This week's Real to Reel takes a look at how production of the Nightly News broadcast has changed over the years, and how much of it has remained the same.
Here, Nightly News Director Brett Holey offers his take on production of the Nov. 9, 1977 broadcast anchored by John Chancellor and David Brinkley, and offers some behind-the-scenes tidbits and trivia:
Twenty-nine years later, so much has changed, and yet so much is the same.
OK, the look and the sound is a time warp.
The music is such a mid-70s sound you can almost smell the polyester. It was composed by Henry Mancini and its rhythm and orchestration (a little techno, a little smooth jazz, very movie of the week) were imitated in local news themes for years. Yet it was a relatively brief 8 years after this newscast that John Williams composed "The Mission," the theme that we use to this day.
(If you find old news theme music interesting you may want to check out http://www.geocities.com/netnewsmusic/nbc.html )
The scenic design is extremely simple and understated by today's standards (with the possible exception of the new Today set).
I can hear the pitch meeting: "Their sets will be identical, but opposite. Warm 'Earth tones' for Chancellor in New York. Cool blues for Brinkley in DC. They'll both stand next to a big projection screen, but on opposite sides."
This set made use of a production technique that was popular around this time, the "gobo" -- creating a fake ceiling for your news set by hanging a small plastic ceiling just above and in front of the lens on your opening shot. The result was an optical illusion of a hi-tech room while masking out the studio lighting grid.
I bet producing graphics for those big screens was a bear. I don't know if the visuals were 35mm slides or one of the other techniques like "Vizmo" that were popular at the time. Any of them would have required a lot more physical labor and chemical processes than are used in today's PhotoShop- and AfterEffects-dominated graphics operations.
Broadcast graphics departments of the 60s, 70s and early 80s were virtual toxic-waste repositories filled with photo chemicals, volatile adhesives and all manner of dyes, papers and films. There were large rooms filled with file cabinets full of "art cards" and Associated Press photos to be used in photographic and electronic compositing of graphics.
Computerized graphics and animation were in their infancy. Electronic character generators were around, but generally did one or two typestyles, in one color. Their production features were quite limited. The first electronic "still store" devices were becoming available but the look of this broadcast would suggest that it was a combination of early electronic graphics and optical sources like 16mm film and 35mm slides.
The animated titles at the top of the broadcast look rudimentary today, but were very likely a big investment and big achievement at the time. Star Wars had been released earlier that year and the "echo trails" on this type were just one of the big influences of that film. (Remember the slanted-back type rolls and star field backgrounds that appeared on everything for the next 5 years?)
Yes, this broadcast is a time warp yet there are basic, underlying principals that are the same.
The director of Nightly News at the time was a gentleman by the name of Norman Cook. Julian Finkelstein took over directing duties in 1983. I replaced Julian in 1997.
The times and technology we have worked through are very different yet our goals have been similar -- to create a broadcast that is visually fresh and interesting. To help the anchor and editorial staff illustrate the news in a way that helps the audience understand while always remaining editorially responsible and in good taste.
The big screens next to Brinkley and Chancellor were pretty basic, yet helped the viewer grasp the topic quickly. A picture of a dollar and a line of text told viewers this was a story about Fed Chairman Arthur Burns. A stock photo of croissant and coffee for the closer let you know it had something to do with pastry. This is essentially what we've been doing with moving video and large projection screens since 1996.
The format is vastly different and the pace of today's Nightly is considerably more up-tempo. There are days we do more graphics in the first 2 minutes of the broadcast than this broadcast had in half an hour. Yet the things that leave the strongest impression on me are the good writing, story choice and the personality of the anchors.
I had the pleasure of working a bit with David Brinkley toward the end of his career and there was something about the way he would crack himself up while telling a story that was sure to make me laugh as well. It was just a small part of what made him a giant in our industry, but I think it was among his most endearing qualities. (It was also a hazard to a director. Try cutting a fast-paced Brinkley "roundtable" while giggling.)
Chancellor takes a dignified swipe at the French in his intro to the closer and leaves you wishing you'd seen that croissant piece. (Qu'est-ce que c'est la margarine?)
While outstanding reporting and responsible journalism will always be our main business, it's lighter moments like these that many viewers remember most and help make a connection with an anchor. It's as true today as it was then.
Today's "viewers" have the added advantage of avenues like the Daily Nightly and Early Nightly to get that glimpse of Brian and our correspondents outside the broadcast, and e-mail makes it even more of a two-way conversation.
I bet David Brinkley would have had one helluva a blog, but I just can't imagine buying the Henry Mancini theme as a ringtone.
This Brinkley/Chancellor broadcast was probably the second-highest rated at the time. Walter Cronkite was a solid No. 1 from his blue-gray, round Formica desk in front of a simple, wire frame mercator projection of the earth.
On ABC the strained duo of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters was a year into their 18-month, ratings-challenged run.
In November 1977 I was a senior in high school, living in southern Michigan. I was interested in broadcast journalism so I convinced the anchor of WTOL-TV in Toledo, Ohio, to allow me and two friends to watch the eleven o'clock news from the station. I remember thinking that the anchor was a blow-hard but my friends and I, watching from the control room, were fascinated by the fast-talking young man who was telling everyone what to do. We found out later he was the director. Both my friends said right then that they wanted to be a director of a newscast. I didn't.