Monday, April 17, 2006

The NYC Diaries- Day 3: The Address Is CBS

The CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th in New York City blends in so well with its neighboring high-rises you can forget it's there. A few satellite dishes on the roof and some banners for WCBS show from the street. I walk inside and inform security who I am, where I'm from, what station I'm with. I'm wearing my KOLD News 13 polo to look more official. The guard makes a call and asks for a photo ID. He points a PC camera at me and after two tries I have a sticker badge with a black-and-white photo worse than any mugshot I've ever seen.

A.J., the CBS employee serving as my guide, shows me upstairs after a short wait. I get a quick tour of the CBS Newspath operation, which provides video news feeds to CBS affiliates for use in local newscasts.

Banks of monitors are everywhere, on every wall, above every desk in the three main workspace clusters of the newsroom. Some TV screens are divided up into four or more screens to jam more incoming video into them. To the side is a dark mini-anchor desk, used for breaking news, health reports and business wraps airing on local stations' morning newscasts. It's also used on "Up To The Minute," CBS' overnight news program.

It's after 5pm, so most of the heavy lifting is done for the producers. The feed coordinators are staying busy, gathering stories from around the country and the world, editing them, and spitting them back out. I'm led over to where video is going out digitally into CBS Newspath Now, which sends video out via computer files to servers at each station instead of via tape.

"Thumbs up means it's ready to go," points out a technician. When the piece is ready, he clicks it and it starts feeding into the system as a stream of bits via satellite. Sometimes three or four stories are going out at a time.

Just feet away, other technicians are doing the same thing the semi-old-fashioned way, pushing video and soundbites onto a private satellite channel one story at a time. But they too have help from digital technology, using a computerized system that stores the video in a long "time line" file -- instead of a tape recorder -- even if it goes out the analog way.

I'm led into one of three control rooms I'll encounter in the course of the visit. This one is handling live shots for CBS affiliates. The Newspath manager showing me around talks about the correspondents who do these shots, how busy they stay, and how they're connected at the electronic hip to the producers in New York.

"So if you've got to change a track on a package" -- news talk for altering some narration on a reporter's report -- "you just do it here and they revoice it out there."

Yes, I'm told. "We can even send scripts to them via Blackberry."

"How much of their own copy do the correspondents write?" I ask. I already know what the answer is.

Not much, or nearly nothing. But as we both understand, it's not by choice.

"They're so busy with all these live shots, they don't get a chance to get out," I'm told. It's the producers who have to run down the latest information and soundbites because the correspondents are cranking out live shots to Erie, PA and Glendive, MT.

I run into a friend of one of the KOLD reporters who's coordinating news feeds. He calls the regional bureaus and they tell him what what stories they're working on. He pulls in the best stories from there, and also from what he can run down.

Now it's time for the big show -- the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer. A couple who work at a station in Spartanburg, SC join me as A.J. shows us onto the Evening News set.

As always, it looks smaller in real life. And just like KOLD back home, it's a working newsroom with computers and desks and writers plugging away in the background. A.J. explains how the set has evolved over the years through the Dan Rather era. But my eyes are zooming in on the man of the half-hour: Bob. He sits at a desk off set and to the left of the anchor podium, his back to us, busily tapping out words on the computer screen. A New York Daily News sits to his left, a water bottle to his right.

"Bob writes all his own pitches," A.J. explains to us. Or, he rewrites and tweaks what the CBS writers hand him.

The Executive Producer saunters over for a quick handshake. Rome Hartman is no strange name to me. I recognize it below the "Produced By" line on several 60 Minutes pieces. He's paid his dues much more than I'll ever afford.

We got into the control room. It's 45 minutes before show time, but Bob is busy with teases and pre-productions. Two directors are in the room along with two graphics people and a couple of others. Two people are in the audio booth on the side, surrounded by audio sliders on three sides -- nothing for the claustrophobic. Back in the control room, the graphics folks are loading items into the character generator and a "Thunder" -- a tricked-up electronic slide-store machine that handles animations as well as still frames. It's the one toy I'm envious of.

At least one hundred TV monitors are in the room, mostly by the directors, stacked high and wide. The ones in front show the outputs of the production switcher and the various effects units and character generators. Four monitors directly in front and angled towards them show the tape players. To the side, some thirty black and white monitors show what's coming in on every feed line available to the control room. Mostly, it's test patterns from L.A., Washington, other bureaus, other sources. Behind the directors and to the right of the graphics people sit the producers. A.J. says we can sit down there for now because those folks aren't in yet.

I see four more monitors in front of me at the line producer's position, along with a computer, a phone pad with gooseneck and many more intercom buttons than I would know what to do with.

"Wanna line produce this?" the associate director says to me, playfully.

"I'm game," I reply. I'm not one to step back from a challenge. "But there's too many buttons."

"Just don't touch anything."

"Of course. I know the rules."

I'm silent as the crew carries out the pre-game show. Bob does a bit for the newscast's opening tease, which will be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from various bits sent in by reporters. The first take goes perfectly... almost.

"There was a video flash in that," somebody points out, referring to some footage playing in a monitor behind Bob. But they don't have time to do it again yet. They have to record another bit for the CBS website. After getting the error fixed, Bob does a "talkback" with a WCBS-TV anchor and another one for WCBS-AM. The lead story is on a drug breakthrough and Bob is excited.

With the teases out of the way, we now have a chance to meet the man who's all legend and little myth.

