TV Newscast Fail
Total meltdown last night. Four minutes before our 11PM newscast reporting the latest on what was happening in Haiti after the 7.0 quake, a key device in our control room sneezed, sputtered, and imploded on itself. It's called the 'switcher' and while I can't tell you exactly what it does, it's important. Trust me. Just look at our 11pm newscast and you'll know, it's very, very important. The switcher is part of something called the Automated Production Control system that essentially creates the computerized and technical parts of our newscast. Will and Eva, I know this is a broke down description because it's all layperson, but that's why I tell the simple stories and you direct the moving parts.
So we're about to go on the air when the switcher quit. It up and quit like it was the last day of its two week notice and it had been sick and tired of working at this dump and it was offered a ridiculously crappy contract to stay and it was walking out and never looking back quit.
I'm standing in the room with a bunch of monitors and routers waiting to go live at the top of the newscast and one by one, I hear people saying, "The switcher's down." "We don't have the switcher." "The switcher is broken." My photog leaves to see if he can help.
One minute until the newscast, and the switcher is still dead. Do Not Resuscitate dead. No amount of engineering mouth to mouth is bringing its pulse back. Leno ends. We go to black. Just for a few seconds. Then we're in commercials. Then we somehow regain control of the buggy and start our newscast. The viewers who have stayed with us until now get to see live TV when it stops being polite and starts getting real.
The anchors read the intro into my story and we think all systems are go. The switcher gave some false indication it had risen from the dead and wanted to be a good, peace loving machine. I give my live intro, and then the first frame of video in my story pops up...freezes...and then it's back to me. In that two seconds, I hear, "We lost your package. We're coming back to you." I look back into the lens and tell the people still watching our show that we don't have my story, and I proceed to tap dance through my recall of what I wrote and what my interviewee told me over the phone about her orphanage in Haiti and what the quake felt like and how her neighbor's homes fell down. As I'm talking, I hear people talking in my ear, but not necessarily to me. I hear the time countdown of "You have a minute 20" and I hear muffled orders being called out. I keep talking, and then I hear, "20 seconds...wrap." I give myself a B for how I handled it. It looked fairly smooth but I wish I would've said more about the Twitter photos that were coming out of Haiti, and the enormous devastation because of the country's weak infrastructure, that even the presidential palace was in ruins. I should've talked about how traditional news media crews were on their way but social networking and mobile phones have made it possible for compelling firsthand reports to get out quickly and broadly. I wanted to say so much more but in the minute and 20 seconds I had, I only spoke about the woman who ran an orphanage near Port Au Prince and how fortunate they were that none of the buildings came down and that the 150 children were OK. It was one of the few pieces of 'good news' coming out of the catastrophe.
But there are no do overs in live TV, so I will cry into my soup later. The rest of the newscast was salvaged by good old fashioned "hot rolling" and "punching up routers." Basically that's jargon for: a bunch of people yelling out orders and running around and pushing buttons and doing things the way we did them before computers came along. It wasn't pretty but we made it to 1135PM without any other major disasters, just a few awkward moments. The anchors did the natural thing--and clued everyone in on our meltdown, and after watching the newscast, I can say it definitely felt worse than it looked. It always does. Except for this time, when it probably felt JUST AS BAD as it looked. But hey, at least she made it into Family Guy!
It was, in a sense, very much a wake up call. For a new rulebook for what to do when all systems are down. And who calls the shots. And a heads up to any aspiring reporters, make sure you always have your arms wrapped around your story. So that when it doesn't show up, and you're standing there, you won't just be blinking and hemming and hawing or uhhing, which is my placeholder word. It's a nice shock to the system, these live TV breakdowns. Just don't be a broke down reporter yourself.
And just when I thought I had a great story to tell The Good Doctor about our crazy night in TV land, he gets called in at 2AM for an emergency life-saving surgery. He is SUCH a one-upper.