One Degree-itis

SOME ADVICE FROM A GIANT

My mentor in this business was Fred Friendly.

He was Edward R. Murrow’s producer, the former President of CBS News, and a moose of a man. He resigned from his postion as President of CBS News (when that really) meant something… over a matter of principle. He wanted to run the Senate hearings on the Vietnam war, the first of them, live. Bill Paley wanted to run a rerun of I Love Lucy. Friendly felt so strongly that he said he would rather resign than compromise his journalistic integrity.

Those were the days.

He had been Edward R. Murrow’s producer when the two of them went after Senator Joe McCarthy on See It Now. When Paley refused to pay for any ads for the McCarthy show, Murrow and Friendly bought a quarter page in The New York Times out of their own money.

Those were the days.

Friendly was my professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. When I graduated, he asked me to come and work for him on The Constitution, That Delicate Balance, a series he was producing for PBS. It involved getting some of the most powerful and important people in goverment into a room, presenting them with a hypothetical and then making them sweat the consequences of their answers.

Those were the days.

Fred told me that the greatest danger anyone faces in this business is what he called “One Degree-itis”.

You decide on a course of action, and of course you get resistance. Rather than stand your ground, you give in a little. Give in a little here… give in a little there. Try to make people happy. You compromise by degrees. One degree at a time. Pretty soon you are nowhere near where you started. In fact, you are going in completely the wront direction.

One Degree-itits.

In 1992 I was hired by Associated Newspapers in the UK to build Channel 1. It was going to be the the NY1 for London. The project was headed by Sir David English, a very smart man. There was no 24-hour local news in London (we had just done the first one in NY), but English saw the potential.

We hired some 50 VJs, trained them on small, hand-held camcorders and sent them out into London. The results were great. The reporters loved the gear – light, easy, fluid. They ran all over town getting stories and cutting them. Sir David was delighted.

Needless to say, any project like this was going to face enormous resistance, and it started the minute the newly hired News Director got there. Nick Pollard, who would later go on to head Sky News, understood the economics of the VJ concept – he just did not buy into the ‘small cameras’.

“They don’t look like real TV people” he said. “We will be laughed at in the streets of London”.

It wasn’t an issue about the quality of the pictures, or the idea of a reporter shooting their own material. It was about image….. not images.

He demanded that the VJs carry betacams – in those days the BVW 200s. A big camera, but small by betacam standards.

I was young and I did not want to annoy such a potentially good client, so I went along.

Once we had the betacams, the engineering department said we needed big Bauer Block batteries – easier to charge, they said. So I said fine – so giant bricks of batteries were affixed to the cameras.

Next came the tripods. I like to issue the lightest graphite tripods you can find. Little things that will support little cameras. But these cameras now weighed too much for the Gitzos. So the engineering department, seeing an opportunity, weighed in (literally) with a massive Sachtler – with a great fluid head (makes great pans (!) they said). These alone weighed more than the small cameras we had started with.

Well, of course, you had to have a great massive microphone with a flag on it for those stand ups (!), and yards of cable, and really protective cases for all that gear.

It went on and on and on.

By the time we were finished, each VJ was carrying around several hundred pounds of equipment – so we had to get them handcarts so they could drag all this crap to locations.

When we started out the pieces had been great – intimate, compelling, funny. With the new gear, people were happy just to put the hunk of metal on a tripod, shoot a few stand ups and an exterior and go home – exhausted… and in need of a chiropractor.

Pollard was happy.

He now at last had ‘professional’ gear.

The project, however, was a complete disaster.

It would take 10 years before anyone in the UK would try the VJ concept again. And when the BBC went at it, I learned Fred Friendly’s dictum – do not compromise.

As stations in the US dance around the VJ idea, they are eager not to offend anyone – former cameramen, unions, reporters.. anyone. So they compromise. A bit off here.. a bit off there. Make everyone happy. One Degree -itis.

It is a mistake.

Listen to Fred.

He knew what he was talking about.

One response to “One Degree-itis

  1. Hah! You think changing things in the commercial world is tough? Try public broadcasting! In our world you have the two-headed hydra of traditional broadcasting AND nonprofit (no bottom line) inertia.

    Although… I’m hoping the VJ concept (light, fast, creative, productive, inexpensive, fault-tolerant) may work very well for those of us down on our luck, financially. We’re just poor enough to make it work, if you know what I mean.

    God, I hope so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s