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Local TV Fights Off‘Viral’ Infections

While every savvy station is using social media to spread its message, YouTube and other video platforms can be an enemy as much as an ally. The practice of “video-bombing”—the barging of bystanders, often drunk, into a reporter’s live shot—is an unwelcome trend, and the viral nature of these clips can bring the wrong kind of attention to a station.

Such incidents—which can rack up millions of views on YouTube—are a news director’s worst nightmare, and they only look to get worse in an era when everyone with a smartphone has the ability to shoot and post the snippets. Mike Cavender, Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) executive director, says people have been interrupting live shots for decades, but social media makes it a trickier issue. “I don’t know for sure that there’s markedly been an increase in this, but the viral aspects of it make it seem like there would be,” he says. “If it hasn’t gotten worse, there’s no doubt it will due to the exposure it gets.”

The clips have been numerous of late, from a WAVY Norfolk (Va.) reporter whose Hurricane Sandy reporting was interrupted by men doing the Gangnam Style shimmy; to WKMG Orlando (Fla.) reporter Jessica Sanchez silencing a boozy interrupter with questions about her “STD”; to Fox News Channel reporter Michael Tobin fending off a pair of females intent on kissing him as he spoke about the Boston bombings. “These things happened 10 years ago too, but there was no way for them to quickly move around,” says a longtime news director who asked not to be named.

In the breathless rush to build up social media friends and likes, some stations promote their own embarrassing clips, says the news vet, while a rival station will also stoke the virus. “I’ve been a victim and I’ve been a party to it,” he says. “Anything you can do to embarrass the competition, you do.”

Stations are cranking out more news than ever. In a span of !ve years, a typical TV station’s average daily news output grew almost an hour, to 5 hours and 30 minutes, according to a 2012 survey from RTDNA and Hofstra University. Local news execs frequently boast about adding more live shots to their newscasts.

They get creative to protect their reporters from video-bombing—or worse. When reporting from the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, WDSU New Orleans will shoot to tape on the street, saving the live shots for a balcony perch. “The reasons aren’t just about broadcasting,” says news director Jonathan Shelley. “You don’t want people put in unsafe positions.”

While a delay runs counter to the nature of live news, stations are increasingly going with one for events coverage—safeguarding themselves from spontaneous profanity and an ever-watchful FCC. “I don’t want some idiot to [cause] us a $330,000 fine,” says Bill Lamb, WDRB Louisville president and general manager. “You’ve got to be careful.”

WDRB news director Barry Fulmer says he was relieved to get through the May 4 Kentucky Derby free from unpleasant surprises popping up on video. “It’s almost impossible to stop,” he says. “You can’t shut down your news operation because of a few bad apples.”

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