Failure at Channel One

london-big-ben-vt.jpg

Time for a change…

I am in London this week, meeting with a number of major newspaper groups who are moving to video online.

Once a newspaper goes online, and once online goes to video, it is only a matter of time until the newspaper begins to report in video. And if they are going to report in video, there is really only one cost-effective way to do it.

Fourteen years ago, this month, I was also in London.

I had come here to start Channel One.

Channel One was the first 24-hour local news channel for London, and it was based on the recently opened NY1. It was also based on the VJ model, but unlike NY1, it was not a success and it is no longer in business. The reasons why are important.

Channel One was started by Sir David English of Assocated Newspapers, a very smart guy. Well before anyone else, he saw the potential of both local news and cable. He wanted to start a 24-hour local news operation in London, which did not (and still does not) have one.

I was hired, on the heels of NY1, to set it up.

We found 42 young and aggressive journalists, got an office in the old Channel4 building and gave each of them Hi8 cameras. NY1 had also been done in Hi8.

The cameras were big by today’s standards for sure, and nowhere near the quality of HD or MiniDV, but at Hi8 they were about the equivalent of low band U-Matic, which had been a news broadcast standard for years. They were also light weight and small.

The new crop of VJs took to them immediately and were soon cruising all over London making some really great, innovative and original stories. We ran a 6 week test period and everyone was delighted with the results.

Then…..

A new head of Channel One was announced. He came from ITN, the big commercial competitor to The BBC. He visited the station and was shocked by the Hi8 cameras.

“I will not have my people laughed at in the street’ he announced – although he understood the economics of the VJ model. He promptly replaced the Hi8 cameras with Betacams. Now every VJ had to carry a BVW200 betacam, but still work by themselves.

Soon, ‘standard’ tripods, batteries, cases, light kits and so on followed.

It was a disaster.

The quality of the work collapsed.

Exhausted from dragging around all the gear (they were given little luggage carts), the best they could do was put the cameras on their tripods, get a few exterior shots, a few soundbites and a stand up and truck it on home. An enormous new emphasis was placed on the standups.

The light, fast moving, funny and creative work was replaced with a leaden ‘local news’ look anyone would recognize.

It was unwatchable. A mess.

A few years later the whole operation was mercifully shut down.

A disaster.

It could have been avoided. It could have been avoided had management had the courage to ‘stay the course’. (Not to sound like someone else I would rather not be associated with).

Never the less, television news is a very very conservative and traditional business. It is highly risk averse. It moves incrementally.

Thus, it was no surprise, (but deeply saddening never the less) to read Michael Malone’s excellent analytical piece in Broadcasting and Cable this week on WKRN.

Conventional broadcasters, he postulates, are experiencing a clash between ‘new media’ and ‘old school’. And, many of them, it seems, are getting a bit scared and heading back to the ‘old school’.

It is a mistake.

They have to have the courage to push forward. There is and can be no going back if they want to survive.

Out here in London, newspapers are gearing up for the next round, which will be fought online.

Its a place where 8 crews and a stand up don’t mean a thing.

18 responses to “Failure at Channel One

  1. good luck.

    i was going to mention the B&C piece here last night. thought he did a fair job, don’t you?

    afterall, we’ve seen how brutal this can get.

  2. not to appear too dumb, but what is B&C?

  3. Excellent read Michael – sums up the scared mentality that is occurring in the old school camp. I’m sure that many of those ENG shooters would love to not have to haul around so much gear and be able to shoot more. Or maybe that scares them in itself. It would require them to shoot more and differently as opposed to shooting the same cookie cutter content day in and day out.

    Newspapers and magazines see the value of moving ahead with video online. TV stations are stuck in the past – and will be left behind with diminished viewership – and ad dollars.

  4. “B&C”

    i thought it stood for broadcasting and cable… but i’m not in the industry, so you guys might call it something else.

    although, they do bill themselves as “the business of TV”, so i ask, when will they add INTERNET to their name???

  5. Sorry. My miss. Yes, I thought the BandC piece was very fair and well done. I think the conventional broadcasters are far too short sighted, but then again it took the papers almost a decade to just start to ‘get it’.

  6. Excuses, excuses, excuses. They chose the wrong cameras. The old guard scuttled it. The timing was wrong. The competition was too much. The audience just didn’t warm to it.

    All the excuses we hear about why VJ shops never advance in the ratings. Nonetheless, there’s a steady drumbeat of “it’s inevitable, it’s here, it’s staying” from those who would profit by the implementations.

    The thing is, at least in the United States, it has NEVER succeeded. Not once.

    And it never will, for one simple reason. The product is consistently inferior.

  7. Dear Tim,
    Of course, it has succeeded in the US, and continues to do so. KGTV is a roaring success. KRON, ironically is a great success as well (read in tomorrow, as it is the 2-year anniversary of KRON). Many other stations are picking this up as part of their regular newsgathering and will continue to do so.

    In so far as the failure at Channel1, I have tried many different projects. Some have succeeded, others have failed, but I have learned from those failures and changed my approach and way of working. This is a healthy thing. In fact, failure is a healthy thing. (Read my column on freedom to fail). These are not excuses. They were mistakes I made.. but I learned not to repeat them.

    It is not easy to examine a failure and correct, but it is truly the only path to improvement. Were you a bit more self critical your own work might also have also matured and improved.

