JOHN LUFF /
02.01.2004 12:00 PM
Advances in news technology


WLS-TV’s newsroom in Chicago features technology from Digital News Technology solutions. Photo by Frank Pedrick of Pedrick Photography.


In 1933, the Communications Act opened the broadcast spectrum and required that broadcasters be licensed. At that time, there was not much need for broadcast news, at least in the eyes of the newspaper publishers in this country. But much has changed in the last 70 years. Few people imagined that broadcast news would compete head-to-head with newspapers.

Nonetheless, it took decades for short, 15-minute news wrap-ups to become a staple of the TV program schedule. In the early years of television, journalists were not too interested in becoming part of the news business. It offered no advantages to them, because news graphics were just still photos and the copy read much like radio had. But, as technology improved, news became an irresistible siren's song to many journalists.

In no small measure, technology has driven the changes in broadcast journalism. A former network-news president, speaking to an international conference on broadcast news in the early ‘90s, described the immediacy of news and the effect technology has on the delivery of informed journalism to the public. He noted how, at the time of the Civil War, it took weeks to receive the results of battles and compared that with how, by the time of the Gulf War, we were watching news as it happened without the time for the journalist to reflect on the meaning and context of the story.

But news technology isn't stagnant; it keeps advancing. The ultimate goal of this advance is to facilitate the immediacy viewers have come to expect (indeed, demand) while freeing the journalist to recover the time to reflect and add context and meaning to their stories.

Acquisition



Sony’s XDCAM line of optical-disk products fulfilled the promise of affordable random-access record and playback technology long awaited by many large broadcasters.


Capturing stories is a fundamental part of the journalist's trade. Recently, journalists have seen a couple of dramatic advances in acquisition technology. Sony and Panasonic are starting to deliver highly evolved news-acquisition camcorders using new and exciting technology.

At last year's NAB, Sony introduced its XDCAM camcorder system. It uses an optical disk recorder to deliver 45 to 85 minutes of recording on a 23.3GB blue-laser optical disk. Optical-disk technology, which has been long promised by many manufacturers and long awaited by many large broadcasters, makes random access affordable. The Sony product line includes studio recorders, cameras, and nonlinear editing systems. The I/O of the studio decks is what you would expect from Sony, with SMPTE 259 and high-speed transfers between studio decks. Other features, including metadata transfer, thumbnail recording and shot selection in the camera, are natural for news acquisition.

Panasonic raised many eyebrows when it introduced the Professional Plug-in (P2) recording technology for news acquisition. These solid-state-memory-based, professional video products record onto SD memory cards. They have no moving parts and offer the promise of near instantaneous access to any shot recorded. As the capacity of the SD cards increases, the technology holds the promise of HDTV recordings with no moving parts. A number of manufacturers of editing products have announced they will support direct import of the DV-based recordings on P2. This support is critical in enabling properly functioning integrated newsroom systems. The absence of moving parts, coupled with low-power-consumption cameras, should extend battery life considerably. P2 is not delivering yet, but Panasonic is taking orders for delivery this year.

After capturing the story, the ENG journalist must get the story back to the station as quickly as possible. Today, he or she can transmit the story from a microwave or SNG truck, or find the nearest high-speed data connection and forward a digital copy of the footage or completed story back to the newsroom.

Satellite-transmission technology hasn't seen any revolutions lately, but video compression has improved by leaps and bounds in the last few years. MPEG-2 can now deliver acceptable results for news at 5Mb/s and under. And, in the next year, we will see real-world use of MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) codecs that will dramatically drop bit rates for all types of content. At such low data rates, live transmission over a T-1 line (1.544 Mb/s) will become routine. This will move terrestrial transmission into the real world for news backhaul. Imagine putting a T-1 into the local courthouse and other common sites to allow a portable rig to transmit real-time or faster-than-real-time content. Soon, ENG journalists might be able to simply walk up to the nearest house and offer a few bucks to use the homeowner's DSL or cable modem to send content through virtual private network (VPN) back to the station, or even connect for a live shot from any street without an antenna.



Panasonic’s Professional Plug-in (P2) news-acquisition products have no moving parts and offer the promise of near instantaneous access to any shot recorded.


Low-bit-rate transmission systems gained considerable notoriety during the Iraq War when live shots were transmitted from moving vehicles half a world away. H.264 will greatly improve the quality of such approaches and likely will spawn a crop of lightweight and compact transmission systems that will make suitcase ENG and SNG an affordable and commonplace tool.

A parallel development is the high quality and reliability of store-and-forward appliances like Telestream's ClipMail. Such devices allow variable-speed transmission that adapts to the circuit to which it is connected. They make the process of sending video no more complex than sending e-mail.

Editing

You only have to think back to the Vietnam War to see how far news editing has come. During that period, cameramen were shipping film from field cameras from Saigon to New York, where editors cut the film into stories. The finished stories played on film chains. Asset management probably consisted of keeping track of the cans of completed stories on 3×5 cards, and the outtakes likely hit the trash bin every day. Metadata was on yellow legal tablets that went to the script writers.

Today, the editing process can begin in the camera, where the videographer can mark shots for later use and record them to thumbnails for browsing. The recordings can have GPS location data; some new cameras also allow time code. When editors review them in a laptop, they can annotate the shots with considerable metadata, and the outtakes and usable footage stay together. The original footage and its metadata are always available during the editing process. Whether ingested at real time (as in a backhaul through satellite or microwave) or transferred at faster-than-play speed, the nonlinear news-editing environment offers the editor nearly instantaneous access to content as soon as it has been transferred, or, in fact, during a recording. Such rapid transfer can provide critical time for the journalist to plan the completed slug so that it tells a valuable and accurate story.



