Reality TV, squared

Fox 28 news team in network show

J.T. Blatty
Jennifer Beale is ready for her closeup

THE IRONY of it all, I’m thinking, as I photograph a TV Guide Network cameraman and reporter who are covering a Fox 28 reporter who is preparing to report the 6 p.m. news.

Then as I snap the second picture, I notice the cameraman in my viewfinder - turning his camera on me, photographing him - filming the media.

Confused yet? So am I.

Let me confuse you more: I follow the pack into the newsroom set, try to find a spot amongst the Fox 28 videographer and the TV Guide photographer, so I can report on the TV Guide reporter who is reporting on Fox 28’s report.

This is great.

The TV Guide Network puts a new spin on reality television as they turn their cameras on the pigeonholed “exploiters” of American culture, the media. After broadcasting their summer 2007 hit, Making News: Texas Style, they are back in the works of filming season 2 in Savannah.

Making News: Savannah Style premieres June 2, featuring 13 episodes of an entire new cast, our local WJCL and Fox 28 news. But this isn’t the reality show we’ve grown accustomed to over the past decade.

They’re kicking it back to the old school, “The Real World,” reality style. No winners, no “cast-offs,” no million dollars in turn for national humiliation.

Only “the simple act of turning the camera on and capturing what is,” as Nikki Lichterman, TV Guide Network Communications Director, says.

So what’s so interesting about Savannah? Isn’t there more entertainment and drama in a city like Los Angeles or New York where ambitious reporters compete for a story like a pack of starving hyenas fighting over a kill? What intrigued a national network to broadcast a small-town local news station?

Well, it’s the underdogs who have a story to tell, particularly Savannah’s underdogs. Recent ratings reflect the city of Savannah number 97 nationwide out of 211 markets.

Locally, WJCL was rated number 3, while Fox 28 didn’t even hit the numeric system with a humbling rating — or should we say non-rating — of zero. Ouch.

I guess it doesn’t help matters that their general manager was fired after being arrested for embezzling funds from the station last year, leaving a crew of primarily junior reporters to drive on in a time of lost leadership and struggle.

Or that he apparently fired the motivated news director, Michael Sullivan, before heading to the federal penitentiary. But fortunately, Sullivan agreed to return in September 2007 when New Vision bought the station.

And so the TV Guide Network will broadcast to their 84 million homes the reality of what it will take for our small-town warriors to recover and re-emerge while still producing the broadcast. Only they must achieve this end state with a lot more obstacles to hurdle and far less to work with than the larger media networks.

While most participants of reality TV are lured with the chance to win one million dollars in compensation for subjecting themselves to national humiliation and intrusion into their personal space, what’s the bait for WJCL/Fox 28?

After evaluating the Texas based series and it’s positive latter affects on the station, such as a jump in their rating from number two to number one in the market, returning News Director Michael Sullivan embraced the offer as an opportunity to excel.

“With our rating situation being what it is, you can’t fall off the floor, you’re already there,” he tells me candidly.

And after a mere two weeks into the filming, Sullivan has already noticed a dramatic increase on their website hits as well as an unexpected bonus - they “perform better while being watched” by the cameras.

But how is the actual “cast” responding to their new guest, the omnipresent watcher? How do they feel about having the cameras turned on them for once?

During the first few days of filming, Jennifer Beale, Entertainment Reporter and Weather Anchor, “thought twice about everything,” for she understands the quest for those “money sound bytes,” as she calls them, that she also strives to air at the end of the day.

However, Beale seems to let things roll off quite well with this understanding – as she tells me about one situation that will no doubt hit the air this summer. Right before the “watchers” eyes, she found herself locked inside of City Hall.

Beale admits spending a decent amount of time portraying herself as “the dumb blonde who can’t find her way out.”

Would the photographer and producer capturing her glamorous moment stop to assist? No way.

Beale also admits that the experience has been beneficial to her job in understanding her subjects better.

“It gives us a perspective of what the people who we interview feel like when we’re bombarding them with questions. It’s better as a journalist to be able to understand the other side.”

But even with this understanding her number one priority remains: “get the job done, and get it done well.”

Not all of Sullivan’s crew went into this as optimistically.

“No, I’m not going to do this,” thought Wendy McNew, Military and Education Reporter, immediately after hearing the news of TV Guides arrival. And that’s exactly what she told Sullivan in his office shortly after.

McNew, aware of her own tactics and what it takes to make a story “hot,” was in no position to embrace this potential invasion of her privacy. No way, not when she has zero control in the final editing. She was just not ready to relinquish a power she normally reserves to another form of media.

However, McNew’s hesitation has somewhat dissipated since meeting the crew of the TV Guide Network.

“I trust them now,” she says, believing TV Guide respects Fox 28’s reporters. McNew, as well as the other reporters, may request at any time for TV Guide to “cease fire” if they feel something is inappropriate to film.

And she also realizes that she does in fact have control in the situation. If you don’t want it aired, don’t put it out there. So far the only time she’s had to turn on the red light is while eating with a camera two feet from her face.

“Please don’t show me eating a pickle,” she says. Understandable enough. He turns the camera off.

One thing is certain though. This team is the epitome of a team. “They all get along,” claims Nikki Lichterman. And they really do. Their atmosphere resonated a local and friendly demeanor, void of pins and needles on the carpet that I might step on if I were backstage with CNN.

Michael Sullivan explains that the nature of being oppressed might have been a huge aid in building them into the cohesive family that they are.

“We are protecting the idea of what we’re creating,” he tells me. And the feeling I get is that he wouldn’t sacrifice this rare characteristic for nicer uniforms in a million years. Sullivan, who chose to return to his local station over numerous offers elsewhere, is charged with the enormous responsibility of leading this broken crew to the top.

They can either “sink or swim,” as McNew puts it. And they have decided to swim to the surface with the TV Guide Network behind them.

Making News: Savannah Style premieres June 2 on the TV Guide Network.

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