AASHTO 100th Anniversary Logo

December 19, 2013

The TV Newsman — To Be Ignored, Tolerated, or Cultivated?

The following speech was delivered by Oregon State Highway Department Information Carl A. Plog before the AASHO Committee on Public Information at the association's 49th Annual Meeting in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 23, 1963. In his speech, which was published in the July 1964 edition of American Highways Magazine, Plog discusses the many benefits of the "new" communication medium — television. He urges members to embrace the visual communication tool and gives pointers on how to assist TV stations in presenting highway stories. Below are his full remarks.

Television is not only the newest but also the least understood medium of mass communication. It is also rapidly becoming one which can reach a larger audience faster and sometimes more effectively than any of the other media.

Television — and I'm speaking of the television news program now — offers the potential of radio in being able to cover an event immediately, whereas newspapers must wait for the next edition. Also like radio, the TV news program summarizes the story within a few seconds or minutes. You will invariably get a more complete and detailed story in newspapers, but the appeal to the mass audience is greater through television because it provides the story faster, briefer, and with the most fascinating of all attractions — the moving picture.

Before I took my present position with the Oregon State Highway Department, I was the city editor of a daily newspaper in Oregon. One of my jobs was to determine what stories had enough news value to be placed on the front page. Now my job is to get an occasional front page story, and if not on the front page, at least someplace inside. One reason you should do your utmost to cultivate television coverage is because any item mentioned in a news program is, in a sense, given front page treatment. The last minute of a 15-minute program is just as important as the first minute of that program, and it is observed by just as many persons.

A newspaper editor might accommodate you, even if he doubts the value of your story, by placing it on one of the back pages, where few people may see it. Such is not true with television. Wherever a news commentator talks or a film is shown on television, there's no choice of "turning the page." Each story thus receives "front page treatment."

Television presents problems to the information officers of all highway departments, the main reason being that it is not as easily understood as newspaper work. All public information officers, if they have not already done so, should make a quick study of the operations of a television news program. Most news directors are quite willing to take time to explain this to you, and would even be complimented that they are being interviewed instead of conducting an interview.

You'll find yourself running into numerous stumbling blocks until you become familiar with the workings of the news program. You might also find yourself amazed at the results. I have more respect for newspapers than do most public relations men, if for no better reason than that's where my career started. However, I have come to respect television considerably also. The main reason is the effectiveness of television. Surveys have proved that for some odd reason which has never been truly explained the public is much more likely to believe what it sees on television than what it reads in newspapers or hears on the radio.

Some television newsmen have commented that it is sometimes frightening to them to realize the potential command they hold over the viewing audience. An example of this occurred in Portland not too long ago. The Red Cross blood bank was getting quite low on its supply of blood. Stories in the newspaper had brought only a minor turnout of donors. A local television newsman was asked to issue an appeal for donors. This he did on his news program, making a slightly dramatic appeal to the public. The result was almost beyond belief. The next day, long past the closing hour for the blood bank, there were still people lined up outside the door to donate blood. It had taken the newsman only a minute to make an appeal on his program, but the effect of that 60-second announcement was overwhelming.

If you can cultivate the TV newsman to where he will present your highway story in a similar fashion, you too may find people standing in line to praise your department.

Newspapers in the past have usually given excellent coverage to any important news event and often to the minor ones as well. Because of this, many people today are under the impression that television is a similar type of mass media and that it too can cover stories in the extensive way that newspapers have done. Actually this is not possible. Most stations are operated with only a small staff. Too often a public relations man thinks that a television station can send a cameraman out on comparatively minor news events involving his company. This misconception has come about because many newspapers, especially those in larger cities, have had staffs that were large enough to provide coverage of these comparatively minor news stories. Consequently, people have come to expect that of television, too. If a television station sends a cameraman to any distant point, it may then leave the station uncovered at home, in case another event should take place there. The main problem is this: Too many television stations have too few cameramen. Public information officers should come to realize this and, in a sense, take advantage of it.

Newspapers use "stringers" or correspondents when they are unable to get their own men to the scene of a news event. In this day and age, television also uses "stringer" cameramen. This cameraman may be anyone from an ambulance driver to a local studio photographer who does the work as a part-time job. However, the cost of a stringer is almost equal to the cost of sending a staff photographer, and the quality of the movie product will probably not match that of a regular TV cameraman. Consequently, you should plan to supply the film yourself when you want the station to cover a highway event in its news programs. You should develop a system whereby you and your department can fill in for the missing TV cameraman by taking your won movies and furnishing them quickly to the television stations. The appreciation of the TV station will be quickly evident when they use these films on their news broadcasts.

