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Here’s how Conan O’Brien gets news anchors to say the same thing

Does local news ever seem a bit manufactured to you?

It seems that way to CNN journalist Brian Stelter, who ended last week’s episode of Reliable Sources with a video clip that originally aired on the late night talk show Conan. The clip featured over two dozen local news anchors teasing a consumer reports story on holiday shopping in a way that was both astonishing and hypnotic.

One by one, each news anchor read the same line: “Well, it’s okay, you can admit it if you have bought an item, or two, or maybe ten for yourself.” Some feigned enthusiasm, others ad-libbed an additional word or two.

“Conan O’Brien has gotten really good at catching local news anchors reading from the same scripts,” Stelter said (it’s true: Conan’s “Media Reacts” has outed anchors delivering stories on topics about ice cream, same-sex marriage, email overload, gas prices and others).

“It’s okay, we can admit it,” Stelter continued. “Sometimes we don’t write every word we read on air.”

That’s right — because CNN writes those words for them.

CNN is much more than a 24-hour cable news channel; the news organization also offers information products to other news businesses. One of its most-profitable products is called Newsource, a newswire that distributes live information, video and scripts to television stations around the world.

Each television station that subscribes to Newsource is considered an “affiliate” of CNN — there are hundreds of CNN affiliates across the country and around the world. Chances are, one or more of your local TV stations is a CNN affiliate (in Northern California, almost all of the English-language TV stations are affiliated with CNN).

The CNN Newsource affiliate dashboard (Click for a larger view)
The CNN Newsource affiliate dashboard (Click for a larger view)

Newsource provides three types of video to CNN affiliates: The first is video obtained by other CNN affiliates. This is how a local TV station in California is able to show video originating in other parts of the countries and the world.

The second is video that airs on CNN. Exclusive interviews and segments from CNN shows are often included on NewSource for CNN affiliates to reuse in their broadcasts.

The third is video produced just for CNN affiliates. These are usually stories focused on business, sports, travel and so on. They are the stories that air after your local news, just before weather and sports. These stories also include “kickers,” or light-hearted and unusual news stories that typically air in the middle or near the end of a newscast.

(Click the image for a larger view)
(Click the image for a larger view)

Most videos distributed to affiliates contain a pre-written script that news producers can use in their shows. Most producers working at smaller-market television stations, like many of the stations that appear in Conan’s clips, use these scripts instead of writing their own as both a resource and time-saving measure.

The script from the holiday video shown above can be viewed on CNN affiliate WATE’s website here. Just for kicks, here’s the TV stations that made an appearance in the recent “Media Reacts” video (three could not be identified) — nearly all of them are small market broadcasters:

KBOI Boise | KCEN Waco | WFFT Fort Wayne | WDHN Panama City | WICD Champaign
WWAY Wilmington | KIMT Mason City | WICS Springfield | KBSI Cape Girardeau | WMBF Myrtle Beach
WAVE Louisville | KGAN Cedar Rapids | WLTZ Columbus | KATC Lafayette | WJHL Johnson City
KHGI Kearney | KRCG Jefferson City | WCIV Charleston | WHAS Louisville | WSJV South Bend

While CNN’s affiliate service is perhaps the largest, there are many “Newsource”-like distribution platforms available to TV stations. FOX News runs one called “FOX News Edge,” giving affiliates direct access to news footage and stories produced by FOX News and other FOX stations. There’s also a service called NNS, a consortium of CBS, ABC and FOX affiliates that “pool resources and share footage.”

TBS, the cable channel that airs “Conan,” and CNN are both owned by Turner Broadcasting, a subsidiary of Time Warner.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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