TV news adapts as COVID-19 dramatically changes broadcasts

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Huel Perkins still heads into the newsroom and works from 3 p.m. to midnight, five days a week. 

Aside from that, "everything is dramatically different," the WJBK-TV (Channel 2) news anchor says of working during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Huel Perkins, foreground, along with Bob Richards, Rebecca Abramson, Kim Brancato and Chinelo Azibo. Like most TV news teams during the coronavirus pandemic, Fox 2 is working with a reduced in-office staff these days.

Like every other industry, the TV news business has been upended since mid-March when coronavirus became the story in America. Anchors are separated — sometimes by a newsroom, sometimes by miles — reporters are broadcasting from home and photographers are practicing social distancing guidelines with their subjects.

Newsrooms, once bustling with bodies, have been reduced to skeleton crews, while interviews that would normally take place in-person are now beamed across Skype and Zoom. 

Perkins, who is co-anchoring evening broadcasts with an at-home Monica Gayle, says in normal times, he's used to there being anywhere from 225-250 people in Fox 2's Southfield headquarters. Now there's sometimes only four, "and I'm the fourth," he says. "It's incredible." 

Yet the show goes on. "We are adapting," says Perkins, who has been with Fox 2 for nearly 25 years. "We’re using our experience to get things done."

Their efforts are being rewarded in the ratings department.

Viewership is up across the board for local news. At WDIV-TV (Channel 4), numbers from 4-8 p.m. are up 22% from a year ago, and year-to-year, ratings are up 70%, according to the station's vice president and general manager, Marla Drutz. 

The rewards come as the various stations have had to employ new ways of working and reporters, producers, editors and on-air personalities have had to learn new skill sets on the fly.

Kevin Jeanes, the morning weatherman at WXYZ-TV (Channel 7), has been working from his Royal Oak home since late March.

In the newsroom, he's used to working off six computers; in his set-up at home, he has two laptops and two iPhones. The monitor he uses to communicate with the station is an old TV that he places in front of him during his morning remotes, which start every weekday at 4:30 a.m. and last through 9 a.m., at a rate of eight or nine per hour. 

He's lit by a ring light he bought for $45 off Amazon and he broadcasts via an app on one of his phones from a back corner of his basement, which he outfitted with a few bookcases to look more like a home office and less like, well, the back corner of his basement. While he's doing local weather updates during cutaways from "Good Morning America," his wife and 18-month-old son are upstairs sleeping. 

Well, sometimes they're sleeping. "My son can be kind of loud, and sometimes he'll be banging around upstairs and I know you can hear him on-air," Jeanes says. "Yesterday morning, I changed his diaper during a commercial break."

WXYZ-TV morning weatherman Kevin Jeanes works from home in Royal Oak.

Jeanes, who's been giving himself haircuts since the lockdown began, also does call-ins with WKQI-FM's (Channel 955) "Mojo in the Morning" program; he does those from inside a storage closet, tucked between a mattress and some clothes.

He's making the most of the situation and enjoys being so close to his wife and child during a time of such great worldwide unease. What he misses most about going into the office is the camaraderie of his co-workers. 

"It’s a little bit harder to have fun at work," Jeanes says. "You're used to being around the buzz of the newsroom and a lot of people, and now I’m just in this quiet basement all by myself. And when you don't have people around you, it's hard to bring that high energy every morning, which is what people expect."

Alex Atwell, a photographer for WDIV, is having to learn how to convey energy in his stories in a new way.

Under social distancing guidelines, he's filming interviews from at least six feet away using a long microphone, rather than having subjects fit with a small lavalier microphone, which clips on their shirts and allows for free movement — and with that, more visual possibilities for the Emmy-winning cameraman. 

WDIV-TV news videographer Alex Atwell, wearing mask and gloves,  works with general assignment reporter Larry Spruill in the parking lot at Channel 4.

"For me, the lavalier is key to creative storytelling and active interviews, and that has been taken away," says Atwell, who has been with Channel 4 since 2008. "We all have to think differently try to keep the quality up and be creative in different ways."

Atwell is used to teaming up with a reporter, talking through a story on the way to an assignment and collaborating on its look and various story elements.

Since the pandemic began, Atwell now rides alone in his news truck and meets up with a reporter, who drives separately, at an assignment; afterward, they use transcription apps to pass files back and forth to each other, rather than working on something together hand-in-hand.

"For the most part, I’m the only one in my truck," Atwell says. At the beginning of his shift he spends up to 15 minutes wiping down everything in the truck: the heat shifters, lights, radio, steering wheel, seats, work stations, "all kinds of other buttons," he says. "You don't realize how many things you touch in a vehicle." 

And Atwell says he's the only person who handles his equipment. Even if it means more trips to and from his van, he'll haul his own tripod, mic stand and camera, and he stays six feet from everyone with whom he interacts. 

His main goal, he says, is to limit exposure risk to COVID-19.

"It's an abundance of caution," says Atwell, who wears a mask at all times while working in the field. "When I go out, I assume I have it and I assume the person I’m with has it. I take that mindset."

From a practical standpoint, one of the biggest obstacles he currently faces is the lack of bathrooms at his disposal. He's used to driving around the city all day hopping between assignments, but now that most businesses are closed, he can't run into a McDonald's or a Starbucks and use the restroom facilities the way he's used to doing. 

"You've either gotta hold it all day, or sometimes I can rush home," Atwell says.

News videographer Alex Atwell, left, and reporter Larry Spruill are having to cover stories in a new way.

Atwell — whose long-running "Uniquely Detroit" series, which highlight local citizens, artists and businesses doing positive things in the community, is currently on hold due to the pandemic — is also an example of the way Detroit's TV stations are working together during these unprecedented times. He was the cameraman during the town hall with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on April 2 that was simulcast on Channels 2, 4 and 7. 

Fox 2's Perkins anchored that broadcast along with Channel 4's Devin Scillian and Channel 7's Carolyn Clifford. Perkins says the collaboration between the three affiliates was a "wonderful" show of solidarity across network and competition lines. "It was great for the community to see us all working together," he says.  

Early on during the state's lockdown, Perkins elected to continue to come into the Fox 2 studio and be the familiarity that viewers could find at a time when so much of their lives had been overturned. "I thought it was important that somebody be there," he says.

It hasn't been business as usual. He was initially coming home and sanitizing every piece of clothing he was wearing after his shifts, a process that is no longer as rigorous, he says. 

Clockwise from top left: Monica Gayle, Sherry Margolis, Amy Lange, Roop Raj, Huel Perkins and Taryn Asher work from home and the newsroom.

On-air, Perkins' Thursday night "Let It Rip" segments — which typically feature a panel of guests debating the topics of the day, the more spirited the better — are now conducted remotely, and the slight pauses and delays in connections make it harder to really let it rip. "It's a conversation," Perkins says, "and in-person is always better." 

Likewise, he's used to sitting next to his co-anchor, but now he'll text Gayle during breaks and downtime during the broadcast. 

But he's still there, and that's what's important. The veteran anchor says he's heard from viewers who have told him he's helped make them feel less afraid, which was his intention. 

"I want to be that calm, reassuring voice to let the viewers know that yes it's tough, yes it’s difficult, but we’re going to get through this," he says. "It’s going to take some time. Not weeks, not months, maybe a year, but we're starting to realize we’re not going to return to exactly what we were.

"This is going to change our world. In a sense, we will never go back to what we were. But we will find a way through it."

Twitter: @grahamorama