About two years ago, the Oregon State Highway Department initiated a program whereby it started supplying short news film clips on important events to all TV stations. Some samples of these films included advance releases on the planned opening of a freeway, publicity for National Highway Week, and a year-end roundup of progress on our highway construction program.

These film clips are short movies ranging from one to three minutes in length. I knew they were being used on the stations I watched; however, I didn't know whether all stations were using them. I decided to take a survey to determine their worthiness compared to the expense of producing them — and, incidentally, the expense is so small that it might amaze you.

We conducted this survey on a film clip we provided for a somewhat routine opening of section of Interstate 5 in southern Oregon. We provided enough film clips to cover 13 television stations in the state. With each one, I sent a post card to be returned with information on whether they used the film, how many times they used it, and their reaction to it.

Only one station returned a post card saying it did not use the film. All of the comments on the other post cards were quite favorable, and several of the program directors encouraged more use of this type of announcement.

These films which we supplied the television studios were all taken by our own state photographers. Some of them included aerials which were taken while the photographers were doing an assignment for the Photogrammetry Section. Consequently, we didn't have to send up a photographer and rent an airplane specifically for our own purpose.

There was a bonus involved in this particular survey we took. From the return of the post cards, we learned that several of the stations had used the news film not once, or twice, but as many as four different times on different newscasts. We supplied a script with each film. The news director had only to rewrite it slightly according to how much he edited the film and according to how often he used it.

Normally, a public relations man will contact only a television station's news room; however, he should also contact the program director or the program department. Quite often, most television stations have not only local newscasts but also other local programs that could handle highway features and occasionally even news stories in the form of film. The special programs where features might be shown can use as much as five or ten minutes of film, whereas the news program would prefer that this film be only one or one and one half minutes in length.

As in newspapers, there are basically two kinds of television stories. There is the television news story and the television feature. There are a multitude of feature possibilities in every highway department. Most of them consist of things that we might consider everyday routine matters, but when adapted to television they can provide an interesting and possibly even a fascinating film. Some examples of these that we have used or have considered using in our own highway department have been features on the sign shop; our road magnet; our pavement burner; our guard rail washers; our striping machine; and other similar types of equipment.

In the case of these things I have just mentioned, the story itself may not be worthy of television time; however, it can be made worthy of television time, not through its news value but because of the motion it presents on film, which can be highly interesting to the television viewer. A guard rail washer is a pretty common piece of equipment. By calling a television station and telling it that your guard rail washer is coming through town, you are not likely to get any response. However, you should point out that by using some unusual camera angles it is possible to make the guard rail washer look like it is pushing a waterfall in front of it as it cascades over the edge of the guard rail. This might make an interesting short feature. Remember this: Television stations during their 15- or-30-minute news programs are forced to cram a considerable amount of news into just a few minutes or seconds of time. However, they still like a short feature story to break up the multitude of spot news.

Perhaps some of you wonder whether you should supply five or 10 television stations with film clips of the same feature story. I can assure you that the television stations will feel they virtually have to show the film provided it is of good quality. They realize that a competing station is likely to show it if they do not. We, as public information officers, actually create competition by this duplication of the films. Also, it is quite likely to be shown as soon as possible by each and every television station. No news director wants the views to see it on his channel on Tuesday when they've already seen it on Monday on a competing channel. This makes his station look like it is a day behind in the news.

I've mentioned that sometimes TV stations would like to cover a highway story but are unable to because they can't spare a cameraman. It's possible that as many as five television stations might tell you they'd like to cover a highway dedication but are unable to. In all likelihood it's also doubtful that you would have five cameramen to cover it for them. However, it's possible to have one cameraman do all this for you.

It's really a simple process, and the end result will supply each of the stations with film that isn't duplicated by the other — or at least not exactly duplicated. This can result in all five of the stations gladly using this free film that will probably cost you only a couple of dollars. The trick is to have one cameraman shoot 250 feet of film, or 50 feet for each of the five stations. In each one he would have a different sequence than in the others because different things would be going on at the time he shoots the film. In the example of a highway dedication, he probably should include a panoramic shot of the highway on each of the 50 feet so that the public will get a better idea of the highway being dedicated.

