He's Making News - for the Future

Steve Rosenbaum's programs for MTV and CBS are revolutionizing TV by putting the news in the hands of the people who live it.

Lots of people complain about the news. Steven Rosenbaum (steve@broadcastnews.com) is reinventing it. He's the founder and executive producer of a fast-growing production company, Broadcast News Networks (BNN), that's challenging some of the most cherished assumptions behind TV news: what gets covered, who gets on camera, how programs get created. Rosenbaum is making news for the future -- and making waves in the process.

"I'm counting on the fact that viewers want to take over TV," he declares. "That they want to turn TV inside out, to go from being passive viewers to active participants."

As Rosenbaum talks, he races around BNN's labyrinthine offices above midtown Manhattan. A dozen or so twenty-something producers and "VJs" - video journalists - are hunched over editing decks. The atmosphere crackles with electricity, and that's understandable. Two of the series BNN produces, "MTV News Unfiltered" and CBS's "Class of 2000," have put the company on the map in terms of both business and buzz. And its visibility keeps growing. BNN recently signed a deal to create a weekly series for CBS's new Eye On People cable channel. It's also producing a series of investigative documentaries for the Arts & Entertainment Network.

But Rosenbaum isn't just building a company. He's pursuing a three-point program to revolutionize television. It's a program with implications for any business that combines technology, information, and creativity -- which is just about any business at all.

Consumers are the best producers.

"Put someone in front of a TV and they're a couch potato," Rosenbaum says. "Put a camera in their hands and they're a storyteller." That's the heart of BNN's worldview. Almost every show it produces turns the camera on its audience. "MTV New UNfiltered" is a classic example. Viewers call in to pitch story ideas. BNN evaluates them, finds the best bets, and sends people camcorders to let them report their own stories.

"News is community storytelling," Rosenbaum says. "It's the talk in the town square. It's the Indian chief passing down folklore. Only recently has the news become 'professionalized.' But some of the best stories come from life experience. First-person storytelling can make conventional journalism look like unflavored gelatin."

When he first pitched his ideas to national broadcasters three years ago, Rosenbaum got three offers. But there was a problem: none of his potential partners would call what BNN did "real" news. He turned them down. Finally, MTV saw things BNN's way.

Today Rosenbaum's dangerous ideas seem downright legitimate. "UNfiltered" is a hit; National Public Radio has embraced the consumer-as-producer model with a series of its own; Rosenbaum is the subject of articles in journalism reviews and a sought-after guest on industry panels.

New tools enable new processes.

BNN's journalists don't just report on different things; they also use different tools to do their reporting. Rosenbaum boasts that his company owns only three top-of-the-line Betacams, the unwieldy behemoths perched on the shoulders of most network TV crews. Those cameras cost nearly $60,000 each, plus another $15,000 for the lens. VJs at BNN prefer to work with broadcast-quality digital video (DV) cameras that cost only about $4,500 apiece and are the size of a shoebox.

When you add high-speed digital editing to low-cost digital cameras, you create whole new ways of working. In January, BNN sent three VJs, an editor, and a production assistant to report on a right-wing militia group in Utah. The team was equipped with three DV cameras and an Avid Media Composer editing system. Essentially, BNN had three crews and a full editing system on location - an unthinkably expensive proposition with conventional technology.

Everyone does everything.

The traditional news business is as rigid as any military hierarchy. Reporters report, camera crews shoot film - and never the twain shall meet. BNN has a different philosophy: hire people young, turn them loose early, give them full responsibility for a story - and wait for good things to happen. Forget decades of experience and specialized training. "We've had producers and editors who were former school teachers, welders, even the wife of a politician," Rosenbaum says.

BNN's approach to "I-Witness," its new series for CBS's cable channel, is a case in point. Unlike "UNfiltered" and "Class of 2000," "I-Witness" uses journalists to tell its stories. But the program obliterates the hierarchical model. Rosenbaum believes there's no reason a single digital-camera-wielding storyteller can't do everything. In fact, he insists, it's the only way to get the real story.

"In the end it's about power," Rosenbaum says. "People with a voice have power. Journalists have power. And now, as viewers take over TV, they'll have the power too. It will change lots of things. It will make journalists better listeners. They'll let people who have been on the front lines tell us what it feels like to be there."

Rob Walker (rwalker@hearst.com), is a senior editor at "SmartMoney. You can visit BNN on the Web, (www.broadcastnews.com).

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