  8. NYC – I don’t know so much about TV stations but there are thousands of one man VJ crews working for newspapers, websites and corporate media departments all over the US. The product may sometimes be inferior, just as BMW is inferior to Rolls Royce, just as HD is inferior to 35MM film. But if you think that the VJ model is going to fail because the product is inferior you are dreaming.

  9. There are, and will be successes and failures in both approaches to video journalism. The complete failure of either approach is a ludicrous notion. The debate is a bit silly – if it is a debate about the complete failure of one or the other. That is why both sides need to accept the realities…of the pros and cons of each other’s sides.

    Both approaches to video journalism are valid. Both have strengths in certain situations. And weaknesses in others. There will be jobs for both…IF the person doing the job produces quality content, knows the craft, is creative and is commited.

    There are indeed thousands of single VJs working. There are also tens of thousands of two, three and four person crews. Things are changing. Those stations in the U.S. who can adopt, compete, maximize, be creative, and produce quality in both approaches, will probably do better than those who can’t.

    Michael writes, “They have to have the courage to push forward. There is and can be no going back if they want to survive.”

    Again, I think that assumes that only “one approach” will succeed. An integrated, gradual change might be a better model for survival? I don’t know. If there is indeed a clash between old school and new school… it is probably wiser not to dispose of the old school entirely. Perhaps there are some benefits in certain cases to approach video journalism – or television news – utilizing the methods gleaned from decades of experience?

    I think either side making a claim of complete superiority (dependant on its’ survial) is negligently ignoring the pros and cons that arise in different situations. Integrate, evolve, use different tools for different situations.

    My guess is large networks need to, want to, and have the means to use any and all tools to gather the news.

  10. Dear Sir. I’m righting a huge university finishing essey – master’s degree wor – on the VJ’s. From Your point of view – what are tha mian topics I should focus on and what are the main problems that You encountered? If you do have any economic data on “does it pay of” please send it to me on my e-mail maxim_vu@yahoo.fr. It would be a great help since i have only one month to do that. Good luck in future struggle! Max

  11. Mike, to add – C1 also failed because the business model was flawed. There was no way in hell they were going to bring in the revenue on the then fledgling cable system in London.
    After rolling out the model across two other cities – Liverpool and Bristol, and burning through £50m ($100m), they called it a day.
    Best,
    Rav – the *very young* London disciple!

  12. I was a VJ at C1 for two years and I believe there are two reasons why it failed. First and most importantly was the economics outlined by Rav above. But also it was to do with the quality of the content. It was too hit and miss. To be a good VJ takes enormous hard work and dedication. A good journalist will not necessarily make a good VJ – first and foremost you need an eye for the image. Too often a couple of excellent VJ pkgs would be followed by a very poorly shot and voiced item which had a huge impact on credibility. With Broadcast equipment now much cheaper another C1 could work – but it would be vital to find the right staff and train them well.

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  14. The cable companies only managed to connect half the households they predicted in their business plans.
    Channel One changed from the betasp cameras to Sony DV after 2 years which eliminates the heavy camera argument.
    The synergy between newspapers (Owners of Channel One also owned Daily Mail and London Evening Standard newspapers) and tv station never materialised as newspaper journalists were never going to share their stories with a tv station that would show it the evening before the newspaper went on sale. Also advertising on the tv station threatened the income stream from classified ads on local and national newspapers.
    So Channel One needed a different owner to succeed.

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    http://www.tinyurls.co.uk/W9005

  16. barrieredfern

    I totally agree with Tim on this one. Without sufficient cable penetration ad rates are destined to remain low and unable to support a station. It is as simple as that. Remember too that though the station served the whole of greater London back then it was dependent not on one but a multitude of inadequate cable operators. They had neither a clue about cable tv nor good customer service.

    Channel One was very wise to go for the Betacam SPs initially despite the cameras being so large and heavy. They gave both credibility and a quality viewers were used to. Had it started with inferior cameras it might not have had the good press it received. But yes, thank goodness they disappeared from the news operation itself. Thankfully DVCAM soon arrived and put an end to that problem anyway.

    Mr Rosenblum’s image of the channel might have been applicable during his brief spell there but certainly not of the generally highly polished and professional outfit I remember. It has to be accepted that in any organisation working at the cutting edge and staffed by so many newcomers there will be some rough edges occasionally. Funny, but the very techniques and equipment it pioneered were later adopted by the mainstream UK broadcasters!

    The only real disaster was that of the cable operators in failing to get their act together. But now things are very different anyway with new and enthusiastic cable operators and new technology. Any future new stations would able to operate on much smaller budgets thanks to these advances. However even the idea of stand alone tv channels or videos on websites is now outdated. When I moved on to a pan European set up we were already looking at a combined “triple play” strategy – tv, internet, mobile – a concept that is only now really taking off. I’d even add a fourth player: radio.

    Exciting times.

  17. Ironically any quality concerns between Hi8 and Betacam SP would have made almost no difference whatsoever, once the channel had been distributed and munged by London’s patchwork of analogue cable systems before eventually landing on people’s home TV sets.

  18. I was at C1 for several years, Mr Rosenblum your bias is an opinion not backed by the facts but possibly by ego. C1 was fun and its own way a success, look at the number of individuals who started out there. As above the financial model was flawed but if you look at the UK reality, cable lost Sky won, sadly its as simple as that and little was ever going to change that. Funny to see 15 odd years later the new local stations emerging across the UK.

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