Avid On-Air Graphics and Production Solutions Ensure Fast Delivery of Crisis News

When it comes to dealing with crisis situations few organizations are better prepared than television station newsrooms. Not only are they equipped to rapidly deploy resources to cover news stories, but they produce and deliver news content daily under relentless time constraints, often with deadlines met only seconds before going to air.

Rarely is the organization and discipline of a television news station tested in a way that challenges its very survival, but it happens - as it did in 2005 when fierce hurricanes struck the U.S. A strong hurricane such as Katrina can literally push a station to its breaking point, requiring heroic resourcefulness and quick thinking to keep a station on air amidst a variety of critical concerns such as power outages. Even as a station is severely challenged, the public need for timely news is more critical than ever.

WJTV Jackson, Miss., WJLA Washington, D.C., and WFTV Orlando are three stations that have faced challenging situations such as these and managed to keep going with the help of Avid gear - whether using Avid NewsCutter XP software flying high through violent weather to edit packages on location or employing Avid DekoCast systems to be first to air with sophisticated news crawls and branding visuals.

 We were feeding stories while other stations on the plane were just beginning the process of logging and cutting the video.
Dave Sirak, News Operations Manager, WFTV

Covering the Eye of the Storm

WFTV, for example, pushed the NewsCutter XP system to the extreme during the vicious hurricane season of 2005. During two of the storms, Hurricane Ophelia and Hurricane Jose, the station was able to send reporter Steve Barrett and photographer Corey Reppenhagen aboard the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Lockheed WP-3D Hurricane Hunter plane flying out of MacDill Air Force Base south of Tampa Bay. For more than 10 hours Barrett and Reppenhagen rode alongside the Hunter’s crew as they took the plane inside the eye of the hurricane.

Barrett, armed with a laptop outfitted with NewsCutter XP software, and Reppenhagen, armed with a Sony HDV camcorder, were able to get a jump on the competition. “Steve and Corey were able to shoot and edit the story in the plane while they were still in the air,” says Dave Sirak, WFTV news operations manager. “And while Steve was editing, Corey was able to shoot more pictures. There was no need to stop shooting and miss any of the action.”

When the two men returned to the ground they were able to transmit complete story packages back to WFTV. “We were feeding stories while other stations on the plane were just beginning the process of logging and cutting the video,” says Sirak.

To Sirak the experience aboard the Hurricane Hunter exemplifies the advantage of laptop-based editing. “It maximizes the potential of what two people can do when they’re working at the same time,” he says, citing another hurricane-related story. “When Barrett was covering Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and pushing through New Orleans on airboats, he was able to power the laptop off of a cigarette lighter and then feed completed stories back from any satellite truck they would pass.”

More importantly, by giving editors in the field the same editing systems used in-house there is no need for re-training. “They can hit the ground running,” he says about the industry-standard Avid interface and media management structure that works for the simplest to the most complex projects.

In addition, says Sirak, the quality of the work possible with NewsCutter XP software offers an enormous advantage. “It has color correction and adjustable audio levels which are important when shooting in situations where everything isn’t perfect or you rely on available light,” he says. “It’s perfect for breaking news.”

He offers one practical tip for working with a portable editing setup. “When you’re in a disaster situation it’s best to run off battery power on a laptop because sometimes the electrical power can be dirty which can cause problems,” says Sirak, who also relies on 7200 RPM Maxtor hard drives.

 One of the great things about DekoCast is that it has an easy text interface for obtaining text out of scripts or off the wire and - boom - it’s on air.
David Bunger, Director of Production, WJTV

Immediate Call to Action

The NewsCutter XP system wasn’t the only Avid product that came through during the hurricane season. WJTV Jackson, Miss., relied heavily on a newly delivered DekoCast system, which offers easy data handling for multiple in-program news crawls, tickers, and downstream channel branding. David Bunger, WJTV’s director of production, says the station put its DekoCast system to use immediately following Hurricane Katrina to assist with the high volume of late-breaking news and community information.

The DekoCast system had arrived a few days prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. “We weren’t planning on the storm having much of an impact until it changed course on Saturday and Sunday, and by Sunday we were in hurricane coverage mode,” says Bunger. Employees were placed on 12-hour shifts, mattresses were placed in the station’s smaller studio, and the station prepared to do everything it could to deliver timely reports to anxious viewers. One of the first steps? Getting the DekoCast system up and running.

The station began airing top-of-the-hour reports on Saturday and went wall-to-wall early Monday morning as the storm came ashore. It wasn’t until five days later that the station would shift back to on-the-hour reports.

The process of getting graphics on air during that difficult time had the staff itching to use the DekoCast system. “With [another system] we have to print something out and then have the operator type it in, and that requires a lot more of the producer’s time. But one of the great things about DekoCast is that it has an easy text interface for obtaining text out of scripts or off the wire and - boom - it’s on air,” he says.

After Hurricane Katrina left the Jackson area on Monday, Bunger and his co-workers faced the challenge of helping local viewers keep on top of developing news. The station’s newscasts were simulcast on local radio stations and streamed on the Internet, and Bunger, realizing the value of deploying the DekoCast system immediately, unpacked the system, read the directions, and got it running. “By that afternoon the text interface was set up and we could have put it on air,” he says. A quick call to the Avid technical support team walked him through the process of inserting the station’s logo. The move ensured that the station could deliver emergency information - and a quality signal - to viewers as quickly as possible.

Today the DekoCast system handles crawls during the morning newscast and with breaking news, promos, and snipes (quick, on-screen displays that deliver special programming or news messages) that appear during syndicated programming as well as CBS eyeliner promos. “We really like so many of the DekoCast [system’s] features, like the way it handles time/temperature and clocks,” says Bunger of system capabilities the station looks forward to using. The system is tied into the station’s Florical automation system to make its operation as hands-free as possible. All DekoCast scenes are scheduled in the log and the Florical system plays them out automatically through master control.

24/7 Content Needs

While WJLA in Washington, D.C., will rarely face the drama of a hurricane, the station’s need to feed not only a regular newscast but also a 24/7 cable news channel introduces its own set of crisis management challenges. 

The goal, says Church, was to help keep both the broadcast side and the cable side of the facility on air when staffing was light. “The cable side started using it for long-form cable coverage of events like a speech by the president instead of tying up a studio crew for hours,” he says.

The DekoCast system can handle intros, switch to the anchor camera, run any supers, and even run the animated close. “The only thing it can’t do is tape playback,” says Church.

Like Sirak and Bunger, Church has learned how to maximize his resources to bring the most complete and compelling news to viewers, fast. Whether covering a crisis or managing the ongoing demands of round-the-clock news production, making the most of a station’s digital gear is not just smart business, it’s essential to success.

* CREDITS: Courtesy of WFTV Eyewitness News and courtesy of WJTV News Channel 12.