Cutting Corners, The Media Industry’s Obsession to Automation

Economic downturns often forced profit-centered media properties to find ways to cut down costs. Not even 3 years after NBC’s parent company, RCA was sold to General Electric, they were finding every efficiency possible to make NBC be very profitable and ensure that they’d get it “for free” when GE sold mostly all the former RCA assets.

“Corporate media” that is often used to degrade the media in 2023 to me is a slur, but it was in 1985, when most of the our present media companies became more profit centered, than being a utility to inform and entertain. (the other three was Bill Paley’s sale of CBS to Larry Tisch, The Capital Cities acquisition of ABC and News Corporations acquisition of the Fox Movie studios and Metromedia chain of indie stations.)

For NBC, they did a lot of cost cutting, for instance NBC wasn’t entirely based at 30 Rock before latter part of the 80s, they were based off various offices on the Manhattan island. By the end of the 80s, virtually all the NBC operations were in 30 Rock soley.

In 1988, NBC News built an entirely new newsroom, that had a lot of the elements you see in modern newsrooms today, open, bullpin cubicles, and an area for the technical, and workspace for the writers. It premiered approximately in May of that year

What was interesting in the 1988 buildout was the studio space. The reason why the studio part looked a bit weird (for instance the behind the camera was very dark as opposed to the newsroom) was the cameras were not manned. NBC went to Vinten to try out new robotic camera systems, because the plans were announced in late 1987 per to the ol Broadcasting magazine, for the purposes of saving money.

The robotic system had 3 tracks, for each camera. The robotic unit was basically a motorized dolly, and motorized lifts and motorized pan and tilt, with gears and alike for zoom and focus. Prior to the 80s, there was some form of automatic camera control, at least for zoom and focus, but nothing to replace a full time camera operator.

This type of automatic camera control is very common in European media for whatever reason. the disadvantage of track robots, is the camera unit, or pedestal  itself can’t go beyond its tracks. This was very primitive, and  these things didn’t look pretty because the technical mechanics were not pleasing visually either, hence why the shots behind the cameras were so dark. Looking back 3 1/2 decades ago, this was very cutting edge technology and it made any studio that didn’t want camera operators something to look forward to by the turn of the decade.

By February sweeps in 1992, NBC News introduced a new set, that wasn’t behind a newsroom, but it’s own studio. In this configuration, the Autocam by TSM was used.  As you would know the Autocam could move freely due to motorized wheels on the pedestal, a significant improvement to the primitive track based pedestals.  The other two networks also used this same system for their 6:30 newscasts.

I forget the studio off hand, but I want to say it was Studio 3B (the second studio on the 3rd floor.) Since NBC was known to rebuild and rebuild 30 Rock, almost a Wreck-It-Ralph approach of breaking anything that worked, the modern history of 30 Rock since 1985 probably can be extremely exhaustive.

The 1987 Black Monday stock market crash as history corrects itself was a mini Financial Crisis; and by 1988 the country was in a recession, and it continued into the 90s.  Advertising was cut back, and these for profit entities now had to show it. And those pesky unions got in the way too…

Robotics don’t bother me even if I like to be a camera operator. Many people even in 2023 don’t know about robotics, they’ll even say “the news anchor will be next thing to be a robot”. Or our European newsies that believe everyone should have a job, even if they don’t provide value saying that robotic cameras are dangerous, they have a mind of their own, etc. First, off AI news anchors won’t be tolerated. Second, there has been no reports of injuries of robotics in the over 30 years of these technologies. In the free moving Autocams or Radamecs. they used coordinations, such as checkered floor signage (the Autocams) or laser coordinates using beams in parts where it wouldn’t be seen on camera (the Radamec.)

Third is training the studio people and the robotic operators what shot does, what and how to use the robotic system. When robotics collide, or go off shot is because the operator got the wrong shot, or fat fingered or is completely clueless to pushing the right button on the touch panel (of which all robotic systems revolved around.)

If anything a track robotic is asking for the same trouble like standing on live subway tracks. Also track robots also cut the studio space, reserving that for the machines and humans (or even Minifigures) can be free to do standups or other things. As I mentioned, tracks are used widely in Europe, and the technology also improved so they don’t look like some cyborg, the BBC is an example of the usage in recent years.

It’s how the approach to automation can fail. The BBC has made it appear that automation is bad, there is blooper reels all over YouTube with their track pedestals not working the way the director calls it.  But for the Peacock back in the day, it seemed like the NBC techs were so obsessed about cutting corners, and wanted to be the first network to ditch the cameramen.

It should be fair to note that not all of NBC News went to robots, their bureaus still had some manned camera operator, Today was and still is all manned, and CNBC and the O&Os did go to Autocams by the turn of the decade.

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