Last week, I scored an invitation to be inside CTV Montreal as the station inaugurated a new set they had spent about a year preparing for and months constructing. I spent a day there and watched the noon and 6pm newscasts from the control room, and the time in between getting an idea what goes on between the newscasts.
Above is a video that shows the beginning, middle and end of the first newscast in the new studio as seen from the control room. (I’ve included a graphic to show when what you see is live and when it’s pretaped).
Below is a timeline with photos of my day there. Thanks to CTV Montreal for letting me hang around.
11:02: Video operator Dino Vannelli is programming a robotic camera for the opening panning shots. CTV Montreal’s studio has three cameras, all robotic, which means they move around by themselves, controlled by computer or by an operator sitting at the nearby control desk. Vannelli, seated at a workstation inside the studio, is doing the pan manually, and locking it in as a programmed movement once he has it right. The noon newscast will have two of these shots, one at the beginning just before the anchors start talking, and another just after a commercial break. Both are pre-recorded.
A speaker at the camera operator’s desk comes to life with the sound of anchor Mutsumi Takahashi recording a radio promo for the newscast. Such radio promos air on CJAD and Team 990 (the latter owned by CTV’s parent company, Bell Media).
11:20: In the newsroom on the second floor, Takahashi and Todd van der Heyden are working on their scripts. Because the new studio is farther from the newsroom than the old one, they have to give themselves more time to make the trek before the newscast begins.
11:30: News Director Jed Kahane checks in with Executive Producer Barry Wilson about how they’ll introduce the new set during the day’s newscasts. They decide to just insert a line into the anchors’ scripts for the noon newscast, and then have a cameraman with a handheld camera do the tour for 6pm.
In the studio, weather presenter Lise McAuley pre-records a weather segment that will air just after a live interview at noon. The three cameras can’t move around fast enough for these things to be done back to back.
11:35: A weather graphic – just computer graphics set to music – is recorded for later replay. I notice it has new music. People in the control room notice there’s something wrong with the video – a small line on what should be a solid background. It disappears when they use a different feed.
11:43: Van der Heyden and Takahashi take their positions at the anchor desk. There are a few things to take care of before the newscast itself starts at noon.
11:45: The “reopen” – a pan from behind a vertical plasma TV screen that will air at the return from a commercial break – is pretaped using the movements programmed by Vannelli earlier. Chief Director Dave Maynard wants a second take, this time moving more slowly and keeping the vertical screen in the shot longer. (The screen includes an animation that has to be cued on each take.)
On the third take, someone walks right in front of the camera. Loud words come out of Maynard’s mouth. Time is an enemy here, with the minutes counting down before noon. It’s not like they can delay the newscast while they continue pretaping shots.
11:49: The opening – similar to the reopen, but shorter, and with a more static graphic in the vertical screen – is pretaped. In both, the anchors sit perfectly still and try their best to maintain continuity with the way they will look when it cuts to them live later on.
11:51: Reporter Camille Ross gets hooked up for a live hit from one of the remote trucks. She’s covering the top story – traffic. (There’s no real need for the remote, other than providing a backdrop of cars moving. But news people love those live hits.)
11:53: Production Assistant Mose Persico announces “three minutes to promo” – a quick segment that airs during a commercial break just before the newscast explaining what’s coming up. The segment goes on without a hitch.
11:59: Thirty seconds to air. “I don’t want to do this,” Maynard jokes. A year of work has come down to its last minute, and though he may have lost a few screws, Maynard keeps his sense of humour.
12:00: The newscast begins. You’ll see in the video that it actually begins at 11:59:58. This is because of a two-second delay in transmission time. It starts with pre-recorded graphics of the top stories with anchor voice-over. The first live element is the introduction from the anchors. Maynard comes to life, barking orders like “roll”, “take” and “swoosh” (the latter referring to a new transitional graphic that has the word “LIVE” go across the screen just before a live remote). The actual controls are up to the man sitting beside him, technical director Yves Marion.
