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Courtroom camera control tries the patience of local TV

It's bound to happen. Throw local journalists into the same story with national competitors, and you can expect a caldron of clashing egos and interests.

It happened last December, as reporters staked out the arrival of Brooksville Army pilot Bobby Wayne Hall. Local news stations had covered the story for weeks, with a crew from WTVT-Ch. 13 actually camping out near the Halls' home. Word of his homecoming brought teams from around the country scrambling to the town of roughly 8,000.

Suddenly a local story had hit the big league. That created tension between area reporters who claimed first dibs on the event and network hotshots who came promising national exposure in exchange for exclusive interviews.

Friction of a different nature surfaced last week in Tampa when Court TV pulled in to cover the trial of Charles L. Trice Jr., the former state trooper charged with murdering his wife.

The cable channel has been airing the trial live, from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and from 3 to 4 p.m. _ when the coverage of the O.

J. Simpson murder trial breaks for lunch. Court TV is available on several cable systems in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

In the last four years, the cable channel has aired about 370 trials. Because many of the broadcasts are live, local stations usually allow Court TV to run the single courtroom camera, explained spokeswoman Lynn Rosenstrach. That way, the stations can share the footage without having to assign a photographer of their own.

But the convenience comes at a cost, as area TV and radio crews are finding out.

From the start, Court TV's interests conflicted with the local media's. What to shoot, how long to leave the camera on a witness, and when to turn off the audio have been subject to debate.

The kicker came Wednesday morning, when the Court TV camera missed a crucial moment in the trial: Trice crying during the playing of a 911 call after he shot his wife. It was an emotional turning point that viewers never got to see on the evening news. Reporters, who watch the trial through a monitor in an outside media room, missed it too.

For TV, that's devastating.

"It was the emotion, the reaction that we wanted," said Cathy Unruh, the Channel 13 reporter covering the trial.

"We are a visual medium. We need those types of pictures to talk about," said Calvin Green, a WFLA-Ch. 8 photographer and court specialist.

The mishap was but one of several the local media noted in the first week of the trial. They blame the live nature of Court TV's work _ and the cable channel's New York producers trying to control a trial in Tampa.

"The idea of someone sitting in a room more than 1,000 miles away telling me what I can and can't see in the courtroom is reprehensible," said Brian Brewer, a WFLA-970 AM radio reporter who has covered trials in Tampa Bay for 12 years.

"I need to see what's going on in the courtroom in order to describe it to my listeners, so I rely on the video as much as the television people do."

While Unruh said Court TV was quick to apologize for the error, the real solution came late Wednesday in the form of a compromise: The media would go back to a daily rotating camera pool from all the stations.

While it satisfied the local media, now Court TV fears the possibility of errors by local photographers unaccustomed to live trial work _ such as showing a juror's face on television. The cable channel had one such error at the beginning of the Simpson trial, which tempted Judge Lance Ito to pull the plug on gavel-to-gavel coverage.

"We are airing it live, and we have certain self- and court- imposed standards. We have to be extremely careful and conservative," spokeswoman Rosenstrach said.

Brewer thinks the troubles boil down to an age-old problem:

"Anytime a national news or entertainment outfit comes to town to cover a local story, they think they own it," Brewer said. "They think they're better than everybody in the local media, and they don't know anything that's going on."

_ To reach Monica Yant, call 893-8521. To send E-mail: monicayantaol.com

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