TV News Choppers Flying High Once Again
In the early 2000s, KXTV Sacramento, Calif., covered nearly every local Friday night high school football game from the sky. The segment, “Friday Night Football,” was the only one of its kind in the market providing stunning aerial shots of the various games.
But when the economy tanked in 2008, one of the first casualties was the helicopter. Friday night football games were never the same again.
That's all about to change. Last month, the Gannett-owned ABC affiliate in the country’s 20th DMA signed a new lease with Helicopters Inc. to restore its eyes in the sky. And while the helicopter will be used sparingly, it will deliver a look-in on local football games for the first time in five years.
“Helicopters are an extremely important tool in covering news in a market like this,” says Maria Barrs, president-GM of KXTV. “While there are a lot of other good tools out there, there’s nothing that can provide the perspective that a helicopter can.”
KXTV’s return to the air reflects an overall uptick in the electronic newsgathering helicopter business.
Tom Wagner, VP of Helicopters Inc., a leading provider of ENG helicopters, says 2013 marks the first year since the recession that the number of stations with his helicopters has increased.
“We’re not back to where we were in 2007, but we’re going up,” he says.
In addition to KXTV, Wagner expects to add another station to his company’s portfolio in the next few months.
There are somewhere between 100 and 120 news helicopters in the sky today, according to multiple ENG helicopter vendors. That’s compared to about 180 that were in operation pre-recession in 2007.
Helicopters Inc., is responsible for about 60 of those choppers scattered across the country today. Other vendors include U.S. Helicopters, which advertises on its website that it has 30 units operating; Sky Helicopters, which operates five aircraft; and two California-based companies, Helinet and Angel City Air, which supply news choppers for the TV stations in Los Angeles.
While KXTV is an example of a station that got rid of its helicopter when the recession hit, several stations instead opted to enter into joint agreements with competitors and share a copter.
“Those sharing agreements were a knee-jerk reaction to the recession,” says Ken Pyatt, president of Sky Helicopters. “It cut the costs in half.”
In Denver (DMA 17), for example, the market’s four news affiliates share one, logo-free helicopter that’s designed for the market’s mile-high elevation. Since 2009, Gannett’s KUSA (NBC) and Scripps’ KMGH (ABC) have shared a copter. CBS’s KCNC and FoxCo Acquisition’s KDVR joined about a year later. Today, the four stations rotate who controls the helicopter each quarter. All four stations share the same video feed.
In terms of choosing assignments, KCNC News Director Tim Wieland says whoever is operating the helicopter that quarter has the last word.
“Everyone is good about communicating about where we want to go, and for the most part, it’s pretty obvious where we should be,” Wieland says.
KXTV’s Barrs says the station won’t be using its new helicopter on a daily basis like it used to back in the mid-2000s. To that end, she hopes to find a partner — either the market’s CBS or Fox affiliates, which are currently without a helicopter — to bring down the operating cost, which can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
“We’re very open to sharing with another station,” she says. “This is not an inexpensive tool.”
While sharing makes financial sense and looks good on paper, it doesn’t come without logistical problems. Like Denver, the Washington and Miami markets have sharing agreements where the stations rotate control of the helicopter.
“It can become awkward,” says Pyatt. “These guys have very competitive personalities.”
Wagner says turnover at stations can also make it challenging.
“When at a conference table, theoretically it’s a great idea, but it’s not as easy as everyone makes it out to be when put into practice,” he says.
That some stations opting to go it alone with their own copter is another sign that the economy — and the ENG helicopter business — are turning around. Both Pyatt and Wagner say they’ve started to receive calls from clients expressing interest in getting out of agreements and owning their own helicopter for competitive reasons.
“We believe that journalists should act independently of each other and at the end of the day, this is a competitive business,” says Anzio Williams, WCAU Philadelphia VP of news. “The more competitive it is, the more viewers benefit.”