Wednesday, May 10
Used to be that being the top dog at a high-profile, successful television newscast in New York was enough to keep a newsguy or newsgal happy. No longer. Late last week, WABC news director Bart Feder became the latest top-shelf journalist to flee broadcast television for dot-com land–specifically, the Feed Room, a New York-based online company that plans to deliver personalized newscasts over the Web via broadband technology.
“I think this was the right time and the right place to take the leap,” Mr. Feder told NYTV.
Mr. Feder’s departure should unnerve the remaining flat-earth types who think that broadcast television isn’t directly under siege from the Web and broadband. After all, Mr. Feder, a 40-year-old Brooklyn native, didn’t exactly need to go out and get a new job. At WABC, he presided over ABC’s flagship news operation. By his own admission, it was a dream gig. And with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire beefing up the entire ABC operation, the good times figured to roll on.
Despite this, Mr. Feder will join the Feed Room as its vice president of news at the end of the month (he’ll stay at WABC through the end of sweeps). And he joins a growing list of New York TV journos who have made similar jumps. His boss-to-be at the Feed Room, company founder Jonathan Klein, is the former executive vice president of news at CBS. Other defectors include ex-WCBS news director Bill Carey–now director of affiliate relations at Zatso.com, another online news outlet–and another WCBS news director, Dean Daniels, currently at Theglobe.com. There’s also Lou Dobbs, of course, who famously bailed CNN’s Moneyline News Hour to help launch Space.com (though there are rumors that Mr. Dobbs wants to return both to earth and his chair at CNN).
There are multiple reasons these broadcast newshounds are leaving for the Web. One reason, of course, is the challenge of doing something new. Another reason, obviously, is the potential financial payoff: Many of these news executives are promised stock options that, despite the recent market volatility, could still pay off handsomely. But there’s also the bald fact that today’s television news biz, while cutthroat, can also be a little, well, tedious and repetitive.
Jonathan Klein cited the tedium factor in an interview Monday at his Feed Room office. A shiny trio of Emmys sat on a shelf over his right shoulder. “The television news business doesn’t reward creativity and innovation, it rewards imitation,” Mr. Klein said. “A lot of these guys [news executives] are pretty intelligent, and they’re not using most of their brain. You watch local news these days and it’s pretty cookie-cutter and unimaginative.”
Mr. Klein thinks that the uncharted new-media landscape is just the ticket to get a bored news exec’s creative juices flowing again. The dot-com revolution struck big-time electronic journalism relatively late–by comparison, print reporters migrated to the Web in greater numbers earlier–but as technology has improved necessities like video on demand, there has been increasing faith in its future.
“There are people who would say that you don’t walk away from a job in a top market, having reached the pinnacle of news broadcasting and running an entire news operation in New York,” said Zatso’s Mr. Carey. “There are other people who say that to not jump into and help shape the future is the missed opportunity of a lifetime. I came down on the latter, and I think a lot more people will be leaving the world that they have grown comfortable in to take the risk and the challenge.”
Indeed, while there is always a risk when leaving an established news outlet for a start-up, it doesn’t appear to be particularly reckless. Broadband–a high-speed Internet connection provided by an upgraded cable television or telephone line, allowing for TV-quality video broadcasts and interactivity–is becoming increasingly commonplace. There are now 30 million broadband users nationwide, Mr. Klein said. Though most are business users, home usage should nearly double by the end of the year.
And that broadband future is proving too enticing for TV news professionals to pass up. “I talk to several people a day trying to make this decision,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor who specializes in new media.
Still, Mr. Feder may find that, at least at first, the dot-com environment is a tad less adrenaline-filled than a big-city newsroom. Right now, the Feed Room is little more than 40 casually dressed employees and a warren of windowless offices–though that is expected to change soon. The company, which partners with local news outlets, which in turn supply streams of video that Feed Room staff members then edit and repackage for individual users on the Web, launches in June.
Mr. Feder did not take the decision to quit lightly. He said he continues to “bleed Eyewitness News blue.” And he said he didn’t consider his departure to be emblematic of broadcast television news’ demise.
“Television news is still going to have the bulk of the eyeballs for a long time,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being a television news director or a network correspondent. That business is having one of its best years in a long time. I don’t think I’m leaving a dying industry. I think the field is expanding, and now is just the right time for me to get in the game.”
Tonight, catch some of Mr. Feder’s handiwork on the late Eyewitness News . [ WABC, 7, 11 p.m. ]
Thursday, May 11
In this Millionaire world, everyone’s Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs about developing game shows, and the nuttier the idea, the better. Just this week, NYTV got an e-mail from CBS asking it to apply for the show Big Brother , in which real people live inside a house monitored with enough surveillance equipment to make J. Edgar Hoover shiver in his see-through nightie. (The Big Bro e-mail was apparently sent to people who trolled around the Web site for Survivor , CBS’s other alterna-game show, the one where people try to be the last one left on a deserted island.)