Bob walks over to us after we return to the set and shakes all our hands. He chats it up with the people from Spartanburg. They point out their Texas roots to the native Texan, talking about where they grew up, where they played baseball, where they went to high school. I feel outmatched.

"So what's going on in Tucson?" Bob asks me.

"Well, your spring is our summer, and our summer is hell," I reply, nearly stumbling over my words. I can't believe I'm talking to him, BOB SCHIEFFER. And thinking back on it, the weather is all that comes to mind -- when somebody just burned a Mexican flag in Tucson a week ago, which made national news? That's the best I can do?

But Bob is exactly the person in real life as on TV. He quickly recalls a story from Arizona.

"I was almost hit by a bus in Nogales."

He tell me it happened in the 1970's, when he was covering President Ford on a trip in Mexico and he almost didn't make the press bus. He had to run to catch it.

He also remembered a botched Spanish good-bye from the President: Hasta "lou-EE-go."

I wished we had more time to talk, but he had a newscast to do.

The 20 minutes before the newscasts is a crescendo of controlled chaos in the control room. Crew members feed graphics into the Thunder. Rundowns get inspected and double-checked. Directors make changes under the supervision of producers.

Nearly all the communication with people outside the booth is done through the panel buttons, including phone calls. Gooseneck microphones link up with phone pads. Mysterious voices float into the room and are answered with a touch. The one phone I hear ringing comes from a black, 70's Princess unit on the back wall. The graphics people use it several times.

"I need an Enron graphic, no cutline," says one woman. "They don't want a cutline!"

"I need a Mexico Bus Crash map," says one director. "We've just added a tell." It's a short story the anchor "tells" from the set.

"What kind of bus is it?"

"We don't know what kind of bus it is."

Ten minutes before the show, Bob is the calmest person in the operation, getting makeup done while the crew and producers hustle to get their acts together.

"How much longer on that Mexico map?"

Chris, the line producer, rushes in and jumps onto the computer at his position on the back bridge. He's mildly nervous.

"Lara Logan's piece is crashing," he says. He means it's still being edited with just minutes before air. "Literally, it's crashing. Her Avid [computer editor] crashed." And the piece has to be fed in from London.

Been there, dealt with that, I think.

"She may move to the top of the B block," Chris says, making contingency plans. But he also has to confront the possibility of the piece not making it in at all. Rome joins him in the booth about a minute later and they go over options, noting at least one other piece isn't ready yet either, and those can't be moved up to fill airtime until Logan's piece is ready.

This isn't Broadcast News, where a network staffer runs down a hall with a tape to get it on the air in the nick of time. Chris draws a line. "If she's not feeding by 6:31, she's not making show," or at least her slot. A link is set up to get Logan's piece in from London "hot," meaning the director would have the tape editor roll it from the edit bay in London instead of a device in New York to make deadline, if needed, instead of recording it first in New York.

Chris has another issue to deal with. I hear only one side of the conversation. "Is is airable? All right, all right." Issue resolved. I'm not sure, but it sounds like a video question.

Five minutes to go. Graphics checks their sequence. The conversations in the control room amplify and speed up, two and three at a time. But, saints be praised, Lara Logan's piece is coming in from London. A hot feed will not be needed. Neither will an alternate version of the headline tease, which makes no mention of the piece.

The newscast begins feeding out to affiliates with a countdown so control rooms across the country are ready. Then the open hits, and Bob begins the broadcast from the desk. A slight glitch hits -- so slight I don't even see it -- during the pitch to the first story. The crew will fix it for later broadcasts.

It becomes obvious who's focused on what with both producers in the room. Chris is focusing on timing. Rome is focusing on content. Chris worries about what "tells" might have to bite the dust if things run long. Rome suggests questions and ad-libs to Bob and talks with the reporters out live in the field.

Bob's ad-libs and questions are challenging Chris. He's 13 seconds over on time -- no sweat for me, but the beginning of a nasty problem in a tightly-timed network program. He kills two tells, giving him about 20 seconds back, but he needs to find more time in a later segment. He asks somebody to help him out with that.

Bob asks if he can ad-lib something after Lara's story, which included video she shot herself alongside troops in Iraq. Rome cautions him that time is tight. Bob ad-libs but keeps it short.

"Some of that video was shot by Laura, who happens to be pretty good with a camera."

Chris sees a story on the wire and phones a writer in the newsroom to do another tell that could make it into a west-coast broadcast.

Another glitch pops up. Bob comes back on camera after a reporter's story, but he doesn't start talking right away. Two seconds of panic later, he's talking. Ten seconds later, when the commercial break rolls, everybody's trying to figure out what went wrong.

"He had prompter, he had script," the director said, ruling out a technical problem.

The seconds tick down and the last report of the newscast airs -- a story of a soccer team made up of Iraqi children -- with precious little time to spare. That precious extra time is consumed by the director holding on the last shot in the story: a child wiping his eyes after a tough loss.

Bob quickly says goodbye and the show is done... for all of two minutes. He hustles back to the anchor desk to do the opening story again, live, for another feed of the newscast going on at 6pm to fix the glitch from earlier. Barring any major breaking news or any major changes in the stories in the first feed, the next program will be stitched together electronically using the live do-over and tape of the first feed. That feed will run again for the west coast, if there's no major updates or breaking news. Many times stories are spliced into the completed first feed.

A.J. led us out and we thanked her. I returned to the streets of West 57th, and about a half-hour later, and several blocks away, I saw two people being shot from a cannon outside the Ed Sullivan Theater for a taping of The Late Show -- something that seemed a lot less challenging than what I'd seen in the CBS News control room.

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