shared” time on the aircraft per month, according to a memo obtained by LAF. Each station also has ten hours to use exclusively. WXIA will still hail its aerial footage as that of “11 Alive Skycam,” as will WAGA “SkyFox Five.”
WGCL is not part of this arrangement (nor is WSB). We understand that WGCL was included in talks to share helicopter resources, but declined to participate in the final arrangement.
It’s worth noting that WGCL has also withdrawn from the LNS, which pools video resources for common events like news conferences.
The helicopter pool makes obvious sense. Not only is it wasteful to see four aircraft hovering over an accident scene, but it’s also scary. Never mind that Atlanta news pilots are typically very experienced and fully communicative with one another in such circumstances. The fact is, they’re under a lot of pressure to get a better camera angle than their competitors. The 2007 crash of a news helicopter in Phoenix during a routine police chase was an industry eye-opener (be forewarned: the link is chilling, disturbing, awful).
Unfortunately, WAGA’s and WXIA’s cost savings will probably go directly to the corporate bottom lines of Fox and Gannett. Neither newsroom is likely to benefit.
It’s a remarkable turning point for WXIA. At one time, its best promotional tool was its helicopter. WXIA frequently sent Skycam to schools. The aircraft would dramatically land on the playground. The kids would run out. Erion would do a show-and-tell. A photog would shoot it, then send the video back to Atlanta for the show close, with smiling children waving at the camera.
While en route, Erion would front live shots airborne from the pilot’s seat. A photog would strap on a safety harness, then stand out on the skid of the aircraft with a camera on his shoulder, a thousand feet above the city.
The kids in the footage below are probably in their late twenties now, and dealing with budget cuts in their own workplaces. Gannett had money to burn back in 1986, the heyday of Skycam.