Michael Clemente, all six feet three inches of him, cuts an impressive figure in the ABC Newsroom. He has worked there for many years, with Peter Jennings at World News Tonight, and then, after a little stint pioneering things at CNN, he helped watch over 20/20 for three years. He was then approached to do something unprecedented, at least in the world of big-time news production. “They gave us about 12 days to put together a wireless cable news service. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It is organic all through the day. We assess constantly, and we have a new format to put all our resources to work.” Spend a couple of days with Michael as he does his job, and you will know what he means.
He constantly scans information at his computer, well, one of his computers. He then makes a multitude of decisions, based on the day’s events and the programming schedule he developed, with one guiding principle. “I knew it had to be offered to people in shorter program lengths. I like 15 minutes, because it doesn’t ask too much of a viewer’s time. The thing is, this is designed not for a new audience, exactly, but for a new way of viewing the old formats. And I think within that, we will actually develop a whole new audience, and not in any way compromise our established viewership.” Clemente is a very energetic man, but quietly thoughtful at all times as well. So, amidst the constant ebb and flow of people and information that demarks his workspace, he is always ready to discuss what he is doing, and why. “I was thinking about this channel, and the short time frame we had to get it up and running. There were a few key hires, like senior producers Owen Renfro and Deirdre Michalopoulos, but what I started with were two main ideas. One was that my Palm Pilot had changed my life, to some degree. It changed how I consumed information, how I made myself available away from the office.” Essentially, like DVR or TIVO technology, this new format gets away from what is known as “appointment viewing” and provides information and analysis that conform to an audience’s daily routines, in terms of how they consume information.
Michael is excited, clearly. “Second, we have this opportunity, it could go in any direction, and so we can literally shape it. I see it as the best of both worlds, because here we have all the expertise and resources of ABC News, so there is a built-in credibility factor. There is so much creative energy in this building, and I thought this would be a great way to have some of them explore their areas of interest and expertise, in ways that the main network cannot accommodate. We have a lot of great anchor talent here all of whom I’ve put on ABC News Now.” And when he says creative energy, he is referring to some of the very best.
Chris Cuomo, for example, strides out of a meeting, and pauses on his way to do another live broadcast. “Michael just called me up and asked me if I’d like to participate. I report, do anchor work, have other responsibilities, so I wasn’t looking for extra work. But I knew if Mike was so enthusiastic, it was going to be good.” Cuomo does a piece this particular day on John Walker Lindh, the American-turned-Taliban fighter, who is on trial for treason and facing major jail time. He has two legal experts on, whose views of course differ. But for ABC News Now, Cuomo exudes a bit more of his own personality into the mix, making the guests feel a bit freer, in turn, more relaxed, so the segment becomes more intrinsically informative, and entertaining, than anything a main television network might feel comfortable with these days. The artifice, what Clemente calls “the fourth wall”, is gone. So, Cuomo can say something remarkable, full of self-awareness tinged with irony, humour, and still laced with a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism: “Allow me to feign some outrage, and ask if pleading guilty shouldn’t be enough to convict.” Both guests laugh, and the debate rolls on.
Cuomo also does a political program with legend Sam Donaldson. “I have known Sam for many years” says Clemente, “and I had worked with Chris during the 9/11 events, so I knew what he could do. Plus, I knew that Sam knew Chris’s mom and dad (former governor Mario and his wife), so I thought it could be a good fit on air.” And it is, for sure. The two have a great rapport, based on a superficially divergent style, but which is fundamentally on the same page. So there is a lot of smoke during their exchanges, but no real animosity or disfavour. Donaldson signs off one day by saying, “Be careful how you say that, Chris. I know your mother, and she would expect you to be respectful to your elders.” “You don’t know my mom, Sam.” “Oh yes, I do, and I know your father too young man.” “Okay, Sam. Just try to keep your facts straight for once, that’s all.” They clearly are having fun, and still bringing an interesting and insightful perspective to events of the day. Clemente’s format provides this opportunity. He notes, “For the main network, the on-air talent has to provide information through a very narrow bandwidth. When you consider World News Tonight, for example, Peter cannot realistically spend more than three minutes at the maximum on any given story. That’s what the 6:00 news is. But we are able to go a little further with it here, and that means the talent is able to express itself a little more.”
Peter is Peter Jennings. Mr. Jennings was on board from the get go in the News Now project, and worked hard to promote it in its early infancy on air. He is just outside his office, and the famous voice floats out, into the nearby corridor as he makes his way upstairs to the studio to do a “news brief”. When he pauses for a few moments, as a technical problem is attended to, he says “I’ve known Michael since he was a kid.” That would be, literally, since Michael was 27, and on set with Jennings for the first time as a producer. That was 1983. An interest is expressed in what a Canadian magazine is doing in New York, on the set at ABC News, since Jennings is, by all accounts, an avid, passionate reader. He even suggests a couple of great stories for the next New York visit. They chat genially, now old friends who have been through a lot, both together for 13 years on the World News Tonight show, and on through various phases of Clemente’s career that have led him back to working, though now more tangentially, with Jennings again.
Clemente is thoughtful heading back to his desk. “We try to open all of this to people, explore it. It is for people who are not satisfied with what they’ve had up to now.” He stops for a moment, and then makes a remarkable comment: “It is for people who rely on late night television comedians for the alternative, for what they think of as the ‘real’ news.” He has clearly understood something about not only the new, technologically driven ways in which people use the media, but the seemingly built-in sense of irony that causes many people to balk at the mainstream news sources as reliable or accurate.
