News Vets Infuse 'Jericho'Lightweight, low-cost gear helps CBS quickly produce Web shorts 12/29/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern
Some unusual suspects are helping advance the storyline of the CBS
post-nuclear war drama Jericho (see related Fifth Estater,
p. 22), thanks to technological advances that allow them to quickly produce
Web-quality video. Veteran CBS News producers, including 48
Hours Executive Producer Susan Zirinsky, are using their
newsgathering skills to produce Webisodes for the rookie program.
Earlier this season, CBS launched "Jericho:
Countdown," a series of edgy five-minute Web programs that complement the
network's drama, which stars Skeet
Ulrich. The segments, available online immediately after the West Coast
broadcast of the program, are used to both tease upcoming episodes and offer
factual details on subjects covered in the show, such as the body's reaction to
With "Countdown," CBS is leveraging the production expertise of
broadcast veterans. It's also exploiting technology upgrades such as
"prosumer"-grade digital camcorders and laptop editing systems to produce
high-quality video at a fraction of the cost—and demanding a fraction of
the hardware—required for primetime dramas or network news programs.
While the Web segments have a dramatic flavor and Hollywood-style
production values, much of the video is actually shot in the basement of the
CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York, or pulled from archive
and stock footage. Post-production occurs in a tiny edit suite. A five-minute
show is written, shot and edited in seven days.
"It's taking a news sensibility and producing for venues that are not
news," says Zirinsky. "And the core is real footage."
Zirinsky and 48 Hours Senior Producer Anthony
Batson are moonlighting for a new CBS unit called Eye Two Productions that's
focused on original Web content. Five people work on the "Countdown" segments,
including a producer/shooter, an editor and an associate producer.
Eye Two began creating "Countdown" in the middle of
Jericho's season, after CBS brass scrapped a previous West
Coast-based effort called "Beyond Jericho," which had a
mini-episode format. The first "Countdown" began running in late October. The
New York team is now working to catch up and produce segments for episodes one
through five that will become available online this month, before the new
season airs in February.
Video footage is shot with Canon and Sony HDV-format camcorders and a
Panasonic MiniDV unit. Tom Costantino cuts the shows using Adobe After Effects
software running on a laptop and an Avid Adrenaline editing system. The
high-energy graphics are created using AfterEffects, as well as "freeware" and
"shareware" graphics and transcoding tools that he finds on the Web. Batson
says Costantino is a one-man band. "In the old business model, it might have
been five or six people editing the show," he says. "We're figuring out how to
do a lot with a little."
Though the premise of the "Countdown" segments is secret conversations
by a character named Hawkins, they also include documentary-style interviews
with experts on issues raised in the show, such as a surveillance specialist
describing spy satellites. That's why Zirinsky, who has helped produce
documentaries and reality shows for CBS outside of 48
Hours, likes to call them Webumentaries: "The interviews are real,
though there is a dramatic element to start them off."
The interviews are mainly done in the New York area to keep costs low.
"We generally try to stick to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," says
Zirinsky. "We have unbelievable experts here, from Memorial Sloan Kettering to
the Council on Foreign Relations. You don't really need to go anywhere
Experts who are approached for interviews are made aware that these are
not standard news interviews. The response has been very positive; Zirinsky
notes that the New York City fire department volunteered to give a "Haz-Mat"
demonstration for a recent "Countdown" episode.
CBS isn't making money on "Countdown," but Zirinsky says it isn't losing
any either. The network is selling advertising for the segments, and AT&T
has signed up as a sponsor; it appears in brief product placements, such as
popping up on a character's computer screen.
The payoff for the news veterans is the experience. "People say, why do
this?" says Zirinsky. "And we are really busy in our day job. But the simple
answer is: This is the future."
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