Store-and-forward appliances like Telestream’s ClipMail allow variable-speed transmission that adapts to the circuit to which it is connected.


Nonlinear editing for news is distinctly different from other nonlinear editing in that it must interface to content-management software to inform the producer as to what stories are in process, and whether or not the content has arrived. Also, the field material (transferred by various methods), along with file footage and live recordings, must all be available to a group of editors networked to a storage network. Keeping numerous people aware of what material is available is a complex job. Thus newsroom editing software can have many modules from several vendors. Different vendors can supply software for ingest, edit, browse, play to air, and asset management. All this software must interact with the newsroom computer system, which, in many ways, acts as a traffic cop and central repository of the metadata needed to tie all the pieces together successfully.

The ability to browse at the desktop in the newsroom is becoming an increasingly important function. It allows producers and journalists to understand the context of the pictures much more rapidly than ever before possible. Using the browse-level content, it is quite possible to do a rough-cut of a story and send the decision list to a craft edit bay for finishing. This can cut down on the number of craft editors required, saving considerable money — so long as the browse and rough edit is not outlandishly expensive.

The play-to-air function may be a system separate from the editing environment. If it is, the newsroom computer system must transfer the stories to the air server. To ensure the right stories are cued and played in the program, the newsroom system must be tightly tied to the air server. If it is part of a single storage network, the air server can draw on the output of the craft editors in a number of ways, including copying the content to a separate directory, or just playing from the current location. Name conventions matter; you must take care to ensure that the content is connected to the newsroom-computer-system's slug for the story.

Newsroom computer systems



Journalists prepare the news at the Inland California Television Network (ICTN), a highly automated, multichannel television network serving the San BernardinoValley. Photo courtesy of Digital System Technology.


The newsroom computer system is the brain, nervous system and heart of a news department. It is the brain in that it rationalizes all of the input and keeps it all in order. It is the nervous system in that it ties the technology together. It is the heart in the sense that, without it, the rest of the system grinds to a halt. The earliest newsroom computer systems started as a way to gather the newswires into sorted directories to make it easier for the various production and journalistic staff to find what they wanted. Sports stories went one place, business news another, etcetera. System designers added script-writing features that allowed editors to edit wire copy for local use and then assemble the copy into a rundown. The same script could run the teleprompter. And all the staff members involved could share messages in the same system — neat and tidy. Of course, the computers were a bit clunky then, so the system ran with ASCII terminals hanging off one computer. That solved the need to network everyone together.

As newsrooms became more automated, the newsroom computer system has evolved into a much more sophisticated environment. It can perform all of the same functions, but it has replaced dumb terminals with highly evolved networked systems featuring redundant servers, device control for production devices, interfaces to editing and browsing systems, and the ability to interface to affiliate news-distribution systems. It allows news staff to make and post assignments, preview stories, and interactively change rundowns right up to the time of air and during programs. Seamless browser interfaces allow staff to search for additional information for a story on line without complications.

New media features can be integrated into the newsroom computer system as well. The system can be the engine that publishes the Web version of station's output, integrating with Web authoring packages. In some cases, this interface uses media-object-server (MOS) technology.

In the past, newsroom-system software writers had to write specific device drivers for each and every device they wished to control. The onus was on the controlling device to understand the lingua franca of the production devices and, as necessary, change the driver to enable new features, or even maintain basic control as the device manufacturers changed their own code.

But to speak to the devices they need to control and from which they need to receive status messages. MOS allows a newsroom system to write to a common platform. For instance, it can allow a system to use a standard language that all character generators understand, or a standard language that all video servers understand, and so forth. On the other side, the device manufacturer needs only to understand one method of interfacing instead of keeping up with many competing newsroom computer systems. This greatly simplifies the system architect's job.

News content distribution

In the dark ages (a few years ago), each news-distribution agency, including broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC, offered a real-time distribution rotation that the user had to record and edit as necessary. But in today's age of enlightenment, distinguished by the penetration of computers into the nooks and crannies of every business in the country (and wireless PDAs in the pockets of technocrats), we no longer need to roll tape at all. Most of the same services now offer either push- or pull-mode distribution that deliver the story to a local cache server on demand. From that point, the story can be pushed to tape at leisure, or moved using MXF or format conversion to an integrated newsroom nonlinear-editing system. The improvement is dramatic. Only the stories of interest are recorded, and there is no reason to roll tape at a time that might be inconvenient (or simply when the technician is not watching).

The business

Broadcast news represents and important source of profit for owners. It also represents potential for losses if the market is overloaded with outlets, or when the expected volume of sales won't support the cost of producing high-quality news. Some broadcasters, notably Sinclair, have chosen to rework the local-news paradigm to one that keeps local stories in the hands of local producers and journalists, but moves national stories to a central site where many stations can share the production costs. This is, in fact, a larger version of the regional-news consortiums that have existed for many years. The bottom line is what it always is: broadcast news is an asset when, and only when, it makes money. Technology has made that much easier, but the newsroom staff must commit their creativity to running news as a business.




John Luff is senior vice president of business development at AZCAR.



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