Thursday, September 9, 2010

Salt TV Network

Posted By on September 9, 2010, 10:41 PM

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As we continue into the digital era and different forms of media and entertainment meet new challenges, some are facing the reality that they may not be around in a decade or two. Television being one of the mediums that seems on the verge of moving away from traditional broadcast and into some sort of mixed-media internet stream with Apple and Google heading up the slow paced charge. But before the inevitable comes in whatever form it takes, some are already moving forward in their own way to show what could be.

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--- Earlier this summer the web-based Utah station called Salt TV Network made its debut to the public with a soft launch of their website. Featuring several former anchors from 2News, KSL and 4Utah, who over the past few years were either forced into retirement or laid off due to cutbacks or just outright fired. Now with the help of private investors and other ex-employees who specialized in behind-the-scenes work, the group of experienced journalists and commentators look to change the way Utah gets its news and information. We got a chance to chat with one of the minds behind the new network, producer Patrick Benedict (as seen below in his prior producing years), about his own career and starting up the network, plus his thoughts on local broadcasting and digital media today.

Patrick Benedict
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http://salttvnet.com/

Gavin: Hey Patrick, Tell us a bit about yourself.

Patrick: I was born and raised in L.A. (Lower Akron) and came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, the son of a blue-collar veterinarian and WWII army captain. I didn’t actually grow up, however, until I had a daughter at the age of 43.

Gavin: How did you first take an interest in broadcasting, and what really influenced you growing up?

Patrick: I was lucky enough to be raised in a family of news fanatics. Two newspapers came to the house every day, The Akron Beacon Journal and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, both venerated rags, which we read cover to cover and then used to line the bottom of the animal cages at Dad’s vet clinic. My Dad and older brother were also into photography and 8mm home movies. In fact, if we had lived in Dallas in 1963, Dad would’ve likely been then guy who shot the Zapruder film. These two influences (and the advent of the Kodak Super 8mm Ektasound Home Movie System) cinched my love of news. A high school trip to D.C. cemented it all when I filmed newsman Daniel Schorr outside the Senate on the very day he’d been whacked by CBS for leaking a secret report on the CIA to The Village Voice. He appeared none too happy. I also shot footage of Hubert Humphrey that day. He was Lyndon Johnson’s VP and the guy Nixon beat to win the White House in 1968. Coming from a strict, Woody Hayes Republican household taking his picture was akin to getting shots of Ho Chi Min. Even the old man was impressed.
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Gavin: Did you seek out any college for it or did you just jump right in from the start?

Patrick: I went to Ohio State University and took the ten-year crash course in photography and cinema. Probably would’ve been out a year or two sooner, but portable video systems came along and of course I had to check those out thoroughly. Thank God the old man kept writing those tuition checks. Like he used to say, “There’s gold in them thar poodles.” At the same time Ohio State backed the production of a documentary I wrote during my third senior year and that’s where I earned my chops as a street shooter. The production focused on the gentrification of an old urban neighborhood in downtown Columbus and so I spent a couple of years hanging in the hood getting to know the characters and telling their stories. I sort of became a fixture there and after a while these amazingly colorful people opened up and let me into their lives. I shot a zillion hours of tape, interviewing cops, hookers, junkies, artists, social workers, storefront owners, boozers and the most unsavory of all, would-be art gallery owners. I had this amazing perch above an old burlesque house overlooking the city’s main drag. Amazingly enough, the finished piece took top honors at a couple of renowned film festivals and that was my ultimate gateway into TV news.
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Gavin: What was it like for you learning the ropes of the business and putting together shows?

Patrick: My great big success as a great big important documentary filmmaker landed me a gig as a master control operator at a start-up TV station south of Cleveland. I ran commercials and old movies in the middle of the night for $5.15 an hour. After a while they decided they wanted to do local news headlines and since I owned my own camera gear they made me news director. They might as well have crowned me the head of CBS News. It was an absolutely great experience. I was a one-man band. I shot everything that moved, from politicians to high school football. I ultimately convinced combat engineers from the Ohio National Guard into taking me with them on a "nation building exercise" to the lovely border region of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. What they were really doing was building a forward operating base for the planned invasion of Nicaragua. It was the time of rebels and right wing death squads and the first and only time I was in an environment where shoot to kill orders were issued in the event we were messed with. I was only there for a matter of days and twenty years later it makes my palms sweat. I came home with a sack full of tapes only to learn the station had declared bankruptcy while I was gone and was bolting the doors. It was my first lesson in the frailty of local news. Those tapes, however, landed me another gig at a real Cleveland news station. I was hired as freelance news shooter and once again got to spend time shooting video in a deranged urban environment. As fate would have it, a huge story broke while I was there, the Jeffrey Dahmer murders out of Milwaukee. Turns out Dahmer was from Akron and his first victim was my former next-door neighbor and backyard playmate, Steven Hicks. Steve disappeared a decade before and we all thought he’d runaway from home. Turns out Dahmer had confessed to the killing and since I knew the background I turned a ton of material in the role of field producer. A lot of it went national. After that, I was given a job as weekend line producer and that’s where I learned to craft a whole bunch of stories at once in the context of an entire news day.
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Gavin: How did the opportunity come about to work for KUTV and KTVX?