Two other people sit behind them in the control room. One handles computer graphics, the other is the lineup editor. In an adjacent room is the sound technician.
12:01: A clip of Sam Hamad plays during Ross’s report. It’s frozen for only a second, but that’s enough to get Maynard riled up. Normally clips are commanded to begin playing just before they’re cut to, but in this case that didn’t happen, and the video cut to a frozen image.
Though it’s pre-recorded, super-imposed graphics identifying speakers are always done live. Persico is in charge of making sure these are cued and telling the graphics person when to use them. It’s all timed ahead, and Persico always has his eye on the clock.
In front of Persico is a computer screen with the show’s lineup. He hits a button after every segment, and the computer automatically backtimes the newscast so he can see if they’re ahead of or behind schedule. Additional expendable segments are added to the end of the newscast in case it’s short, or can be killed if it’s long.
12:03: Stéphane Giroux is next, with a live remote from the courthouse. Like most noon reports, Giroux’s is just a live hit with some B-roll. A full packaged report will be done for 6pm.
12:12: The first commercial break. Maynard applauds his crew. Because the commercials don’t go through the control room, it goes quiet during the breaks. People in the control room prepare for upcoming segments, while the anchors will use their computers, which are installed under the transparent desk, to update scripts with last-minute changes.
12:28: “There’s a chair on the set,” Maynard remarks. With the weather and sports presenters going in and out, bringing chairs on and off the anchor desk has to be done regularly.
12:34: As another commercial break begins, Van der Heyden prepares for the first interview segment. Dicki Chhoyang, a member of Tibet’s parliament-in-exile, is in to talk about a visit by the Dalai Lama. It’s the first time viewers will see interview set (nicknamed the “cozy corner”), and the first time they’ll see that this set has windows.
The original plan was to begin the segment with a wide shot showing the set and a plasma TV on a pillar next to it. But the position of the cameras means there’s a cable along the ground in the wide shot. What’s more, the green screen (“chroma key”) is partially visible, showing as a distracting green glow in the background. Maynard orders camera to zoom in on Van der Heyden and abandons the plan for a zooming wide shot.
Another difficulty with this set – discovered well in advance of the first newscast – is the window. While it’s great to be able to see traffic outside, right across the street at Papineau Ave. and René-Lévesque Blvd., which the Cozy Corner faces, is the eastern parking lot of Maison Radio-Canada. And right at the corner is a giant billboard ad.
Adjusting the camera’s position and angle helps crop it out of the shots.
12:40: The order is given to Van der Heyden to wrap the interview up. It’s always an awkward thing to do without being rude, especially when the guest is taking a while to make a point. It takes about 15 seconds for the anchor to put the brakes on the interview while making it seem natural. But that’s a long time in live television. A pretaped weather segment airs while Van der Heyden and Chhoyang are disconnected. The weather segment is followed by world weather, and then commercials.
12:44: The second interview segment, with Harley Eisman of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. It starts with a tighter wide shot that captures the plasma TV (with B-roll on it), but not the cables on the floor.
12:52: Sports. It’s usually brief during the noon newscast, because little sports news happens in the morning. In fact, it’s usually pre-recorded the night before, which is why you’ll see Randy Tieman on a noon newscast while at the same time he’s hosting his radio show on Team 990.
12:57: The anchors recap the top stories. If the newscast is running long by now, this can be followed by a short weather recap and then a goodbye. Otherwise, there’s usually a fun story to end the newscast with. In this case, it’s about some women in B.C. who broke the record for the longest hockey game ever played (243 hours).
12:58: Time for the weather and goodbye. At this point the anchors can kill time with small talk and giggling. After the weather is done, the anchors are told they have 15 seconds, and they time their discussion perfectly. The newscast ends with a cityscape shot and brief credits (full credits air after the Friday newscasts). It goes off the air five seconds before 1pm to leave room for a quick promo ad.
13:00: A round of applause for the new newscast. But the work isn’t done yet. They have to tape a Newsbreak – promos for the evening newscast that run during commercials in the afternoon.
