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Beyond the (alleged) tears: Will WCCO’s director-free newscasts catch your eye?

What WCCO’s excising of an entire job category says about local TV news, which faces a newspaper-like financial meltdown — and whether you, the viewer, notice or care.
By David Brauer

At this moment, the fourth-most-read story on startribune.com is C.J.’s juicy recap of WCCO-TV laying off its three newscast directors. The upshot is that an allegedly teary station manager was more wrapped up in her own pain than that of longtime employees losing their livelihood. A WCCO spokesperson denies the lachrymosity.

Last week, one of the directors, Mark Schiller, told me the same story CJ ended up using. I was more interested in the media-business aspect: What WCCO’s excising of an entire job category says about local TV news, which faces a newspaper-like financial meltdown — and whether you, the viewer, notice or care.

Just like cash-strapped newsrooms that are cutting behind-the-scenes copy editors and designers who add quality, TV has pared back directors and other creative services positions. With ads drying up, both mediums feel compelled to test the limits of what their audiences will tolerate.

Schiller says he was told that the layoff decision was local, not corporate; WCCO spokesman Kiki Rossati would not comment on the situation.

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Although I worked in TV for eight months 26 years ago, I’m pretty unschooled in how the pretty sausage is made. Schiller explained that the director basically executes the producers’ stage directions: How to do the live shot, camera angles, story transitions, etc. Come show time, a technical director pushes the buttons and makes it all happen.

“The producer is the composer, the director is the conductor, and the tech director like the lead violin,” was Schiller’s analogy.

He noted that WCCO is following other local stations, including KARE, in combining directors and tech directors, adding that the writing was on the wall months earlier when WCCO turned over its noon newscast to tech directors.

So I asked Schiller what viewers would notice with the directors gone.

“I can admit this: the average viewer may not see the difference,” he began.

“Not to take anything away from my tech director brethren, but what’s going to be lost is production values. You might say, ‘keep it simple stupid.’ You’ll see close-ups instead of trying to do more graphic effects. The main thing might notice is pacing off, graphic isn’t keeping up with reads, because tech director is doing so much.”

To be fair to management, some TV folks I know say technology has made show direction less labor-intensive. Still, says Schiller, “I’m predicting big burnout for tech directors over there. Since they’ll be doing more there will be less time to think and process information. A clean show, anyone can do. But when it hits the fan, someone’s [story] package didn’t make it in time, a live shot goes wrong, watch out.”

Some of my KARE contacts see a degradation in Channel 11’s newscasts. I mostly watch online now (which isn’t helping keep guys like Schiller employed) so I’m not the best judge of a show’s look. If you watch KARE, do you see it?

Schiller speculates WCCO’s flaws may soon be more obvious. “What KARE did was offer directors training as tech directors, and held on to their directors. The big difference is, they have director/tech directors, while WCCO will have tech directors/directors.”

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TV is, of course, a visual medium, and while the high-tech touches and whiz-bang graphics can be ridiculous, it’s clearly more pleasurable to watch a well-produced show. It might even be more necessary as viewers leak away.

Then again, torches and pitchforks didn’t materialize outside WCCO’s downtown Minneapolis headquarters when directors lost that broadcast. Countless other media jobs have disappeared amid financial and technological realignment. Will directors be be remembered as another set of 21st-century buggy-whip makers?