First from afar 

Live from Iowa, it's Big Sky News

During the recent premier broadcast of KTMF’s Big Sky News, anchor Alissa Carlson told ABC viewers how to get involved in planning Missoula’s future. She spoke in voice-over as the camera panned across the county courthouse.

Mid-story, Carlson shifted to an interview with Linda Hegg, spokeswoman for the city, who announced a public meeting. Then Carlson’s image returned to the television screen and she passed the metaphorical microphone to her co-anchor Greg Wilson, who introduced a story about President George Bush and his plans to confront Iraq with the U.S. military.

The transition from Missoula to Washington, D.C., from a local public interest story to a dramatic international moment, was seamless. And it was unprecedented too. KTMF’s Big Sky News, which calls itself “First at Five,” is also Missoula’s first TV news operation to broadcast from Iowa.

Big Sky News is the product of a business deal between Max Media, which owns KTMF and four other TV stations in Montana, and the Independent News Network, which already broadcasts under a similar arrangements in Davenport, Iowa, and Clarksburg, West Virginia. Anchors Wilson and Carlson work for INN. They both live in Iowa. Local reporter Justin Ware works for KTMF. He lives in Missoula.

The blend of local interviews with polished anchor talent is an illusion intended to make Big Sky News the most attractive news product in the Western Montana market. That the illusion is believable is the result of a novel business plan and a $1.5 million feat of digital engineering.

Max Media collects stories from its five reporters around Western Montana, assembles the stories into packages, and sends it all to INN. INN then produces five broadcasts tailored to each community—Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, Kalispell and Great Falls—and sends it back. The result, in Missoula, was a 35-minute news show that opened with a story by Ware about local forests, shifted to a national segment peppered with a few regional stories hosted by Wilson and Carlson, and concluded with weather, sports and a closing segment, called a kicker, about NASA’s space shuttle.

The Big Sky News arrangement has two advantages over traditional local broadcasts, says KTMF general manager Linda Baumann. First, by pooling the news-gathering resources of five television stations, each staffed with one reporter, into a single digital studio, Max Media can produce shows with fewer people and less equipment.

“News is a very expensive entity to add to a station,” Baumann says. “We’re doing it in a new way that’s affordable for us and affordable for our advertisers. It’s an economy of scale.”

The second advantage over traditional local broadcasts is the talent of the anchor team—in this case, Wilson and Carlson. Missoula is a training market, Baumann says, one temporary stop on the career path of rookie anchors and reporters, and that makes for rough, mistake-ridden shows.

“We are trying to bring viewers a more mature, experienced anchor team—a big city look without the errors,” Baumann says.

To launch Big Sky News, Max Media made major advertising purchases on billboards and in newspapers around Western Montana that touted Big Sky News as “Montana’s Own.” Max Media intended to start broadcasting at the beginning of the year but technical problems stalled the launch. Technical problems delayed the launch again in September, but Monday’s premier included only a handful of glitches, in which the image froze for a second or two.

Ed Groves, the president of Max Media, declines to say how much his company has invested in Big Sky News. But the Max Media web site states that the company has spent $1.5 million to upgrade the digital equipment and fiber optic equipment linking the five stations and the Davenport studio. Groves did acknowledge the $1.5 million does not include any advertising or personnel expenses.

The concept of Big Sky News is nothing new, according to Greg MacDonald, a retired professor of radio and television at the University of Montana. MacDonald is now president and chief operating officer of the Montana Broadcasters Association.

Newspapers share stories through the Associated Press and television networks cooperate with local and regional affiliates. The only difference with Big Sky News is that it’s an independent venture.

“Is it a full blown local option? No,” MacDonald says. “But it’s a way to get started.”

Typically, news does not make money for stations, particularly in smaller markets, MacDonald says. That’s why networks compensate local affiliates for carrying the national broadcast. But in this case, Max Media actually pays INN for the services of Wilson and Carlson. Because networks have been reducing or eliminating compensation, MacDonald finds this business plan encouraging.

INN itself is owned by EBI Video, which includes an advertising agency and a studio that produces “family-friendly” entertainment, including a show about Noah’s Ark. President Jeff Lyle explains that the news broadcast is insulated from religious programming but that the “family-friendly” philosophy pervades the entire company.

“(News) doesn’t necessarily have to have all the crap other people present,” Lyle says. “We don’t have to be sensational in our approach. That’s the only ideological thing that carries over.”

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