Now comes word that the Lifetime network – already set to launch the intimate-question quiz show Who Knows You Best? next month–is joining the wacky game-show universe. NYTV heard that a New York production company had recently been testing out ideas for a health-and-nutrition oriented game show for Lifetime. But instead of wagering money, a la Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune , these contestants played for human pounds, someone familiar with the show said. Answer a question right, lose pounds. Answer a question wrong, gain pounds. Thinnest person at the end wins.
Needless to say, such a show might cause an uproar in some quarters. “Irresponsible,” said Pam Guthrie, the administrative director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, when told of the alleged game-show idea. “Body-defeating,” said Bettye Travis of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
A Lifetime spokesperson said NYTV was making a whole lot of fuss about a program still in its “baby stage.” Yes, a health-and-nutrition game show is in development, the spokesperson said, but the producers haven’t even picked a host or shot a pilot, and besides, the whole compete-for-pounds thing is a dead issue. The latest plan is to have people compete for calories , the spokesperson said. But even that isn’t certain. “It’s kind of silly to talk about something in development,” the spokesperson said.
Tonight on Lifetime, A Killing in a Small Town . Adultery, murder, Barbara Hershey. Weighty. [ Lifetime, 12, 9 p.m. ]
Friday, May 12
On Showtime tonight, Starship Troopers . The debate rages on: genius fascism satire, piece of crap, piece of crap, genius fascism satire … Either way, naked coed shower scenes. [ Showtime, 48, 8 p.m. ]
Saturday, May 13
The commercial actors’ strike is in week two, and it’s still ugly, as advertising industry leaders and the actor unions are nowhere near an agreement on a payment system.
In terms of public image, however, a thumbs-up for the thespians. The actors got a big boost last week when Tiger Woods refused to cross a picket line to film a Nike golf ad. And on Monday came word that the George W. Bush and Al Gore campaigns will show solidarity with the two commercial actors’ unions, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
Essentially, the Bush and Gore campaigns have agreed to abide by union demands before shooting any commercials. As long as they agree to give actors “pay per play” for network, cable and Internet advertisements–that is, pay the actor for each time an ad appears, no matter where it appears–they can shoot all the commercials they want, and use union talent to boot. More than 300 other commercial producers have signed similar agreements. “It essentially means that [advertisers’] ranks are cracking,” said SAG board member and commercial actor Jim Bracchitta.
In fairness, Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Gore’s stands are largely symbolic, in that neither campaign was likely to use a lot of union acting talent in their ads, since candidates tend to favor real people for spots, not well-scrubbed actors. Matt Miller, the president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, derided the campaigns’ positions as a public-relations stunt. “I don’t think anyone who’s running for office wants to be seen as a union buster,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Miller said there’s plenty of union-busting going on elsewhere. Though union actors have succeeded in disrupting non-union commercial tapings in New York and Los Angeles, many ads have been filmed without disturbance in other locations, he said. Other work is going to foreign markets, he said.
Still, Mr. Miller conceded that the union actors have put on a good “show.”
“It’s always nice seeing Elliot Gould holding a picket sign,” he said. Ouch!
Today, union-friendly Mr. Woods plays in the Byron Nelson Classic . [ WCBS, 2, 4 p.m. ]
Sunday, May 14
Tonight on CBS, Jesus . Jesus. [ WCBS, 2, 9 p.m. ]
Monday, May 15
Tonight, Court TV begins a week-long series of programs under the delicious title of Women in Prison . If it’s a hit, we can expect to see Catholic School Girls in Trouble and Reefer-Smoking Teenage Motorcycle Gangs .
While Women in Prison ‘s fare is serious–Ted Koppel looks at motherhood behind bars, there’s an interview with a female serial killer, and so on–Court TV execs acknowledge that, yes, the title is indebted to low camp. “Let’s hope that works for us,” said Art Bell, Court TV’s executive vice president of programming and marketing. “Let’s hope people come in because they are thinking about that pop-culture camp reference, let them come in saying, ‘ Hey this ought to be fun! This ought to be good!’ And let them see that these are compelling stories.”
Tonight, Mr. Koppel grills those dangerous damsels. [ Court TV, 40, 10 p.m. ]
Tuesday, May 16
Back on the subject of local news guys who left local news: Jerry Nachman, the irrepressible former news director at WCBS and New York Post editor, has resurfaced as the executive producer of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher . Mr. Nachman did a stint on P.I. as a writer a couple of years ago. Now he comes back to boss everyone around. “It was just one of those happenstantial things where they needed a person,” Mr. Nachman said. “It was an election year, I worked here in the past, Bill and I like each other, and it just sort of came together.”
This week, Mr. Nachman and Mr. Maher have an especially grueling assignment: P.I. ‘s shooting and airing a week’s worth of episodes from the Playboy mansion. Hef’s a guest, as is Jeff Bridges, Karen Finley (hide the chocolate!), Howie Mandel, Rob Schneider, Bijou Philips and a lot of women with ersatz bazungas. “We’ll be around the grotto, outside,” said Mr. Nachman. Nice work if you can get it. [ WABC, 7, 12:05 a.m. ]