Here and on this week’s podcast, Paul Tadich describes his experience producing local Global newscasts from a centralized facility in Toronto, where anchors stand in front of a green screen that is digitally replaced with the backdrop of each respective city. In a separate interview with CANADALAND, Troy Reeb — senior vice president of news, radio, and station operations for Global parent company Corus — responds to Tadich’s concerns, defending the “Multi-Market Content” model and how it’s allowed them to redeploy resources toward journalism.
I worked at Global from 2012 to 2017 as a news writer and producer. It’s a competently-managed organization that caters to mid-market tastes. Their programming consists of middle-of-the-road fare like The Young and the Restless, NCIS, Homeland, Big Brother, et al. I also found that they were, until 2014, a reliable producer of well-managed, carefully-researched local news. Those Global News departments were run by great professionals of long standing that loved their jobs. However, the situation considerably deteriorated while I worked there, in a Caligulan orgy of cost-cutting that saw austerity imposed, euphemistically, as “sharing.” I had a front-row seat to it all.
Global operates more than a dozen local stations across the country, each with a news division. For many years, the formula was simple: staff each local newsroom with competent, trained professionals and allow them to do their work. This formula operated well: for decades, staff at Global News bureaus across the country pumped out informative — and useful — pieces of journalism. Sean O’Shea, for example, does a great job of elbowing his way into the offices of shady used-car dealers and peddlers of unnecessary door-to-door products to confront belligerent con artists and deliver consumer justice. Susan Hay does fine work highlighting often-underrepresented heroes in the community. Angie Seth performs a good service raising awareness of interesting but underappreciated folks, as in a moving segment on a teenage girl who overcame stigma and oppression to win gold at the World Dwarf Games.
Until recently, these entertaining, well-constructed bits of content were sandwiched between segments of local and national news that was carefully produced by each station. There would be a report on the record number of potholes in Winnipeg, as well as when mosquito fogging was set to begin in that Culicidae-infested city. In Toronto, a roundup of local mayhem, generally consisting of shootings, fires, and break-and-enters, would form the basis of each local cast. As you would expect, each newscast was produced, live, in a studio in the city in which it was broadcast. Taking the half-hour or hour-long newscast live to air required a seasoned mix of technical staff — directors, producers, prompter technicians, graphic artists. It was a full house, and the atmosphere in the control room could be electric, especially when breaking news laid waste to carefully-constructed plans. Watching these professionals improvise on the fly was a great pleasure and provided good instruction on how live news really works. The core of the news operation remained fairly standard: at least two newscasts per day, at 6 and 11 p.m. (with some variations, plus lunchtime shows and breakfast programs in some markets).
However, as I arrived in April of 2012, that paradigm was already changing. A software technology called Mosart had just been installed. This production control suite automated many of the technical positions required to put on a live newscast — a dedicated audio engineer was often no longer needed, and other positions were either lost or concatenated. Local producer jobs were also slashed so that shows could be remotely produced. Signals that controlled robotic cameras were relayed from the main Toronto studios to studios in several of the other Global markets, so camera technicians were no longer needed in each of the individual cities. By the end of 2012, I often produced the Winnipeg news from Toronto, alongside a remote camera operator, a teleprompter operator, and a director.
This system had its faults — mainly that producers in Toronto often had little knowledge of the cities they were responsible for, so street names, neighbourhoods, and local politicians were sometimes misidentified. However, this was considered by employees to be the cost of progress, and they worked long, hard hours to learn as much as possible about their adoptive cities to make the new system fly.
But that wasn’t enough. In 2014, someone in management apparently got the idea that 11 p.m. newscasts were simply not worth the time and expense to produce live: they cost too much money, and not enough people — especially young ones — were watching them. But Global still wanted to produce newscasts that would air to a dwindling number of people at 11 — so how to slash costs even further? The idea would be to dispense with live news at that hour altogether in favour of a pre-recorded newscast that would appear as if it were transmitted live. Many of these pre-recorded news segments were to be duplicated across each of Global’s markets in an effort to wring more cost-savings from an already rather scrunched-up mop. This idea became the basis of a troubling concept called “news sharing” — using technology to make it look like local news could be coming from a studio in downtown Winnipeg, when in reality it was a pre-recorded chunk of info emanating from a green-screen studio in Toronto. This was the birth of the MMC concept — which stands for “Multi-Market Content.” Once Global figured out the enormous savings this offered in terms of slashing jobs, there was no going back. Every Global station from Saskatoon to Halifax now uses the MMC set-up, with most relying on Toronto-based anchors for at least one nightly newscast.
The Multi-Market Content operation is an ingenious idea. How it works is fairly simple. A 30-minute newscast usually consists of three segments, called blocks. The first 10-or-so minutes is the A-block. This is where you find local news — car crashes and kidnappings. The B-block, occupying the middle third of the cast, is generally filled with a mix of national and international news. The feel-good endpiece, the C-block, is populated by an ever-so-slightly narcotized weather report, plus an outrageously saccharine kicker story — examples include a birthday party for a 100-year-old turtle and a woman who has decorated her house with thousands of cat statues.
