Share this article

Open for business
Find out the latest updates from local businesses as our region reopens.
print logo
Commentary

Local TV news adapts to new normal during life-changing pandemic

Alan Pergament

During one recent live broadcast, WIVB-TV (Channel 4) meteorologist Todd Santos heard scratching on the glass door of his home “studio,” which doubles as a den and kids’ playroom.

His 3-year-old daughter – and future television critic – was standing with her face pressed on the glass door so Santos motioned for her to come in after he finished the weather report.

“She opened the door, said, ‘Good job dad,’ and then ran off,” Santos said. “Adorable bit of feedback that definitely brought a smile.”

WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) meteorologist Patrick Hammer misplaced his earpiece in a laundry pile and had a parental device that controls the internet kick in right before another newscast. That nearly kept him off the air because the internet is needed to broadcast.

WKBW-TV’s (Channel 7) anchor Ashley Rowe chuckles to herself regularly when she sees her ironing board that holds her laptop as she anchors the news. “Working from home forces creativity,” wrote Rowe.

Channel 2 sports director Adam Benigni sees two of his three dogs staring at him and wanting to play fetch while recording intros. He also is frequently asked if he is wearing shorts or sweats while on the air with his legs hidden.

Benigni isn’t the only one with a dog issue.

Hammer said the family dog, Gigi, was heard snoring during one morning “Daybreak” newscast.

Rowe said she has to block off her in-studio home so the dogs can’t get in and she also leaves water bowls in the hallway.

The social distancing need for anchors and reporters to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak has created some amusing moments. But these are serious times requiring ingenuity by news departments to provide excellent news coverage that is important now, more than over.

The leaders of the three local broadcast news stations addressed some of the issues regarding the changing rules of gathering and reporting news required by the pandemic, including trying to cut down the risks to their staffs.

Lisa Polster, Channel 4 news director, said all news producers are working from home and most reporters and photographers are working outside the building, Santos is working from home and managers split their time between home and work. Reporters and photographers may go out on assignment together, depending on the situation.

Anchors, sports and weather anchors have been coming to the studio and practicing social distancing. Reporters can turn down assignments that they feel are unsafe, but Polster said no one has done it.

“We are mindful of where we send our crews,” Polster wrote in an email. “We are mostly using Zoom (teleconference) meetings, Skype, FaceTime and phone interviews for stories.”

“Zoom editorial meetings are more to see each other rather than conduct business. We miss each other,” Polster said. “This is a very serious global, national and local story for all of us and our viewers. … We have needed to be flexible in our processes while thinking differently about how to present this story responsibly while keeping our fellow WNYers and our entire team at News 4 safe and informed.”

Rob Heverling, Channel 7 news director, said that all of the station’s multimedia journalists and reporters are working remotely, as are most anchors and meteorologists. The newscast also is being produced remotely.

“At our busiest point in the day we are down to about six people in the newsroom/studio,” Heverling wrote in an email. “If a photographer and reporter are working together, they drive separate vehicles to the story. If one of our journalists raises a safety concern, we listen and find a work around. It's critical we support our team at all times.

“We are a very collaborative newsroom. We are a very social newsroom. We talk to each other in our 'Brady Bunch' boxes during our Zoom editorial meetings. These virtual meetings work fine but they are a little stifling. We miss the creative energy of all being together.”

The creativity extends to setting up the home studios.

Channel 7 anchor Jeff Russo said cleaning out his dining room and moving furniture and monitors to find the right shot “has been interesting.”

“Our engineering team has done an amazing job coaching me through the video feed and audio while I worked on tweaking the lighting,” wrote Russo.

Russo isn’t alone in needing coaching.

“Learning new tech has been a challenge at times,” said Channel 2’s Benigni. “But we’re making it work as best we can.”

At Channel 2, General Manager Jim Toellner said at least one anchor on two-anchor shows are broadcasting at home and all of the station’s weather reports will be anchored from home by this weekend.

Toellner said the “bare minimum” is required for newsroom production, with usually one or two staffers practicing social distancing in the studio and building. Directors, producers and the digital team can work from home.

Reporters and photographers drive separately to stories at Channel 2, as they do at Channel 7.

“If interviews must be done face to face, they are conducted outside with proper distance between all,” wrote Toellner.

Reporters can turn down assignments they view as unsafe, as was the practice before.

“No different now, we would never put any of our staff in a position where they feel unsafe,” wrote Toellner. “They always have the decision-making ability to ‘pull the plug.’ ”

He sees some silver linings in the new news normal.

“There are pluses and minuses to working from home, just like many in other industries that have made the switch,” wrote Toellner. “It is no different here, everyone is trying to adapt to new realities.”

Toellner foresees the forced changes impacting the future of local TV news.

“The unprecedented challenges posed by social distancing are requiring newsrooms to innovate each day in order to continue serving our communities and deliver critical information,” he wrote. “This will probably change the way we do local news forever. But the biggest thing will be versatility.”

“The old cliché about ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ rings true in this case. If we had taken this on as a project, preparing for something theoretical, it might have taken a year rather than a couple weeks.”

Now on to the big question: Sweats or shorts, Benigni?

“Depends on my mood,” answered Benigni. “Although the most comfortable old torn-up pair of jeans I have is actually at the top of the rotation.”

Story topics: /

There are no comments - be the first to comment