Tonight I was trying to think of a good reason for an otherwise smart, sedate journalist like Lester Holt to spend a half an hour anchoring NBC Nightly News from a helicopter hovering 1,000 feet over the scene of the deadly derailment of an Amtrak train. Here’s the one reason I could come up with: because all other ways of doing the broadcast were unavailable. We put him in the chopper or we don’t do Nightly tonight. It’s all we’ve got left. Every studio, every microwave and satellite truck–they’re all down. It’s this–or nothing.
Since NBC had a fleet of reporters–Tom Costello, Peter Alexander, Stephanie Gosk, and Rehema Ellis–going live on the ground, we know there was no technical collapse that forced Holt into the air. It was, we’re forced to conclude, just a stunt, and that’s something best avoided by a network news division grasping to regain its footing after months of unpleasant distractions over trust.
And yet, there was the unflappable Lester Holt, doing his best in the cramped, awkward and highly distracting environment of a Bell 206 chopper–“Skyforce 10,” operated by NBC-owned WCAU in Philadelphia.
This is, of course, a machine designed to excel at getting a camera to a breaking news story faster than any vehicle on the ground, and immediately delivering crisp, close-up live pictures. Using the helicopter as a studio for a network evening newscast? Well, you could, in the same way you could put a network anchor underwater for a thirty minute broadcast, or seal him in a lucite box suspended over the Grand Canyon. It’s not smart, but you could.
Holt, who’s smooth as glass in the studio, was somewhat more human trying to deliver reporter intros while hovering in the sky. It was uncomfortable to watch–especially since he was throwing to reporters who were comfortably standing on the ground below him–or, in the case of NBC’s Katy Tur, doing a story in Nepal that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Amtrak derailment or the skies over Philadelphia.
And then there was this bizarre moment, when Holt–in the sky–tossed to Pete Williams–on the ground, in Boston–for coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing trial. And yet, in the double box, the graphic read “Tragedy on the Tracks.”
But producers sometimes can’t resist the stunt, and so the justification for dispatching the anchor–not a reporter, mind you, but the anchor doing the entire broadcast–to a helicopter was “to show you the scene.”
So right off the top, Holt told viewers “there is no better way to show us the scope of our lead story tonight than from the air.”
The view from up there? Well, if you’ve seen any coverage of the derailment story since Tuesday night, on TV or online, you have already seen just such a perspective. It was unnecessary and distracting–and ridiculous, most dramatically when the broadcast moved past the Amtrak story, with Holt left suspended in the sky.
For NBC, still awaiting a decision on the future of suspended anchor Brian Williams, it was the wrong way to tell viewers we’re different than the other guys. And really, NBC, of all ways to resort to silly, did it have to be a helicopter?