As you would expect, the Winnipeg news would traditionally be broadcast out of Winnipeg, Toronto out of the Big Smoke, Regina’s straight from the heart of the Queen City. But not in the bold, new world of MMC. In the MMC model, working in what I would describe as a news sweatshop, massively overworked producers often handle three cities’ worth of news at the same time. Ask a TV news producer what it’s like to work on just one major city, and they’ll tell you it’s a bang-your-head-on-the-desk type of experience; so just imagine trying to keep track of what’s going on in Saskatoon while you’re keeping an eye on Halifax. But that’s how it works in the world of MMC. All this work is done — each 11 p.m. newscast for each city east of Alberta — from a single newsroom in Toronto. Here’s the not-so-funny kicker: the anchors, the people you trust to read you the news from your home city, are working from Toronto, too. The live news you expect to see beamed into your living room just ahead of Colbert is, in fact, a flash-frozen, pre-recorded repast, quickly aging past its best-before date, dispatched at the speed of light from a bunker in Toronto.
How is this possible?
I was moved to the Multi-Market Content unit in December 2015, just a few months after the new system launched, and watched the whole process unfold.
Things get cooking in the MMC newsroom when the supervising producer arrives in the morning. Their job is to gather national and international content — Justin Trudeau’s latest photobomb or a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville. This content is collected and organized for processing that will happen later in the day. This is the content that is duplicated identically across the network and fills the B- and C-blocks of each local cast. As the workday progresses, the producers of newscasts for each of Global’s MMC-enabled markets trickle in and start to liaise with a bare-bones staff of reporters and camera operators working out of each city. The workload ranges from one producer assigned to handle a major city like Toronto to another producer handling three markets simultaneously — a common example would be for a single producer to be responsible for organizing newscasts for Montreal, the Maritimes, and Winnipeg. The amount of resources available to these producers varies widely depending on the time of day or the day of the week. On weekends, when I mostly worked, most of the staff in the city you were working on left for the day around 5 p.m.
(When I was assigned to work on the Montreal newscast, and a story about a murder in the Laurentians broke at, say, 8 p.m., and the press release was sent out by the police only in French, I was expected to run it through Google Translate so I could write copy — local reporters and producers, who actually spoke French, had long gone home. This practice obviously resulted in many errors — bungles in the names of streets, neighbourhoods, politicians, and organizations.)
As the workday forges ahead, each producer writes voiceovers for everything from smaller news items and intros to packaged pieces that examine bigger stories. All of this content, which ends up totalling several dozen items per day, is fed into a gigantic grid that is constantly managed and updated as the clock ticks down the hours. Here’s an example of a voiceover, or VO, which might make it on to the late-night Winnipeg news:
TENSIONS WERE HIGH AT PORTAGE AND MAIN EARLY THIS MORNING AS POLICE ENGAGED IN A STANDOFF WITH TWO ARMED ASSAILANTS. COPS ARRIVED AT THE INTERSECTION AFTER RECEIVING REPORTS OF A BREAK-AND-ENTER AT A JEWELRY STORE NEARBY AROUND 3AM. TWO SUSPECTS LED POLICE ON A BRIEF CHASE BEFORE BEING APPREHENDED. A 22-YEAR-OLD MAN AND A 23-YEAR-OLD WOMAN WERE ARRESTED IN CONNECTION WITH THE INCIDENT. AN INVESTIGATION IS UNDERWAY.
That’s a single VO. Usually the first sentence or two is read with the anchor talking to the camera before a director activates the video playback. The rest is read by the anchor overtop visuals of the crime scene and the smashed shop windows. This example is 67 words, which should take about 22 seconds to read.
In a single newscast, depending on how big a news day it is, there are anywhere from five to 10 VOs or more. Multiply that by the 10 or so markets across the Global network that use the MMC model and that makes for dozens and dozens of stories that must be read each day, totalling hours and hours of teleprompter reading.
Around 2:00 in the afternoon, the anchors arrive. During the week, there are usually two; on the weekend, one suffices. From the moment they get in until some 10 hours later when their shifts are over, the anchors become local-news chameleons, reading script after script after script for each market across the country, recording them all digitally, until the news for the day is done.
The day is broken down into segments depending on which part of the country the anchors are simulating an appearance in. The anchors’ day might start off in the Maritimes. That means the MMC anchors sit in a green-screen studio with a backdrop of Halifax digitally inserted behind them. Then they churn through the VOs and package intros for that city, as though they were indeed sitting in a studio in Halifax. This bit of digital obfuscation is camouflaged through careful use of language. For example, anchors are not permitted to say “in our city” or “in this province.” They instead make do with “in Halifax” or “in Nova Scotia.” Once all the news items for Halifax are done and dusted, the anchors move straight on to another city. The digital image of the Halifax skyline will be replaced instantaneously with a view of the Montreal cityscape, and the whole gruelling process will begin again.
