Covering The Routine For TV Stations
MVN provides video of accidents, fires and ribbon-cuttings for five Houston outlets.
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
A company that bills itself as a local video news service thinks it has found a way to improve TV news coverage in major cities – and make money doing it.
Metro Video News (MVN) has been testing its concept for the past two years in Houston and is now ready to move into other markets. What MVN does is provide generic coverage of stories such as accidents, fires and ribbon-cuttings 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of the six Houston stations that have newscasts, only the Fox affiliate does not utilize MVN's services.
"Because we cover the routine, stations can focus on the journalism and the impact pieces that are important," says Paul Paolicelli, vice president and general manager of MVN. "They can use their resources better knowing that they don't have to jump on every little story because we'll be there."
MVN offers video only. There are no reporters doing narration or stand-ups. The stations get uncut video plus a computer printout on the basic facts. The individual newsrooms get details on the story and write the scripts.
"There are occasions when a station may want to send its own reporter and camera crew to cover the story because they're looking for the different angle or they may want to put their own signature and style on the story, the opening of a local Holocaust exhibit, for example," says Paolicelli. "And there are times they will need to send a reporter because the two-alarm fire we are covering has now turned into a 4- or 5-alarmer because of dangerous chemicals and is threatening homes and businesses. But on an ordinary day we can give every station 20 possible video stories they can use on their newscasts, and that frees up their reporters and camera crews to do other news."
The news directors who use the service agree that MVN delivers stories they might miss or ignore. "It lets us get a lot more of those discretionary stories we might not otherwise have," says Nancy Shafran of KPRC. "At the same time it's a catastrophe-catcher. If something big happens and we miss it, they'll have it."
Joe Duke of KHOU says he no longer has to worry about what's happening overnight. "I don't have to buy video from stringers or keep a crew on all night long to chase fires, robberies and things like that," says Duke. "Metro also has taken over coverage of a lot of smaller events that we may not have been able to get to because of a bigger story taking precedence."
As originally conceived, MVN was to be primarily an overnight and weekend service. These are the periods when stations have fewer, if any, news crews on the street. But even Paolicelli is surprised that the service is now covering daily scheduled events most of the time.
"We quickly discovered the stations wanted basic coverage," he says, "like the appearance of the mayor at some community event or Miss Texas visiting the cancer ward at the hospital. Nowadays, my assignment desk coordinates our coverage every day with each station."
ýhree MVN crews are always on the street, working in eight-hour shifts. Because of Houston's large Hispanic population, each videographer is trained in Spanish, and one of MVN's clients is the local Hispanic station. The fact that Houston is a non-union town also makes it easier for the MVN crews to operate; Paolicelli admits he'll have to resolve "some jurisdictional disputes" when MVN moves into cities that are heavily unionized.
The Houston news directors say they are not always pleased with the quality of the video, but they believe the service is still evolving and that Paolicelli is "still working the bugs out."
Perhaps the major drawback to MVN is the cost. Paolicelli believes the service is cost efficient for stations in this era of downsizing and tighter budgets. But Duke isn't so sure. "It's very expensive," Duke says, "and we are now reevaluating whether the value of the product is worth the expense."
The flat-rate charge of the service is $25,000 a month. But the figure is somewhat deceptive. For one, the cost can be worked out in any combination of cash and barter (trading commercial air time for service) that reduces actual costs. The cost can also be worked out in a package that includes the company's traffic and helicopter components.
MVN is about to move into Miami and perhaps two or three additional markets by the end of the year. But the service may never go beyond the big cities.
"Smaller stations would not have anywhere near the resources to pay them what they want, nor is there enough going on in smaller cities, such as a Kansas City, to justify an expenditure such as that," says news director Richard Longoria, whose KTRK operation uses MVN sparingly. "It's a big-city venture." Paolicelli disagrees. "The business is changing, and this is a totally new way of doing things."###