13:04: Next up is the web weather segment, which is uploaded to the station’s weather page online. Once that’s done, Maynard and Persico leave the control room and begin preparing for the 6pm newscast.
13:30: Web editor Kevin Gould takes a frame grab from the noon newscast to attach to a story on the website about the new studio. (This is the first time I meet Gould, who I’ve exchanged messages with on Twitter.) He’ll be replaced in the afternoon by Arpon Basu, who will update the story with new video and a better photo.
14:00: The newsroom is quiet again as most of the staff head out to lunch. Takahashi is off to CJAD to be a guest there.
14:16: Maynard grabs a sheet of paper out of the printer and begins putting it into a picture frame. The cozy corner had a frame with nothing in it sitting in the background as set decoration. News Director Jed Kahane remarked to Maynard that it was a little “cheesy”, so naturally Maynard’s reaction was to print out a picture of a block of cheese, stick it in the frame and put it on Kahane’s desk. Sadly, I didn’t get to see Kahane’s reaction. I ponder for a moment whether this action is evidence that Maynard has regained or lost his sanity.
14:30: The studio opens up for tours by the station’s staff. Many people who work at this station every day haven’t had a chance to really see it yet. Kahane and Station Manager Don Bastien are among those to stop by.
14:58: Takahashi insists on taking a picture with me behind the anchor desk (payback for all the times I’ve taken pictures of them, she reasons). Never one to turn down a request from a fan, I reluctantly say yes:
15:30: Back in the newsroom, Maynard meets with Takahashi and news editor Helen Michalidis to discuss the lineup for the 6pm newscast. Catherine Sherriffs, the late news anchor, comes in mid-afternoon and usually reports on a late-breaking story for 6pm. The discussion is over where they’re going to put her. The cameras in the newsroom are available (the temporary set is still there, and is being kept for reporter debriefs), but can’t be controlled remotely, which means they’d need to put a body behind it (and there isn’t much room for that). There’s a small area in the studio itself for this kind of thing, but Maynard wants to reserve that for special reports and other fancy stuff. They decide instead to have her do a live hit from outside the building.
15:34: Van der Heyden and Michalidis discuss video for the Lola/Eric case, a civil suit whose subjects are under a publication ban. They have video of “Lola”, showing only her legs, then her back, and other shots of her with her face either cropped, obscured or blurred.
15:35: Back in the control room to shoot Nicole Jones’s Entre Nous segment, which is actually separate from the newscast, but is produced locally.
15:45: The segment begins shooting. The first take is too long, and Jones stumbles on “Lake Memphremagog”. The contest clip is also the wrong one.
15:52: Take 3 for Entre Nous, still too long. Jones is being confused by contradictory cues from the control room. The text of the segment is shortened, and “on the shores of Lake Memphremagog” becomes “near Magog”, which should also help her avoid stumbling on the long word.
15:55: Take 4 is a success. The segment is saved to be played later in the week.
15:57: Maynard talks with Marion about his plan for the opening of the 6pm newscast. It will start with the anchors in front of the giant 103-inch plasma TV, which will show the date and then zoom in and dissolve into clips for the first story. It takes a bit for Maynard to fully explain his vision for the effect he wants. He demonstrates with a piece of paper that he pulls to his face.
16:14: In the newsroom. Randy Tieman is here, and there is discussion about an elephant playing golf. “This is a promotional stunt for Parc Safari,” says one cynical news veteran (who didn’t want their name published), but they’ll stick it in sports anyway because hey, it’s video of an elephant.
16:30: A cameraman comes in with an HD camera to take promotional video of Van der Heyden and Takahashi at their newsroom desks. They play their parts as Takahashi pretends to be interested in something on Van der Heyden’s computer.
16:50: I learn about the power of electronic sound machines to relieve stress in the newsroom. Maynard has five on his desk, including the Staples “that was easy” button, two parodies of that button, and one that’s just words spoken by Sarah Palin.
16:55: Time for the anchors to head down to the studio. There’s lots of preparation work for the 6pm newscast.
17:02: An updated web weather segment with McAuley.