Political correspondent George Stephanopolous, another willing recruit in Clemente’s operation, drops by to discuss his next 12-minute segment. Clemente shifts effortlessly from the minutiae of the operational aspects he is attending to into an in-depth discussion of the latest presidential polls. There is also, though, what amounts to a recurring theme; George obviously likes Michael, respects what he is doing with ABC News Now, and the fact that they get along means he is willing to make the extra effort, even on a day which will see him alongside Peter Jennings until well into the evening, providing insight and commentary about what happened in Florida.
One reason all this talent is on board is that they agree with Michael on a fundamental point. “This will fit directly into your life; it’s a kind of utility. By 2009, there will be more wireless than ‘connected’ consumers of news and information.” So, this could well be the future, at hand. Plus, as Clemente says, “It is for people who are tired of the same old stuff. They want something new.” The technology, on the new side, the use of it, certainly breaking new ground almost every day, as people discover what they can access with their wireless cell phones and other even more elaborate pieces of portable equipment. But it is also the attitude Clemente infuses into the material at every turn, the freshness, spontaneity, that leads to a more frank, interesting, engaging product.
That evening, after the first presidential debate, Jennings is on air saying, “As is our custom here at ABC News, we will not be presenting any spin doctors for you.” John Stewart, a few hours later, is offering fairly savage commentary, with perspicaciously chosen images, on both Republican smugness and Democratic impotence. In each case, the fact is that viewers must come in with their eyes, ears, and minds open, otherwise they are susceptible to other people doing their thinking, and by corollary their voting, for them.
“No one said to me ‘Stay with the model,’” says Clemente. In fact, it was David Westin, President of ABC News, who came to Michael with the idea. “David gave me the keys to the place. I love to picture someone on the other end, maybe working, maybe waiting for a movie to start, and we are the voice that is always there. They can check the news the same way they check the baseball scores. And I want to be useful to them, to make their lives better.” Cuomo elaborates; “Mike asked us to do something the other guys weren’t doing on cable. Never scripted, although we’re extremely prepared. We each have areas of expertise, so for example on Guilt or Innocence? I rely on my years as a practicing lawyer. It’s fresh, and I love doing it. It’s exciting because Mike knows what he wants, and he knows we won’t abuse the freedom we have on air. It’s still Peter Jennings’ house after all.” Clemente does indeed know what he wants. He looks at “the other guys”, on various screens, and comments, “We don’t want people who are simply good presenters. I think the audience understands these things. And, ABC has a history of intelligent people, Peter, Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, many others, and they want intelligent people working with them. And from that I have an amazing source of people who can do what I need for this project.”
Ann Reynolds “books the talent and the space”, and therefore juggles time and personnel constantly, since the Now team needs to use resources and not get into a conflict with the main network’s needs. “We are simply trying to do the best work, not really worrying about anything else. And at first it was Michael, two schnauzers and the garbage man. It’s been exciting, going from zero to up and running in 12 days.” She is creating time and space for Tony Perkins, to come in and record a segment on pop music and films, called “Stealing Scenes”. Tony is a great example of Clemente’s approach. As the morning weather person, he is known to millions of people. But he was, in a previous life, a stand-up comic, and is still a professional musician, and as such, he can create an interesting buzz for his Now segment, while exercising talents that are largely untapped in his “day job”. That’s why, though he regularly comes in to work at four a.m., he is still here well past four in the afternoon to do this segment.
How did this get from zero to running in 12 days? “We have a lean team, but I expect a lot from them. Especially the producers, who have layers of multi-tasking.” Are the deadlines stressful? “You get used to thinking that 45 minutes is a lot of time to address an issue. Even ten minutes can seem like plenty of time.” And, as Ann can attest to, people you might not expect meet these deadlines. For a segment on Vioxx being pulled from the market, a casually dressed, very little make-up producer is the interviewee for the story. “She doesn’t look like a typical news anchor, does she? She really knows the stuff; she did all the research when we first broke the story. Traditional booking says to get the very top person all the time, to boost the ratings. But we don’t necessarily do that here.” And, interestingly, it looks like the ratings, at least for now, are backing Clemente and his well-thought-out rationale. “TV has always been linear, but with on-demand, with new, non-linear broadcasting, there is a very big jump. People want to check in all the time, to see their world is safe, what the weather is. There is less appetite for the big item at the top, not as much for the middle material, but much more for the little stories that are traditionally at the bottom of a telecast.”
Another day nears its close, but Michael Clemente is glued to the screen. Actually, pretty much to the several dozen screens that are the focal point of ABC’s Star Trek-like control centre. Live feeds from all over the world are here, (a dozen from Washington, D.C. alone). He has just raced up here to watch Tony Perkins, from his desk at which pictures of his family keep watch over the room along with him. There is also one of those recording devices that is part of certain picture frames, so that he can hear his youngest daughter’s voice saying, “Hi dad, I love you” any time he wishes to. All of these form the context in which he operates, in which he mediates an impossible to keep on top of the world for a new kind of audience. “What they want to know, versus what they need to know. We try to give both, because all of one is too trivial, probably, and the other is too preachy.” He thinks a moment, just before Perkins pronounces on the latest movie trailers and a scant hour before the presidential debate: “We are in an amazing position, to determine what out there in the world people really should know.”