Patrick: I was working for NBC in Columbus, Ohio, my old stomping grounds, when I got a call from KUTV. They were looking for a hard-nosed line-producer for the 10PM newscast with Michelle King and Terry Wood. They flew me out and took me straight to Snowbird to discuss a potential contract offer. After spending years in gritty urban environments I took one look at the mountains and said where do I sign. That gig lasted eight years. After a management change in late 2001 I moved to KTVX just as Ruth Todd was coming on board from KSL. Both parties were great while they lasted.

Gavin: What was your time like at both stations, and what stories were you most proud to work on?

Patrick: I had a great run at both stations. They’re both packed with smart, passionate people. That passion came make for interesting times, especially when you’re in the position of directing fire in charged competitive environments. It simply comes with the turf. While I was at KUTV I’d say the story I was most proud of was the station’s coverage of the Salt Lake tornado in 1999. It started with Sterling Poulson’s live eyewitness play-by-play of the roof being ripped off the Delta Center. Instead of diving for cover he called the story in as the debris flew passed his head. What guts. I can still hear him yelling, “I can’t breathe!” as his phone went dead. That kicked off about 12 straight hours of live coverage and the 10PM news that night received an Emmy nomination for Best Newscast. I’m also extremely proud of what reporter Andrew Stack pulled off for KTVX while reporting from Iraq. He was the only Salt Lake TV reporter to make the trip and he was there for months as a one-man band. He was definitely in harm’s way more than once turning stories with a small digital video camera before editing them on his laptop and beaming them home over Internet. He returned to Iraq three times for KTVX and earned couple of Emmys along the way. I’m also still in awe of how KTVX’s team responded to the Crandall Canyon tragedy. It was a great team performance that lasted 24 hours a day for four weeks. Terry Wood and cameraman Todd Peterson literally risked their lives videotaping deep inside the mine during the active rescue. The spot where they were standing collapsed a few days later killing the would-be rescuers. Our Trolley Square coverage also sticks out as something I’m proud of, although the story haunts me. Once again, Terry Wood led the charge and won another Emmy in the process. His decision to take an editorial stand against the Divine Strake weapons test along with Governor Huntsman was another proud moment, although it likely cost Terry his job.
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Gavin: When did you end up going to work for Digital Bytes, and tell us a bit about the work they do?

Patrick: Pound-for-pound Digital Bytes is one of the best production companies in the U.S. My first association with them was nearly ten years ago when I had the opportunity to do some work with Rodney Dangerfield at The MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Rodney asked us to tape his act, something he’d rarely done. Digital Bytes loaned me the equipment to make it happen. Fast forward to 2009, when I approached Digital Bytes again to help me build the Salt TV Network site. At the same time I began working freelance for them on a variety of independent video projects. They’re truly some of the most talented and laid back production people you’ll ever meet.

Gavin: How did the idea come about for the Salt TV Network?

Patrick: There are a couple of factors that led me to the Salt TV concept. First, is the growing prominence of the web as a bona-fide transmission vehicle for story aggregation and streaming video. Second, was the sudden availability of some the most recognized names in Utah news, people who are known, liked and missed by the public. Third, was the growing dissatisfaction with the run of the mill consultant-driven newscasts provided by out-of-state organizations owned by heavily leveraged private equity firms.
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Gavin: Was there any hesitation over doing it only online, especially with broadcasting not having made the full leap to Internet broadcasting? Or did you view it more as a unique prospect?

Patrick: There was no hesitation at all in going on-line with this unique product. The web is the way. It’s our bread and butter. It’s offers our experienced team a chance to tell in-depth stories that are important to Utah while freeing them from the 1:30 package lengths you normally see on local TV newscasts.

Gavin: What was the process like getting the reporting team together, and how did you manage to amass such a large pool of talent?

Patrick: The absolute best part of this whole process has been putting the team together. It’s been a riot. I’d been it touch with most all of these folks in one capacity or another through the years. Getting them together was as easy as picking up the phone. We met piece meal at first and were determined not to make the mistakes of the old brick and mortar world. Rather than renting high-end office space we met in public venues. We dubbed the Ritz Bowling Alley on State Street as Salt TV World Headquarters and held a lot of our early meetings there. (Not only can you get a cold beer, they also make a damn fine Angus burger.) After folks signed onto the project we held a full-blown photo shoot with our partners from SMG Studios on the roof of the American Towers Building. We lined folks up against the backdrop of the mountains and it took about .0005 seconds to determine the viability of the team. A national media blogger referred to the vision, which now adorns the top of the Salt TV site’s masthead, as the Mt. Rushmore effect. Take a look and you’ll see what he means.
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Patrick:  That direction, by the way, runs contrary to what broadcast consultants are shoveling nationwide. There’s a conscious attempt to minimize personality players under the mantra that content is king. The only problem is in that in the current cost cutting environment locally generated content is taking a backseat like never before. That’s why you see the same old stories repeated on six different newscasts and then see them distilled as afterthoughts on the stations’ websites. When an out-of-state consultant says content is king, he’s most likely currying favor with out-of-state owners who are signing his check. In short, the mantra “content is king” is code for “we don’t want to pay top talent anymore.” Consequently, the airwaves are suddenly full of youngsters who really can’t tell you what the S.E.C. does or why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission might be important. They’re too busy covering car wrecks, trying to pronounce Tooele and working on their escape tapes.

