News Vets Infuse 'Jericho'

Some unusual suspects are helping advance the storyline of the CBS post-nuclear war drama Jericho (see related Fifth Estater, p. 22), thanks to technological advances that allow them to quickly produce Web-quality video. Veteran CBS News producers, including 48 Hours Executive Producer Susan Zirinsky, are using their newsgathering skills to produce Webisodes for the rookie program.

Earlier this season, CBS launched "Jericho: Countdown," a series of edgy five-minute Web programs that complement the network's drama, which stars Skeet

Ulrich. The segments, available online immediately after the West Coast broadcast of the program, are used to both tease upcoming episodes and offer factual details on subjects covered in the show, such as the body's reaction to nuclear radiation.

With "Countdown," CBS is leveraging the production expertise of broadcast veterans. It's also exploiting technology upgrades such as "prosumer"-grade digital camcorders and laptop editing systems to produce high-quality video at a fraction of the cost—and demanding a fraction of the hardware—required for primetime dramas or network news programs.

While the Web segments have a dramatic flavor and Hollywood-style production values, much of the video is actually shot in the basement of the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York, or pulled from archive and stock footage. Post-production occurs in a tiny edit suite. A five-minute show is written, shot and edited in seven days.

"It's taking a news sensibility and producing for venues that are not news," says Zirinsky. "And the core is real footage."

Zirinsky and 48 Hours Senior Producer Anthony Batson are moonlighting for a new CBS unit called Eye Two Productions that's focused on original Web content. Five people work on the "Countdown" segments, including a producer/shooter, an editor and an associate producer.

Eye Two began creating "Countdown" in the middle of Jericho's season, after CBS brass scrapped a previous West Coast-based effort called "Beyond Jericho," which had a mini-episode format. The first "Countdown" began running in late October. The New York team is now working to catch up and produce segments for episodes one through five that will become available online this month, before the new season airs in February.

Video footage is shot with Canon and Sony HDV-format camcorders and a Panasonic MiniDV unit. Tom Costantino cuts the shows using Adobe After Effects software running on a laptop and an Avid Adrenaline editing system. The high-energy graphics are created using AfterEffects, as well as "freeware" and "shareware" graphics and transcoding tools that he finds on the Web. Batson says Costantino is a one-man band. "In the old business model, it might have been five or six people editing the show," he says. "We're figuring out how to do a lot with a little."

Though the premise of the "Countdown" segments is secret conversations by a character named Hawkins, they also include documentary-style interviews with experts on issues raised in the show, such as a surveillance specialist describing spy satellites. That's why Zirinsky, who has helped produce documentaries and reality shows for CBS outside of 48 Hours, likes to call them Webumentaries: "The interviews are real, though there is a dramatic element to start them off."

The interviews are mainly done in the New York area to keep costs low. "We generally try to stick to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," says Zirinsky. "We have unbelievable experts here, from Memorial Sloan Kettering to the Council on Foreign Relations. You don't really need to go anywhere else."

Experts who are approached for interviews are made aware that these are not standard news interviews. The response has been very positive; Zirinsky notes that the New York City fire department volunteered to give a "Haz-Mat" demonstration for a recent "Countdown" episode.

CBS isn't making money on "Countdown," but Zirinsky says it isn't losing any either. The network is selling advertising for the segments, and AT&T has signed up as a sponsor; it appears in brief product placements, such as popping up on a character's computer screen.

The payoff for the news veterans is the experience. "People say, why do this?" says Zirinsky. "And we are really busy in our day job. But the simple answer is: This is the future."

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