The evolution of AOPA Live

Many associations and news organizations are producing video news and features – some even in the TV news format – now that the Internet has solved distribution issues. But since the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) pioneered an in-house news show in the 1980s, critical viewers found most early efforts painful. Will the online news-format aviation TV show now succeed in the age of Internet videos?

It’s tough to do a home-brewed television show when everyone is a TV critic. We’ll spend nine or more years of our lives watching “the tube.” We know what we “like” and what looks amateur. Such expectations can foil a small-budget online news program. Moreover, TV is a linear format — it takes time compared to cherry picking off a website what’s of specific interest to you. (But watching a TV show online, at least you can fast-forward ahead!)

Pardon me if I use my former alma mater, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), to illustrate. Debuting last spring was AOPA LIVE THIS WEEK, hosted and reported by the staff of AOPA Pilot magazine.

Its earliest weekly editions launched me on another tirade about “print people” doing TV. Along with a deadly dull set, the delivery of both anchor and on-set reporters was stiff. The script was stilted. But the video stories themselves were surprisingly good, including a remarkable amount of on-location international reporting (possible with contributors or by piggybacking normal AOPA/IAOPA travel for association business or advocacy work.) An exciting early feature about New Zealand adventure flying was visually spectacular. More recently, “LIVE” covered an African flying safari, a French aero club, and flying single-engine through the Alps. And a crash during coverage of a mercy flight to Mexico offered real drama.

Early on, I called old friend Warren Morningstar for some inside perspective. No amateur in TV and now the show’s executive producer, Morningstar had come to AOPA from Salt Lake City television news. He acknowledged problems with AOPA’s early, digitally created set. He promised that this and other issues would work out. He was right. AOPA LIVE was soon looking and sounding much better.

Of course, we still have print people doing TV. For instance, hosting is Tom Haines, AOPA senior VP-Media and editor-in-chief of AOPA Pilot. He’s a long-time print journalist (with some early-career radio and TV experience.) He’s a great guy, too, modest and highly respected by his peers and staff. If there’s a big aviation ego there, I haven’t seen it. In other words, he’s about as far from the standard flashy, toothy TV presenter as you can get. But his aviation knowledge and straight, understated delivery should be welcomed by AOPA’s serious, special interest audience – especially now with some fresh on-camera time under his belt.

By June, AOPA LIVE had begun to dispose of a somewhat hackneyed TV news style; only some of it crept back recently following a stellar July of programing. (These people are pedaling hard to do this; I give them a little “fatigue credit” post-OSH.)

But if AOPA LIVE still doesn’t look and feel like “real” TV to you, let’s just say that Haines’ honest, conversational style should be freed occasionally from the traditional TV news desk. His hosting from Oshkosh in the “stand-up” format was strong, peppy and fast-paced. But to be fair, repetitive daily or weekly TV is a voracious medium; an established studio format is usually required. Perhaps a more relaxed set with a tall canvas-back chair or two and maybe a livelier co-hosted format? Or is that heresy for news and too much like a morning show talk-fest?

Exec producer Morningstar says, “We want to make the best use of the medium, to show the audience the story, to put them inside the aircraft.” New, digital mini-cams make that possible; new, low-cost editing equipment makes it affordable. After that, it’s down to the insight and talent behind the scenes and on the word processor. (Television is still a writer’s medium, as long as you have the technicalities of good pictures and good sound.) So, will you trade a little “TV glitz” for good writing and reporting?

Increasingly, there’s less trade-off demanded at AOPA LIVE. Along with those international stories, July programs featured some great “Gets” — as they say in the TV biz. Among them: an interview with U.S. Senator James Inhofe (late of a potential FAA infraction himself) about enactment of the new Pilot’s Bill of Rights, and another with influential Teal Group principal Richard Aboulafia analyzing the attempted Chinese buy-out of Hawker Beechcraft. My favorite was Warren Morningstar’s interview via Skype with The Atlantic’s James Fallows whose new book, “China Airborne,” analyzes GA’s potential there, just as his “Free Flight” had explored the promise of personal light-light jets and NextGen air traffic control. (Working on AOPA’s media relations team of the 1990s, Morningstar had previously established a valuable relationship for AOPA with the erudite Fallows.)

From what I’ve seen, AOPA has a unique advantage here in its globe-trotting and well-connected reporters, writers, producers and contributors. You also get an occasional visit with the AOPA staffers fighting airport preservation and regulatory battles.

It’s been fun to watch this production mature. As for the genre, viewers may still lust for glitzier production values in their online TV news but AOPA LIVE is closing that gap. Morningstar says his ultimate goal is “network quality.”

AOPA LIVE is shot in Hi-Definition, although its player will customize resolution to your available bandwidth. No problem there. And I think this 20- to 30-minute weekly briefing is entertaining and increasingly worth your time. Check it out beginning each Thursday or see past programs on YouTube, including some great “people-focused” reporting from Oshkosh.

When you do, give AOPA some feedback. Two major elements of AOPA’s stated mission are “to educate” and “to inform.” AOPA also wants to inspire you to expand your flying horizons. Is AOPA offering what you want? Chide ‘em if there’s too much “TV-ese,” “happy talk” story intro or AOPA self-promotion. Otherwise, enjoy this presentation of well-written, well-shot and well-edited aviation news and features.


Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.


© 2012 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved.

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