Gavin: What's the general feeling been like from everyone, especially considering most of them used to be competitors?

Patrick: These folks may have been competitors, but they’re also colleagues and friends. There’s a genuinely warm feeling among all the players. They share a special bond and they’re anxious to be part of this next big thing. By the way, not everybody in the organization has been on-air for 43 years. We have a nice pool of whipper-snappers who are shoring up the ranks.
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Gavin: What was it like picking out the first few stories and putting them together as a team?

Patrick: Our basic marching orders are to tell good, in-depth stories that are important to Utahns. These longer form pieces we’ve posted on the beta site have attracted thousands and thousands of viewers. There’s a definite appetite for these types of stories and it speaks directly to the depth and experience of the Salt TV talent.

Gavin: A couple months ago you did a soft-launch of the site with a couple of stories on it. What was the public reaction to it at that time?

Patrick: The response has been terrific. It’s far exceeded our expectations. We’ve been deluged by well-wishers and we get the real sense that people are pulling for us.
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Gavin: When do you plan to fully launch everything and have content coming out on a regular basis?

Patrick: We’re getting there. The Tribune article outed us a little early, but we we’re glad for the story and the positive vibe. Suffice to say you’ll soon be seeing fresh local content from across the state every single day.

Gavin: What is the overall goal of the network and what do you intend to bring to local broadcasting?

Patrick: Our goal is to deliver the in-depth new stories Utahns value most, stories that impact their lives and their families, now and in the future.
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Gavin: Going a bit local, what's your take on our television market, both good and bad?

Patrick: Overall, Utah’s pretty lucky. The local TV news product over the years has been pretty good. Not many markets can say that. I think that excellence was fostered in part through local ownership, whether it was through folks like George Hatch and his family who ran KUTV and put journalism first, or KSL who’s home ownership was also committed to journalistic excellence. However, the money pressures today are making for tough times in local TV newsrooms. But I’m also here to tell you that the people who are still grinding it out are a hard working lot regardless of their ownership or the consultant mandates du jour. These are some fine folks who tow the line every single day and it’s a shame to see what they’re going through. I hope they persevere. Like Winston Churchill used to say, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.“

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it bigger or better?

Patrick: Commit to longer form and more in depth storytelling. Enterprise stories. At many stations these days, if the news doesn’t come over a police scanner or isn’t faxed in a press release it may not get covered. Lowering the expected return rate on the almighty dollar might help a bit. Actually making a commitment to the community you serve versus the investors of the private equity firm who just happens to own you today. That might be a good start.
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Gavin: What are your thoughts on the downswing television has taken in this economy and what stations are doing to try to bring themselves back?

Patrick: My biggest concern is the trend toward sponsored product placement in and around newscasts, using bona-fide news people to suddenly shill fad diets or the latest tummy wraps, while pretending its purely entertainment.

Gavin: What's your opinion on Internet-based broadcasting like Netflix, Apple TV and the coming Google TV; and how that is impacting the broadcast landscape today?

Patrick: We live in an ala-carte on-demand world. The Internet speaks to the heart of that. Internet-ready TV is already here. The delivery systems are becoming more and more user friendly. Soon dialing up a website on your TV to deliver your favorite movie or time slipped TV show will be routine. We won’t remember a time when it wasn’t that way. Broadcasters that don’t grasp that will ultimately fade away. As another old newsie used to tell me, “The guys that built the last buggy whip holders probably made the best damned buggy whip holders you’ve ever seen. Too bad some jerk came along and invented the automobile.”
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Gavin: Where do you believe television and the Internet will be as a pair in the next five years?

Patrick: I think they’ll largely be as one, maybe not in five years, but in ten for sure.

Gavin: What can we expect from you and Salt TV over the rest of the year?

Patrick: A whole new approach to local news delivery, one that serves the Utah audience’s highest interest by presenting the stories that people are thirsting for, stories about health, the environment, education and politics. Stories that stress substance over hype.
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Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Patrick: I’d like to thank the team at Digital Bytes for their fine work this last year. The same is true for photographer Marc Reynolds and his fine team at SMG Studios. I’d also like to thank Lynn Peterson and Shauna Scott, Executive Producers for "Profiles In Caring" for all they’ve done in getting Salt TV down the road. Also, we’re thinking about marketing a greatest hits reel featuring the best work of all our correspondents over the course of their careers. Dick Nourse’s interview with Hannibal on the eve of his drive through the Alps is spellbinding. Terry Wood has a great piece he did with Davy Crockett right before Davy ran for Congress in Tennessee. Randall Carlisle and Tom Barberi also have a piece talking about their early days in news and how excited they were when they quit writing news stories on wax and went to papyrus. Exciting times, indeed!


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