Once and Future TV

Michael Rosenblum, who has long advocated TV news on-the-cheap using solo journalists armed with video cameras, is apparently launching a new TV newsgathering operation. Some details appear in this posting by Terry Heaton who says Rosenblum has the backing of Verizon. “There’s money to be made in video news, regardless of how one goes about gathering or presenting it,” Heaton wrote, without suggesting how Rosenblum and Verizon planned to make money in this case.


I heard Rosenblum speak once in 1990 or 1991, when I was studying at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Even then he had been pursuing the idea of solo-journalists for some time. I recalled his talk in a blog entry some time ago when his name popped up in connection with a different video experiment he was then pursuing. This comment from Rosenblum, which appears in the comments appended to Heaton’s posting, is of the same tone as the talk I recall some 16 years ago. Rosenblum wrote:

“Many years ago, when I first approached the BBC with this concept, I was invited to present it to the Beeb’s Board of Governors. They are the folks who run the BBC and believe me they are not dumb.

After I gave a fairly long explanation of what I wanted to do and where technology was taking the industry, I asked for questions

Gavin Davies, the Chairman of the Board, and also the Chairman of Goldman Sachs UK (no dope), raised his hand and said, ‘if I understand what you are saying, in 20 years the BBC will not longer produce TV programs”.

“Excactly”, I replied. “It will publish them”

As we move from the era of expensive television/video into the era of the ‘free press’ in video, one of the signal changes is going to be that traditional networks, (at least those that survive) will go from being producers to publisher. Publisher is not a bad business- note Bertelsman or Random House. But it is a different business.”

Let me add just a few thoughts

Rosenblum surely deserves the prize for persistence. And I support the notion of opening the field of journalism. But the middle-aged print guy in me has some observations and questions.

Television is about emotion, not information. Its power lies in evoking feelings by presenting images that arrest our attention. Surely Rosenblum is right when he argues, as he does (see this post), that the more cameras in the field, the more chances of capturing good footage. But does this succession of images help us make sense of our world, or merely give us spectacles to shock or amaze? What I now see on broadcast TV news is the aerial image of cops chasing suspects. It doesn’t matter who is chasing whom where or for what alleged crime. It’s an action shot that has some intrinsic power to compel attention, at least for a brief time.

If Rosenblum’s publishing model is correct, will video publishers end up serving us a steady diet of jaw-dropping snippets that we can download on our cellphones and gawk over with our pals? If so that would be more voyeurism than journalism but perhaps that’s just the curmudgeon in me talking.

The publishing model that Rosenblum suggests — and I’m sure his brief comments above do not fully describe his plans — leaves me wondering about the relationship between directed coverage and serendipity. Will the central “publisher” direct roving camera operators to gather this, that or the other sort of video segments? Will they be hired hands, like cops in a patrol car, looking out for interesting gets while they await the call from dispatch? Or freelancers out on their own? And how would the video they produce differ from what we could see on a daily newscast — will it rely on edgy, MTV-like camera grabs to get attention? What will the finished product look like and how will it be viewed?

Back when I heard Rosenblum talk at Columbua, he mentioned reinventing the grammar of television — in short creating new ways to use the medium to communicate. For instance it occurs to me that TV could explain abstract concepts by using animation to create a visual approximation. This is done with war coverage and weather, which use maps and other images. Could it be done to explain stem cell science or global warming, or the impact of changing a stoplight on a busy street, or any number of other conditions which we need to understand as citizens? And are the tools for animation as widely distributed as video cameras?

If Rosenblum’s latest gambit leads toward experimentation along these lines then it will have a lasting effect on television news gathering. That is his goal. So let’s wish him luck.