Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The future of the television news industry

(Since the most common question I hear is, “What is this business going to be like in twenty years?” I decided to find out. I have an actual time machine, so I took it into the future to see what the television news industry has in store for us. Turns out I now own a magazine, so I brought back one of the articles about a top local anchor.)


April 25, 2034


By Paige Turner

We’ve come a long way since the days when news anchors actually read scripts from a teleprompter and reporters went out into the field to gather stories. But while the industry has drastically changed, the qualities that make television personalities and newscasts popular really haven’t.

You’d never expect New York’s most popular anchor to show up for work in sweatpants and a tee-shirt, but that’s exactly what Madison Morgan is wearing today. Despite the casual attire, she’s hard at work putting together tonight’s newscast. In the next eight hours she’ll report on a few stories, feed copy points into the script computer (known as the Oracle), and meet with the hologram director to determine her look for the evening.

It’s ten in the morning, and she’s already gotten her assignment from the Oracle, which has determined that a story on a cheating politician will be of interest to 58 percent of the viewers. It will be the lead, narrowly beating a tale about a Junior League chair-throwing brawl which scored 51 percent.

“The Oracle’s assignment editor program is usually dead on,” says Madison, sitting down in an edit suite with her photographer, Mike Level. “Though it sometimes has a tendency to miss the human element in a story. That’s where we come in.”

Today’s story will take Madison’s hologram to a congressional office in Washington, a brothel in Queens, and a swanky hotel in upstate New York.

“In the old days,” says Mike, “a photographer and reporter would actually have to go to those locations to shoot the story.”

“Can you imagine?” says Madison. Suddenly her phone beeps. She taps the implant on the side of her head and takes the call, listens, nods, and then hangs up. “My mother,” she says. “Says my hologram looked fat last night.”

“Will you please buy her a new projector?” says Mike.

The photog will be using three hovercams for this story, cameras the size of a golfball which use the earth’s magnetic field to defy gravity. “You always want at least two points of view; the reporter and the interview subject. But for a lead story, we like reaction shots from anyone who’s around, so I send the extra hovercam.” He shakes his head. “My dad was a photog, and tells me he actually had to carry heavy equipment out in all kinds of weather. And use some contraption called a tripod.”

“Ugggh. I would hate being outside,” says Madison. A screen in the edit suite comes alive and beeps. “Ooooh, here come my questions!” The screen fills with questions that Madison will ask the Congressman, madam, mistress, and everyone connected with the story. When I ask if Madison would ever want to ask her own questions as reporters did years ago, her face tightens as if she were being fed Brussels sprouts. “Please. How could any reporter ask better questions than the Oracle?”

The Oracle takes care of assignments, questions, the order of stories in the newscasts, and the placement of the fifteen weather segments in the 30 minute newscast. “I don’t even know why we do weather anymore,” cracks Mike. “No one has lived outside since the third World War. Every night it’s partly cloudy with chance of fallout.”

“Damned consultants,” says Madison. She notes Mike has gotten the hovercams up and running. “You ready to go?”

“Sure,” he says. “Pick your outfit and let’s roll.”

Madison turns on the wardrobe selector and chooses a bright red suit. One click adds it to her hologram.

“Skirt’s too long,” says Mike. “Remember, you’re interviewing a politician.”

Another click takes the skirt up several inches. She then chooses “serious” for the tone of her questions. “Ready,” she says.

Mike transports the hovercams to Capitol Hill, where it catches the Congressman leaving his office. Madison’s hologram materializes right in front of him. The Congressman stops, smiles, and checks out her legs.

“Told you the skirt needed to be short,” says Mike. “That guy’s a sleazebag.”

Madison smiles. “Photogs always know best.”

The Congressman looks up and Madison reads her questions into the microphone. As she does so, her hologram speaks. “Why did you cheat on your wife?”

“Damn, great question,” says Mike. The Congressman stammers, as Mike deftly maneuvers the three hovercams; one catches the politician, the other gets Madison’s reaction shots, and a third gets video of a very attractive woman who has just left his office. “It’s his mistress!” says Mike. “Quick, get a question!”

Madison feeds the hovercam telemetry into the computer and it spits out a question.

“Is that your mistress?” she asks.

“Wow, another great question,” says Mike.


Thirty minutes later the team has gotten interviews and video from the three locations. Mike feeds everything into the Oracle and it instantly spits out a script, which Madison reads into a microphone. A few seconds later they have a completed story.

After a four hour lunch it’s time for Madison to meet with her hologram director, a young fashion consultant named James. The holo-office consists of two chairs, a console, and a pedestal, upon which Madison’s image will appear after the consultation.

“We’re running the gamut tonight,” says James, looking at the newscast rundown. “Serious, thoughtful, funny.”

“Yes,” says Madison. “I agree. We’ll need all three emotions.”

James enters the factors into the holo-computer and Madison appears on the pedestal.

“Do you ever get used to this?” I ask.

She shrugs. “It’s just like looking in the mirror.”

“I’m going with electric blue tonight,” says James. “78 percent of the viewers liked it last week.” He hits another button and suddenly Madison is wearing a bright blue halter dress with matching heels. “Let’s lose a few pounds and see if we can hit 80 percent.” He hits another button and her hologram slims down instantly.

“Looks good,” says Madison, who then proceeds to read her entire script in a monotone. The Oracle records it, then James adds any appropriate emotion and voice inflection.

They watch the finished product. “You like?” asked James.

“I could smile a little more on the kicker,” says Madison. “And I’m not sure I’m sad enough on the plane crash story.” He makes an adjustment and both stories look perfect.

The newscast in the can, it’s time for the crew to kick back and relax. When I ask if they would have liked working in the news business in, say, 2011, they all shudder with fear.

“I mean, seriously,” says Madison. “Reporters and photogs had to brave the weather, carry gear, and write their own scripts and questions! Then they used that dated stuff to alert people… what was it called?”

“Social networking,” says Mike.

“Right. They never realized that all people wanted was an image in their living rooms and good solid content.”


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