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First Out of the Box

RELATED: All Politics Is Local -- Especially in News

Dec. 15 marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the local cable news business, which began on that day in 1986 when Cablevision launched News 12 Long Island.

To get a better idea of the impact of these channels on newsroom technologies, B&C spoke with executives who have been involved in local cable news for decades to speak to the business' tech-advancing practices.

If local cable news channels weren't always the first to adopt new developments, they did play a major role in battle-testing many of them.

"I liken their impact to the comedian who works in obscurity for years and then comes to New York and has a hit show and becomes an overnight wonder," says Elliott Wiser, corporate VP of news and local programming for Bright House Networks and author of a history of local cable news.

One such example is video journalists, or one-person crews. While they had been used in smaller markets, Wiser says they received a huge amount of attention after the local news channel NY1 began using them at launch in 1992.

"Back then, all the other TV stations said it wasn't going to work, but now you see it quite often," says Bernie Han, VP of news and local programming at NY1 owner Time Warner Cable.

Similar examples, Wiser adds, can be found in zoned hyperlocal coverage, which allowed local news channels to focus on specific areas; automation and serverbased technologies; file-based work flows and all-digital newsrooms; efforts to integrate TV news operations into newspapers; and some early Web and mobile efforts. "Local cable news channels have really helped drive the effort to do things less expensively," Wiser says.

In fact, many of the strategies that stations and news organizations are now using to streamline operations and deliver more content to more devices were successfully tested at local cable news channels that have traditionally had to produce massive amounts of content on tight budgets.

One example was the move to pool resources between a newspaper and TV operations. The Orange County Newschannel-launched in 1990 by Freedom Newspaper and shut down by Adelphia in 2001-and Tribune's ChicagoLand TV, launched in 1993, were located in the same buildings as newspapers, notes Wiser.

"We really modeled the newsroom at NY1 after newspapers in that we were really focused on a lot of beat reporters and beats rather than having a whole team of general assignment reporters," as many stations did at the time, recalls Han. "And that is why we introduced the concept of the one-man band because it allowed us to cover so many beats."

That also dovetailed well with the hyper-local focus of these channels, which led to some early zoning efforts by cable news channels and operators.

Patrick Dolan, president of News 12 Networks and news director for News 12 Long Island stresses that they have always used top-of-the-line broadcast equipment and even purchased a satellite truck for their launch in 1986 so they could match the quality of broadcast affiliates.

"It is not like we're skimping to compete against all these gargantuan competitors," he notes. "We put considerable resources into this and that was a conscious decision."

But the real innovation, which led to a number of technical advances, was their hyper-local focus on communities that were not being adequately covered by the New York City broadcast stations.

"If you live in the suburbs, the most important news for you probably happens with the 15 to 20 minute drive on your way home," he says. "It is the counties, the towns, the schools, the water district, what is happening on the beaches that people want to hear about. We are the source of this news and information. So the really important innovation is the format and approach."

That focus led to some early efforts to provide feeds targeted to specific zones. In 1995, Cablevision launched News 12 Westchester and News 12 Connecticut, followed by News 12 New Jersey in 1996 and News 12 the Bronx in 1998.

Currently, the operation has seven news channels targeted to local areas.

An even earlier example of this zoned coverage came when Allbritton Communications launched NewsChannel 8 in 1991, which offered separate newscasts targeting Washington D.C., Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland during weeknights between five and nine in the evening, says Wayne Lynch, news director at Northwest Cable News (NWCN), who previously worked at NewsChannel 8, and then at Time Warner Cable's local cable news channels before joining NWCN.

"They developed software with a California company to allow them to do that and it was a great innovation because it allowed us to produce stories that were much closer to the communities at a time when the affiliates were trying to cover the whole area with a little bit of everything that didn't necessarily hit home," Lynch recalls. "If you live in suburban Maryland, you aren't necessary interested in the latest crime in D.C."

Later, to cover some outlying areas, Newschannel 8 also used video journalists who worked by themselves and sent back material over fiber links, Lynch says.

A similar targeted feed has also been launched by Time Warner Cable at NY1, which offers zoned news coverage for Staten Island, Queens and other parts of the city on the quarter-hour, Han says.

Faced with the prospect of producing massive amounts of news for a 24-hour or multiple 24-hour services, a number of these channels were early adopters of automation, file-based workflows and digital newsrooms. "I wasn't there at that time, but in 1995 NWCN had one of the first if not the first digital news rooms in the country," says Lynch. "Trying to go non-linear at that time was pretty new, pretty unusual."

NWCN was launched by the Providence Journal Co. in 1995 and is now owned by Belo.

When it launched in 1990, Orange county Newschannel produced segments of news that was then put on a computer and played out automatically, Wiser says. "It was the first of the news channels to do that," he says.

"They also did robotic cameras, which they called Huey, Dewey and Louie from the robots in Silent Running," he adds.

Another early adopter of server-based technology and tapeless workflows was NY1. Early on it played everything off a server and started to go to tapeless production in the late 1990s, says Han. The channel went fully tapeless in 2002.

News 12 was another early proponent of automation, becoming the beta test for ParkerVision's automation technology. The channel now uses the Grass Valley Ignite system.

"We don't do it to save money but to reallocate resources so we can turn those studio people into newsgathering people," notes Norm Fein, senior VP of news development at News 12 Networks.

In general, local cable news channels have been much slower to embrace HD than broadcast stations, but some services are also trying to break new ground by going entirely HD with all their content.

While many stations and news channels have launched HD feeds, most are not providing HD footage from the field.

To get a leg up on those services, the News 12 Networks have already completely upgraded most of their seven channels and are currently working on the final upgrades for the Bronx and Brooklyn.

"By the end of the year we will be as HD as you can possibly be," says News 12's Dolan. "And that's not just in the studio, but field cameras, graphics- everything."