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

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.

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.”

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?

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 10/27/2009 - 01:56 pm.

    I watch KARE and have commented many times to my wife how sloppy the newscasts are. There are very often misspellings in the graphics or the wrong graphic (such as a person’s name) is put on the screen or it arrives early/late. It sounds like this may be because of overloading one person with too many responsibilities. It hasn’t been enough to make me sample other stations, I’ll admit, and if everyone is going that direction I may not find it any better elsewhere.

  2. Submitted by Tim McNeill on 10/27/2009 - 07:18 pm.

    So much for letting Paul Douglas go to save big dollars. WCCO is under the CBS umbrella. Say what you want, the General Manager at WCCO has to go. She is clueless. The Newscasts over at WCCO look disgusting from a production stand-point. All the money spent to put holes in walls and exspose the outdoors was a waste. Watch their newscasts and you will not see much if any graphics, no real grapics to tell the story, special effects to enhance a story are gone too. I knew and worked with a couple of top-class directors over there. Larry Peck and Ann Chavailir (SP?). With out these type of people keeping the flow of a newscast that is live spells disaster. If WCCO wants to save money get rid of all these managers who try only to find ways to cut money. Cut them and save a bundle. The viewer is the real loser as Television News becomes so unimportant. These managers really are the problem. No television station needs these people when someone in New York or L.A. can call the shots. WCCO is a second rate newscast plain-pure-and-simple. I feel for the technical directores who have to make a show fly on the fly. It is kind of like an air traffic control person trying to keep people safe when the have to do too much. Get rid of these managers and preserve the broadcast. I have a felling this will come to pass sone enough. Good luck to those directors over there that I had such respect for trying to keep WCCO news top-notch. WCCO is no longer a marget leader and will never be one again with moves like these. Is there any wonder why Don Shelby has decided to retire in the near future? If this market does not get rid of all the newscasts that all these stations are trying to do, only the best will survive. WCCO is far from being the best. And, that is sad when you consider what WCCO was and had accomplished before the bean counters destroyed a quality market leading product.

  3. Submitted by Iven Coffee on 10/27/2009 - 08:42 pm.

    When will these stations save some real money by axing the second anchor? If I was ND, I’d rather have another reporter and photog to deploy than 2 newsreaders on the set each night.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/29/2009 - 10:43 am.

    Lose the second anchor? No forced camaradie? No pictures of the new baby (or whatever)?

    You mean …. you mean, just the NEWS? Like Walter Cronkite used to do? Wow.

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