I returned to my broadcast school for a visit last week. Yes, it was nostalgic, but it was also kind of weird.
I went to broadcast school in the early '80s. The program I attended, at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, had just built brand-new studios outfitted with the latest equipment. We were the first group of students to get our hands on the stuff.
Some of the local TV stations even borrowed our studio to do their own productions. "Second City Television," with the great John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis and Andrea Martin, was produced just down the road at ITV. It was a heady time to be in TV. I don’t want to brag, but yeah, we were kind of a big deal on campus.
That was then. This is now. I went back for my first visit in 35 years, and nothing had really changed physically. The studios, the radio production suites, the equipment racks, the master control switcher were still there, in all their bulky, behemoth-like glory. Even the lockers were unchanged. My old one was still down from equipment stores and right across from one of the classrooms.
Still, the disruption of the past four decades was instantly crystallized when I saw that none of the students today touched any of that '80s era technology. Well, except for the lockers, which were still functional. The rows and rows of switches, rotary pots, faders and other doodads hadn’t been used in years. The main switching board served as a makeshift desk for a few computer monitors and a keyboard.
The radio production suites were used to store old office chairs. The main studio, where we once taped interviews, music videos, multicamera dramas, sketch comedies and even a staged bar fight? Yep, more storage.
The campus news show was still shot in the corner, but the rest of that once state-of-the-art studio was now a very expensive warehouse. The average iPhone today has more production capability than the sum total of all that analog wizardry. Why use a studio when all you need is a green wall?
I took the tour with my old friend Daryl, who is still in broadcasting. He's now the anchor of the local 6 o’clock news. Along the way, we ran into a couple of other old schoolmates who were now instructors.
We did what middle-aged guys do: We reminisced about the glory days. We roamed our old domain like dinosaurs ambling toward our own twilight.
When we entered the broadcast program back in the '80s, it was the hottest ticket in town. There were 10 potential students vying for every program seat available. Today, during a good year, it’s down to two to one. On a bad year, everyone who applies gets in.
The program has struggled to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world and now focuses on those who actually want to work in television news. All the other production we used to do has been moved to a digital production program.
We couldn’t know it at the time, but we were entering broadcasting just when the field had reached the apex of its arc. You still needed bulk to be a broadcaster. An ENG camera (electronic news gathering) weighed in at a hefty 60 pounds plus, not including the extra battery belt. Now, all you need is a smartphone and a YouTube account.
The only thing produced at most local stations is the news. And the days are numbered for even that. If you are middle-aged as I am, your parents depend on TV for their news. For you, it’s an option -- one of many places you can get it. You probably watch the 6 o’clock news more out of habit than anything. And your kids never watch it. I know mine don’t.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 27% of those 18-29 turn to TV for their news. Half of them get their news online. In my age group, 72% of us still get our news from TV, with 29% of us turning online. The TV news audience is literally aging to death.
My friend Daryl sees the writing on the wall. Everybody in the business does. When I met his co-anchor and told her I had taken the digital path, she said, “Ah, an industry with a future.”
Perhaps -- but then again, I never got my picture on the side of a bus.