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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chopper Stopper: The End Of An Era

I have come to bury Chopper 4, not to praise it.

With apologies to William Shakespeare, that isn’t completely accurate. In my own way, I have come to praise it.

Chopper 4 – the real Chopper 4 – will shoot its final shooting, and chase its final chase, before the first of the year. In its place, will be… Chopper 4, though in name only. In reality, the new Chopper 4 will be a shared venture with WPLG Channel 10. Think of what it would be like if Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann shared a studio, and their pictures turned up on their rival’s network. It would be a tough pill to swallow, especially for the hard-working news gatherers behind the scenes. They’ll say the right things when asked about it, but for my old friends at CBS4, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Count on it.

For those that don’t know, the current CBS4 in Miami – WFOR – was our beloved WCIX Channel 6, until September 10, 1995. It was on that date that WCIX and WTVJ swapped signals (and places on the dial), and WCIX officially ceased to exist. In our hearts, many of us were still CIX’ers, but in time we grew used to being WFOR… and Channel 4. And with the signal swap came a sh!t-load of new promotion, new branding, and a new attitude. Our newscast was now known as News 4 South Florida, and we made sure our viewers knew it. But it wasn’t just the anchors and specialty reporters that were being promoted.

Chopper 4 was the station’s pride and joy. It was promo’d on-air even more than anchors Anne Roberts and Khambrel Marshall. Our news team could compete like never before, not having to worry about the travel time from Doral to, say, Wilton Manors, whenever news would break. We had the best pictures many nights, and the promos that would follow would be the proof of performance. As a producer, I loved it.

But there was a flipside to all of this. Having the technology meant going live for live’s sake, more times than not. I remember having an argument with my news director on a stormy Monday afternoon in 1995. Our chopper crew was insisting that the weather made it too risky to continue flying, but my boss insisted that they stay in the air… just a few minutes more… to provide live pictures for a tease leading up to our 5PM newscast. Chopper 4 was over the scene of a warehouse fire – an ABANDONED warehouse fire. In other words, it was a “who cares” story that affected absolutely no one. Oh, but there were flames! So I had the chopper crew insisting that they couldn’t stay up one minute longer, and my boss in my other ear ordering me to order them to remain in the air. My boss got his way. Fortunately the crew landed safely after going live that day, but that was a hell of a lot of risk for a lousy warehouse fire.

And then there was the ValuJet crash on May 11, 1996. News crews were kept far away from the scene, but Chopper 4’s lens had the power to let us see what rescue crews were doing, in the remotest area of the Everglades. We were the only ones to show body parts being fished out of the muck. Exclusive!!! Only on News 4!!! Afterwards, the brain trust was ecstatic about our coverage, and the pictures that no one else had. Every live shot pertaining to the ValuJet crash had to reference our chopper and its “awesome gyrocam”. I had one viewer scold me for making the chopper the subject of our stories, not the dazed and shell-shocked loved ones of 110 crash victims. She may have been exaggerating, but she also had a point. Chopper 4 helped us tell the story of doomed Flight 592, but it also showed what can happen when promotion is carried too far. The on-air atta-boys were just too much. Sorry, but the public isn’t that stupid.

By now I’m probably sounding like a bitter old ex-newsman, and I don’t mean to. As I said, I have come to praise Chopper 4. When I left my job at WFOR, I had a final request: a ride in Chopper 4. Tom Zack arranged it, and I have to say I had a wonderful time seeing Miami from the sky. It truly was an amazing flying machine, and I hate to use the word was. It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth: All good things must come to an end.

Come the new year, you will continue to hear references to Chopper 4, but the fact remains it’s really Sky 10, repainted sans logo. Staffers have been told to view WPLG as a partner, not a competitor, when it comes to sharing aerials. Yeah, right. I can just see it now.

CBS4’s David Sutta put it best in a recent blog post. Sutta wrote “I’m not fond of the idea that our ‘competitors’ are no longer competitors when we dispatch them to our stories. I feel like I just ‘friended’ the competition on Facebook! We are now ensuring two stations will be covering the same story every day.”

And yet, it could be worse. Poor WTVJ Channel 6 doesn’t even have a chopper at their disposal! It’s like trying to conduct a symphony without a string section. You can still make music, but the sounds aren’t pretty enough to keep most people listening again and again. I go back to the days when we didn’t have choppers or computers, and very few fancy bells and whistles, yet we still managed to put on a newscast. It can be done. But this isn’t 1980 anymore. People have choices. The old ideas just won’t fly anymore, and unfortunately, neither will the real Chopper 4.

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