The cameraman, in shooting 250 feet of film, will cut his film every 50 feet. He need then only deliver the undeveloped film clip to each of the five stations, and they can quickly develop and edit it for their own needs. You can supply a script for them in advance, telling the details of the event.

On occasions, a television cameraman may be sent to cover a highway news event with no newsman accompanying him to get the story. When this happens, you should be prepared to do one of two things. Either call the station and provide the newsman with the necessary details of the event or have a fact sheet prepared to hand to the cameraman so he can turn it over to the newsman back at the station. This slight bit of extra work will result in much more of the film being used.

If you do have a particular story or feature in mind, there is a point you should remember when you are calling the television station concerning it. Don't expect the television newsman or the cameraman to develop the idea to put on film. You must have or you should develop a gimmick for them. Let me give you an example. If a public relations man representing a food distributing firm tells a television station that he has lined up "Miss Potato Chip" who is coming to town, in all likelihood the television station isn't going to get excited. But if he tells the station that "Miss Potato Chip" is going to be in the city and that she is going to jump from a second story window onto a pile of potato chips, this will give the station an angle or an excuse for using this particular feature. Your gimmicks needn't be as dramatic as the potato chip one, but you should prepare some news peg on which to hang the story.

In approaching any television station concerning a possible news story, call the station well in advance whenever possible. There is always a chance that a news story or feature that you are planning is not really worthy of television. On the other hand, perhaps the television station thinks it deserves a good deal more treatment than you are planning. In one way, it will save your doing something that it can't use, and in another way you may be encouraged to shoot twice as much film or to do a story of greater depth.

My particular talk today was not designed to be a workshop on how to present a story to television. However, I would like to point out several things that have been repeated to me on numerous occasions by TV news directors.

One is the length of film that you should supply a television station. As I mentioned before, the average length of film preferred for a news event is approximately one to one and a half minutes long.

There is a possibility that, rather than film, you plan to present the station with some still photos to go with your news event. Television stations hesitate to use too many still pictures. This is because if they are held on the screen more than a few seconds, the public soon tires of looking at them. Also, if the picture is in any way complicated, it may require that the viewing audience study the photograph, and, unfortunately, most television fans don't want to do this. By comparison, the television fan will be attracted to the screen by the moving picture merely because of the motion, which has a tendency to hold his attention and interest. This is true even if the subject matter in the moving picture is even less interesting than that presented in the still photos.

Some of you may be thinking that the possibility of using a series of stills to tell a story. This method of telling a story can be effective but is quite often time-consuming on the part of the television station and may even require advance rehearsal. Unfortunately, news programs do not have the time for much rehearsal. The use of stills is fine when used artistically, but this requires numerous cameras, camera angles, and up to days of advance planning and shooting. The recent Civil War series on television used many still photos extensively and effectively, but this was done only through numerous camera angles, a large staff, and considerable time. Few, if any, television stations are likely to consider a local highway story worthy of going to all this trouble.

Aerial movies are great, because most television stations hesitate to do their own aerial photography because of the cost. However, if you are to show aerial movies, you also need ground shots to go along with it, plus close-ups. A viewing audience normally orients itself according to what it is used to seeing, which is from the ground level. Take a forest fire, for example. An aerial photograph gives a good overall picture. It explains the location and perhaps even the size of the fire. But you will also need ground shots for orientation of the viewer and close-ups for drama.

To truly cultivate the television station, you must be prepared to furnish the negative as well as the positive story. A TV news director once told me this, and it's practically the same thing I once told an irate police chief when I was a city editor. For example, if a section of the Oregon Coast Highway were to fall into the ocean, I should be prepared to supply complete information to the television station just as I would be ready to supply complete information on a story that would complement the department, such as the opening of a new freeway section or completion of a new bridge. It's not a pleasant task, but it's better for you to give the information than to let the newsman guess at the facts in a negative story. It's also a way of cementing a friendship, so that someday the newsman will do you a favor. One thing to remember is that the news beat is a two-way street — the negative goes up one side of the street and the positive comes down the other. If you travel both sides, you will create a much better impression and get better results from the various news media.

As you may have guessed from my talk, television newsmen greatly appreciate your help with the presentation of highway news stories. If you don't already have the equipment and talent to assist them, I sincerely urge you to obtain a budget large enough for a good movie camera and a good man to operate it. You won't have to justify the expense in a report to your boss. He will be able to see it for himself, along with thousands of others, on the local television stations.