As the election loomed earlier this month, TV stations around the country were broadcasting the news. The same news. That is, the identical news:
"Well, the final days of the campaign can get a little salty," anchor John Pastorek informed viewers of WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge, La.
"The final days of the campaign can get a little salty," related anchor Cami Mountain of WAOW-TV in Wausau, Wis.
"The final days of the campaign can get a little salty," said anchor Kim Stephens of KMPH-TV in Fresno, Calif.
The striking thing about this news wasn't so much that at least a dozen stations in cities large and small all carried the same lightweight story about restaurants cooking up candidate-inspired drinks and dishes (hence, "salty"). It was that at least a dozen stations carried the identical script, with a dozen anchormen and women rendering the same words.
So striking that Conan O'Brien strung all the copycat clips together and played them for comedic effect on his nightly TV show on TBS.
Conan has done the local-news-anchors-reading-from-the-same-script bit several times before, such as a hilarious compilation of them earlier this year with TV anchors asking the all-important question, "Is it time for dogs to have a social network of their own?"
How exactly does this happen? And why does it keep happening?
The answer is one of the little-known facts about "local" TV news: In some instances it isn't local at all.
The "salty" story was produced by an "affiliate service," CNN Newsource, and syndicated to dozens of stations around the country. Stations not only get prepackaged footage from such services, but a script that introduces the footage as well. Stations then "localize" the canned package by having one of their anchors read the one-size-fits-all copy.
Viewers typically have no idea that a seemingly local story has come from a centralized source in New York, Los Angeles or, in this case, Washington. The CNN Newsource story, for example, doesn't mention CNN Newsource or CNN, its parent company. The reporter on the story simply signed off, "In Washington, I'm Karin Caifa." (Caifa and CNN Newsource were also behind the widely played story about "social networking" for dogs via a website that connects pet owners).
CBS's affiliate service, called CBS Newspath, produced a piece last year about Conan O'Brien that became raw material for another clip job on Conan's show. The story was about O'Brien's plan to be the officiant in the marriage of a same-sex couple on his program. More than a dozen stations ran the story with the same scripted intro from the CBS service: "Conan O'Brien may be about to push the envelope on late-night television."
In addition to the major networks, which run their own affiliate services, syndicated shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" also provide local stations with ready-made scripts and interview packages for their local newscasts, says Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a Washington-based trade association. The material not only gives a station in, say, Boise or Wichita a Hollywood connection but also promotes the syndicated show, which usually airs after a station's 6 p.m. newscast.
The canned TV packages are somewhat like the news service stories that many newspapers and Web sites publish, but with a key difference: Unlike news service material, which usually is labeled as such, TV stations typically run affiliate material without identifying its source.
Stations do so because they want viewers to associate the coverage with the station, not with a distant news organization, says Paul Friedman, a former network news executive who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Sometimes, he says, the service will blur the sourcing further by "customizing" a generic report by dubbing in each station's call letters at the end of a segment ("For WTV News10, this is Jane Doe reporting . . .").
Such off-the-shelf material makes sense when local TV news staffs are shrinking and the time that stations devote to newscasts is expanding, says Bill Lord, general manager of WJLA-TV in Washington.
"It's an economic thing, but it's a good solution," says Lord, whose cable channel often runs affiliate news stories from ABC. "Every news director prefers to produce local stories, but the economics of this industry have changed, so that's not possible."
But the increasing use of such prepackaged news undermines "localism," or community-based reporting, the Federal Communications Commission said last year in a wide-ranging report on the news media.
The FCC report focused in part on local news "outsourcing," a variation on news affiliate services. Outsourcing companies take footage shot by a station and other basic local information, mix in generic national material and assemble it into a finished newscast that is hosted by anchors and weather foreceasters employed by the outsourcer. It then sends the finished newscast back to the station, which airs it as if it produced the program itself.
An Iowa-based news outsourcer, Stratus Content Partners, produces daily newscasts for nine stations around the country this way. "It's really Central Casting efficiency," says Stratus President Marc Jaromin. He estimates that stations save 80 percent of the cost of producing a traditional all-local newscast themselves.
Conan, take note.