Chop! Chop!

CTV's helicopter auto-rotates the news.

By Steve Burgess 29 Mar 2006 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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According to an old aphorism, a gentleman is someone who can play the bagpipes and doesn't. This week, local CTV viewers must wonder if there's a helicopter equivalent.

Tuesday evening, the CTV Evening News was interrupted early on by a breaking news story from reporter David Kincaid in the station's cherished aircraft, Chopper Nine. A young man in Deep Cove had been hiking on a hilltop with his faithful dog when he had somehow become trapped on a slope near the summit. A rescue team was on the scene and so was Chopper Nine, beaming back live pictures. The regular newscast went out the window as we watched the drama unfold. Kincaid himself summed it up pretty well. "When you're watching professionals in action," he said at one point, "you wonder why things don't happen more quickly."

Yup, the wheels of rescue grind slowly. The danger did not appear too great-the boy's hillside position, while unfortunate, was hardly desperate. As the minutes passed, there was plenty of time to wonder about the decidedly mixed blessing of live, breaking TV news.

'We're over Carole Taylor now'

Or perhaps to call 911. About halfway through the thrilling human drama, Bill Good reported that 911 operators were being flooded with calls about the boy on the slope. Lacking transcripts, we can only speculate about the nature of the calls: "Operator! There's a boy trapped on a hill!"

"Where, sir?"

"Right there on the TV!"

"Yes, sir. Are you the man who called last night to report Jack Bauer was being menaced by terrorists?"

Good advised viewers not to call. It was also necessary to inform many callers to the station that, thanks to the magic of zoom, Chopper Nine was, in fact, a long way from the scene and not hovering just over the boy's head, loosening his courageous little grip with the wind from its powerful rotors. The most interesting thing about the whole report may have been the window it provided into the mind of its audience.

For CTV, Chopper Nine represents a tremendous investment in the ratings battle against local giant Global. The helicopter helps give CTV News an identity, a clear point of difference. It's a great symbol. Sometimes, it's even a great tool. When a runaway ferry crashes into a Horseshoe Bay marina or a garbage truck smashes into a pedestrian overpass, a helicopter is just what you want to have handy.

So what do you do the rest of the time? Long aerial shots of Carole Taylor delivering the budget? Another old aphorism says that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Them that have choppers generally want to use choppers. LA stations created an entire genre, the freeway car chase video, just by putting birds in the air all day. At least those clips are exciting.

Having a chopper airborne means that you scoop the opposition on developing news stories. The problem is, news stories are like acorns. Plenty of them litter the ground, but few grow into oaks. Reporters generally have the advantage of waiting till after the story develops-or doesn't-before deciding whether to write the story. Real-time "breaking news" is sadly different.

Dogging the story

Jon Stewart's Daily Show recently mocked recent "breaking news" coverage from Fox News and CNN. They excerpted Fox live news coverage of a suspicious package at the White House and CNN's coverage of a suspected gunman on the loose. Long shots of nothing, endless on-air speculation, all leading up to the inevitable revelation that there had been no bomb/gunman/news story, after all. And you saw it here first.

Tuesday evening on CTV, Kincaid and the news anchors spent a fair amount of time speculating about what we were seeing-who was the other guy standing around, what was causing the delay, what plan would be employed, etc. They say journalism is all about "who, what, when, where, why." Usually though, the idea is to answer the questions.

If you didn't see it, I'll save you the suspense: the little boy and his dog were hauled a few feet to safety. It happened at about 6:53 PM, live on CTV. Just time for a quick weather report, and then sign-off. I guess the rest of the day's news, like the Israeli election and stuff, wasn't that important.

Next day, I picked up the papers, fully expecting banner headlines on the boy-and-his-dog story. But no. Go figure-I guess it's because newspapers don't have helicopters.

Steve Burgess is culture critic at large for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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