Tonight was the premiere of WFFF Fox 44‘s ingeniously-named 10pm local newscast “Fox 44 News at Ten.”
Before today, the Burlington/Plattsburgh/other small Vermont/upstate New York towns nobody’s ever heard of market (ranked 92nd in the U.S.) had only two local newscasts, despite its five network stations (six if you count PBS twice):
- NBC affiliate WPTZ-5 Plattsburgh has local news at 5am, 6am, 5pm, 5:30pm, 6pm and 11pm. It bills itself as “Newschannel 5”
- CBS affiliate WCAX-3 Burlington also has local news in the early morning, and at 6pm and 11pm, with a short newscast at noon.
- ABC affiliate WVNY-22 Burlington killed its local news department in 2003, having been a distant third in the ratings. (WVNY and WFFF are effectively run by the same company now.)
- PBS affiliates WETK-33 (Vermont Public Television) and WCFE-57 (Mountain Lake PBS) have much better websites, and do produce local programming (pledge drives, election specials etc.) but don’t have regular local newscasts.
The premiere was preceded with what I’d like to say was great fanfare, but was really just a brief by Associated Press and a story in the Burlington Free Press. I didn’t even hear about it until I noticed it was on.
The format is pretty basic. Two anchors, one male (Greg Navarro) one female (Lauren Maloney), a weatherman (Jason Caterina) whose accuracy has to be constantly reaffirmed through mentions of SkyTracker technology, and a sports guy (Kristian Read) who talks about local minor sports leagues and some major-league stuff out of Boston.
The newscast’s set is just as generic. The same red, blue, white and black colours of Fox News, graphics with blurred swooshes and 3D lines and all sorts of unnecessary noise. The set itself consists mainly of large flat-panel HDTV monitors that the anchors stand in front of.
The only particularly interesting thing about the show is the use of high-definition (WFFF-44 is available in HD on channel 43 over the air, or Videotron Illico channel 654). Anchor segments and even most (but not all) locally-produced reports are in HD format. (To demonstrate how much this matters to them above everything else, take a drink every time this story mentions that the program is in HD.)
The station hired 22 people to prepare the newscast, which is three less than what WVNY fired when it cancelled theirs.
The Free Press story notes that they’ve been preparing for the newscast for a month, even doing rehearsals. So when it came to actually airing the newscast, it should have been down to a science, right?
The premiere half-hour broadcast was riddled with technical glitches and timing flubs. Some of these are to be expected from a team that was just built from scratch, but the sheer number was kind of embarrassing, considering how important first impressions are. (My favourite was a reporter introducing a local business story by saying “It’s retail central in downtown Berlin.”)
Among some of the problems:
- Dead air (shots would continue far longer than they were supposed to with no audio)
- Sound cut-outs (one report was almost unintelligible)
- Video cut-outs
- Mid-sentence sound level changes
- Overlapping audio feeds
- Control room orders making it to air
- Static image where video (of something else) should be
- Jumping the gun on timing between segments
- Music being played over anchors’ voices
These things are all forgivable and will no doubt get better as the show matures (though I’d argue that trying to run a local newscast with only 22 people is part of the problem). What annoyed me most though is how the anchors handled the situation. Rather than acknowledge their technical clutziness and relax, having some fun at their own expense, they put on fake smiles, telling bad pre-written fake-ad-libbed jokes. Hopefully it was just first-show jitters and that too will improve.
At the very least, the anchors have to start developing personalities. Maloney in particular has the same annoying mannerisms that other anchors feel makes them somehow communicate better: A head tilt any time she speaks, asudden lateral head-movement mid-sentence, followed by a nod at the end, as if to reaffirm what she just said. Words are overemphasized, and she has the same tone and expression for every kind of story, which sucks when she’s reporting on bad news or fatal accidents because her expression includes a slight smirk.
Editorially, the show was entirely forgettable. News stories focused on the fact that snow fell today, and that Christmas is coming up, and then a bunch of briefs. That’s all I can remember. No investigative journalism, no in-depth reports. Nothing that would make me want to watch this show on a regular basis, much less a compelling reason to switch from WCAX or WPTZ.
The team clearly hope that smoke and mirrors are going to get them viewers. Everything is either “team coverage” or “continuing coverage” (and includes the time-wasting giant graphic to remind you about that), which is kind of laughable considering how woefully understaffed they are.
They’re going to have to do better than a cookie-cutter format in HD if they want to be successful.
Fox 44 News at Ten airs at 10pm daily on WFFF Fox 44.
UPDATE (Dec. 4): The second episode was a bit better technically. Still some video and audio problems and still plenty of timing issues (a segment starting up half a second before the previous one has finished).
A couple of additional things I noticed this time around:
- They have segments that include video from across the country (I imagine from other Fox affiliates and Fox News). For some reason a lot of these are police videos.
- Republican presidential candidates are really milking this show, trying to get into the heads of New Hampshire primary voters.
UPDATE (Dec. 12): Vermont’s Seven Days has a short interview with General Manager Bill Sally and News Director Kathleen Harrington.