Given the fact that Gannett has had to furlough employees in 2009, it would have seemed downright criminal for WXIA to cover the start of baseball’s spring training with its usual compliment of reporters, anchors, photographers and live truck operators. Yet the story is high interest. And with Orlando but a one-day drive away, the Atlanta media have traditionally covered it on-site. So WXIA apparently sent Sam Crenshaw and a photographer. And Crenshaw has been delivering live reports via Skype, the streaming-video web thing that is becoming increasingly popular among TV stations cutting corners. It works.
Crenshaw has been delivering reports via Skype on WXIA’s newscasts from morning to night (“Sammie in his jammies!” exclaimed Fred Kalil about Crenshaw’s Skype reports on the station’s 5 – 7am newscasts). Skype looks as cheap as it is, delivering a stop-action picture that’s so crude, WXIA would only play Crenshaw’s 6pm live shot Tuesday in the studio monitor. It never took the shot full-screen, as it would a normal satellite or microwave live shot.
But if Crenshaw is just sitting and talking, voicing over clean tape fed in earlier, there’s no real harm. And it benefits the station by enabling it to work Crenshaw like a dog. Live trucks are problematic. Satellite time is expensive. And live truck operators, with their troublesome commercial driver’s licenses, are restricted from working round-the-clock by the US DOT. Skype has no such restriction. If Sammie can set up his camera-equipped lappy in his jammies, he can do a live shot on TV without a live truck operator or even a photographer. Woo-hoo.
Skype has other benefits. While in DC last month, we saw a WRC reporter do Skype live shots on a moving train on the city’s Metro transit system. Because Metro has solid cell phone service, Skype was reliable. And the live shot couldn’t have taken place with the reporter tethered to a traditional live truck.
(Skype also enabled some stations to cover the inauguration with craven cheapness, sending reporters on buses with local supporters and having them fend for themselves on two-day trips from places like Florida and Iowa. It gave the TV stations a “presence,” suitable for their promotion. But the logistics were often nightmarish, and the coverage was likely very one-note).
TV news has been hoping for this technology for decades. Skype is still very, very flawed; if a reporter wants to do a live shot at an active scene in a local neighborhood, his stop-action Skype shot will make it look like he’s reporting from Baghdad, while his competitor does a clean shot with traditional microwave technology. But this is the proverbial foot in the door. Given the ugly contraction in the traditional media economy. it probably can’t happen soon enough.