17:07: Pre-taping a weather tease, with McAuley behind a small desk in front of the weather area. The green screen is partly visible and can’t be hidden completely, so Maynard scraps the wide shot and zooms in on McAuley.
17:14: The anchors are in position for taping the opening in front of the plasma screen. Takahashi’s microphone cable is visible, and Maynard has her move around so her legs cover it. Fortunately she’s wearing black, so the cable isn’t very visible, but for future newscasts something more workable is going to need to be found. (Later, Maynard and his crew conclude that wireless microphones are the only answer to this problem.)
17:33: Staff head back to the newsroom for last-minute work before the newscast.
17:40: Scripts are delivered to the key players. I cringe at the thought of how many trees give their lives on a daily basis for this. The photo above is for a single copy of a script for a single newscast.
17:45: Back in the control room and studio for more pretaping.
17:49: The opening is pretaped. Edited teasers of the top stories are combined with prerecorded video and audio of the anchors and some “swoosh” effects to create the first 45 seconds of the newscast, which will then fade into a live shot of the anchors at their desk.
17:53: Catherine Sherriffs takes her position outside the building. She’ll be the only live report during the 6pm newscast. She’s covering the resignation of Nathalie Normandeau, which was announced in late afternoon.
At this point, Persico grabs my notebook and writes this: “And I was extremely impressed with the talents of Mose Persico, who is adept behind the cameraas he is in front of it”
17:57: Giroux walks into the control room and delivers script information about his packaged report, which has arrived late.
18:00: The 6pm newscast begins. You can watch the first 14 minutes of the newscast as it was broadcast on CTV’s website.
18:01: The first glitch. The split-screen of Takahashi and Sherriffs fails to cue, leaving two seconds of a static blue screen. It’s the kind of thing that causes all sorts of anger and frustration when it happens, but is quickly forgotten.
18:12: As the anchors get ready for a live introduction to their new studio, the control room realizes the giant plasma screen is blank. Without enough time to get something on there, they decide to just not show it, leading to a bit of awkwardness as Takahashi describes the screen while a handheld camera is pointed at the ceiling.
18:18: A short bumper coming out of commercial shows two over-the-shoulder graphics on top of the footage. Maynard exclaims an expletive. (He later says this was his fault.)
It may seem as though I’m focusing on minor mistakes, and I am. For the first newscast in a new studio with lots of changes to graphics and ways of doing things, these newscasts actually went remarkably smoothly.
18:26: A weather graphic that was supposed to be on screen for 10 seconds lasts only five before cutting to commercial, because of a miscommunication. “I just saved you five seconds, Helen,” Persico jokes.
18:29: McAuley does a live weather segment. I realize how awkward it is for a weather presenter to be sitting at the desk, talking about the weather and keep talking while they get out of their chair and walk over to the green screen.
18:36: At this point the newscast is two minutes and five seconds long. This isn’t unusual. Some segments before the last commercial break will get the boot to cut it back. Randy Tieman gets setup at the anchor desk.
18:58: The foursome at the anchor desk have about 20 seconds to fill this time. Piece of cake.
19:01: The newscast is done, and work begins immediately on the 11:30pm newscast, starting with pretaped weather. Normally, the weather presenter does live segments at noon and 6pm but pretapes the late night segment. (This can change if there’s some dramatic change in the forecast.) Sherriffs gets behind the desk with McAuley to tape their segment together.
19:11: Pretapes for 11:30 are done. The crew gets thanks from Maynard. By now the newsroom is empty. Maynard has a chat with Kahane about how the show went. Kahane says he’s happy with it.
19:22: I head back to the studio with Maynard, thank him for letting me spend the day following him around, and take a picture of him on his new set.
But the day isn’t over for Maynard. He’s going to stick around to direct the 11:30 newscast as well, to make sure the first night goes smoothly. This will push his work day well beyond 14 hours.
His stamina is better than mine. After almost nine hours here, I head for home.
I’ll have more about CTV Montreal’s new studio in a few weeks. Stay tuned.