As you can imagine, this system can be rife with errors. Two anchors sitting in a studio in Toronto often have little idea how to pronounce the name of a particular suburb of Saskatoon, so it’s up to the producers — who are writing news as they are listening to the anchors read it over an internal feed — to catch any errors as they occur and have them corrected. (In my time there, mistakes like these often led to horrific backlogs: it was not uncommon for anchors to re-read the same VO seven or eight times in an effort to correct sloppy writing or to fix pronunciation errors. Many were the nights when the time allotted to read Regina’s stories bled significantly into the chunk of time scheduled for Toronto’s news to be read.)
Yet, despite these challenges, every night, each local newscast gets lined up and ready for air as the clock ticks toward 11 p.m. As each VO is recorded, a team of editors performs the Sisyphean task of cutting visuals to match each story that are recorded and sent from each local market. As zero hour approaches, producers for each market line up and organize each of these bits of news into A, B, and C blocks using news-management software. Each pre-recorded segment is slotted into place like beads on a string, to give the impression of a seamless, live local newscast.
For the producers, the most crucial part of the night comes when it’s time for their shows to go to air. Each producer will sit in front of a specialized computer terminal that plays out all the pre-recorded segments of the newscast in order. Their job is to monitor the playout and correct any errors that crop up on the fly. If news happens to break while the show is on air, the producer responsible for that market will be forced to ask a colleague sitting beside them to monitor the playout (meaning one producer will often have to monitor playouts from two, or even three, separate cities simultaneously); run back to their desk to write copy; hand the copy to the anchors, who will read and record the item; call an editor to cut the breaking item to the correct length; rush back to their playout station to slot the breaking news into their program; and remove other elements of their newscast, so the breaking item does not force the show to go over time. This entire process routinely happens in just under five minutes, usually long after managers have gone home for the day.
That’s what happens when things run smoothly. But because the playout process is buggy, and because the technology that controls the system often goes on the fritz, tremendous howlers would occur, often going unexplained to the viewer. Some examples of these errors: the output for two cities is mixed up, meaning viewers in Montreal see the first five minutes of the Winnipeg newscast and vice versa before someone notices the error and restarts both shows from the top; the weather forecast for Regina is slotted into the news for Montreal; late-breaking sports items are fed into the show at the last minute, causing the playback software to freeze, forcing the producer to cut to commercial early, messing up the timing for the remainder of the show. On one weekend last summer, a software update caused the playback machines to go completely bananas, spitting out random content into various cities across the country, including making viewers watch an inexplicable live feed of CBS golf coverage instead of a local news item.
No matter how buggy the system got, management seemed hell-bent on expanding the implementation of the MMC model to subsume more and more content. Evening broadcasts increasingly became pre-recorded affairs: by the time I left the department in August 2017, most of the 6 p.m. newscasts on weekends, and several during the week, had ceased to be produced live. There were several occasions, also during weekends, when the Toronto assignment desk was left unstaffed. This meant that, on top of their already crushing workloads, MMC producers working on the Toronto show had to monitor Toronto police and fire department Twitter accounts to ensure any breaking news made it to air. On more than one occasion, serious incidents made it on to the newscast only because a Global employee happened to catch sight of a clutch of cop cars on their drive in to work.
On the surface, there is nothing inherently wrong with the MMC model of producing news. Barring catastrophe, up-to-date information is presented to the viewer that is curated and refreshed throughout the day. But the deeper you go, the murkier the waters become. Viewers have always assumed the news anchor they see on screen is in the place and at the time they expect them to be. By shunting aside these expectations — and, most crucially, taking pains to obscure that information — can what the viewer is watching really be considered TV news as it’s come to be known over the past half century or so? On the production side, what kind of precedent is set when producers and anchors are suddenly expected to shoulder triple the workload of what they were managing in the recent past? Can what you’re watching really be considered a quality product when one anchor’s mangling of French names is so atrocious that producers are requested by management to skip over key details of certain news items, lest viewers be outraged at the frequent cudgeling of “Hochelaga-Maisonneuve”?
It’s possible such concerns are irrelevant and quaint in the era of social-media news feeds. After all, how much longer are we expected to get our news from moderately-attractive talking heads clad in expensive suits when automated fare from Facebook might do just as well? The only problem with this logic is that well-produced, carefully-written local news can shed light on some of the most important problems we face: those at the municipal level. In the past, Global News has been instrumental in breaking stories that have had a profound effect on local politics. But in an era when managers can’t even be bothered to make the news in the city where it breaks, it’s hard to make the case that this content is worth the hard-drive space it’s pre-recorded on.
Paul Tadich worked as a journalist for 20 years both in North America and throughout Europe and Eurasia. He mostly specializes in science, technology, and health.
Top image of Tadich at work in the MMC unit from Global’s submission video for the 2017 Edward R. Murrow Awards.
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