Economic pressures are forcing local stations to hang on to their ENG vehicles longer than originally planned, according to manufacturers.
"What we hear frequently is: 'We have trucks with 350,000 miles on it and we're not allowed to replace them,'" said Rex Reed, director of business product development at E-N-G Mobile Systems in Concord, Calif.
"Because of the economy, [stations are] basically just putting tires and brakes on the trucks and keeping them going," said Jeff Steele, systems engineering manager at Frontline Communications in Clearwater, Fla.
When they are building vans, often it's because the ones they're replacing really are at the end of their lives. "[The station] brought the van in and it's got over 300,000 miles on it, it's on its third engine, and it was just totally falling apart underneath," said Fred Gerling, president of Gerling and Associates in Sunbury, Ohio.
While the perfect storm analogy is overused, it fits the TV news van industry perfectly right now.
Frontline's new hybrid ENG van uses the vehicle's traction motor battery system to power the broadcasting equipment, eliminating the need for a generator. First, it's not news to anybody that advertising revenue at stations is way off. Stations are hearing from the finance people that they're not getting money for a new truck no matter what, so they'd better put a band-aid on what they've got and get it rolling to the next story.
Then there was the 2 GHz relocation (BAS) program, which resulted in stations getting a lot of brand new digital microwave equipment courtesy of Sprint Nextel. Rather than retrofit the new gear into older news vans, many stations chose to build the equipment into new vans. That uptick in van building business was like a retailer's Christmas sales period. The period now is like the retailer's rest of the year, waiting for those newer vans to rack up their own 350,000 miles and fall apart.
Gerling threw another factor into the mix: banks. "Banks just aren't loaning. I don't care what anybody says about the recession being over, the banking industry right now is in shambles." So borrowing money to build a news van is a tough proposition.
But beyond those hard financial facts there's another thing in play: with all the new connectivity technology out there, via cell phones, WiFi, WiMAX and what-have-you, customers may just be waiting it out to see which ones are the winners and which ones are going to be the also-rans.
"They're looking at new modes of getting the signal back," said Tom Jennings, director of broadcast sales at L3/Wolf Coach in Auburn, Mass. "IP connectivity from the field is becoming very, very cost effective and a key technology for a news station. You're seeing stories coming back by Skype, you're seeing encapsulated bidirectional communications back and forth from the vehicles, because it's very inexpensive to implement."
But it's still early. "We haven't done much of it because IP technology is just coming on the market," said Tony Raven, senior vice president of engineering at Shook USA in Schertz, Texas. "But that's going to allow them to have newsroom computer capability in the truck as well as let the studio control capabilities of certain types of equipment."
Raven had just touched on a topic, remote control, that was to be the wave of the future. It still is, it just hasn't quite happened yet. Walk into the microwave radio vendors' booths at NAB over the past couple of years and you could watch demonstrations of it. A quick survey of those vendors for this article found that they're going to be introducing more such remote capabilities soon.
E-N-G's Reed said he hasn't had any recent requests for remote control in vans, and he has a reason for it. "I don't think anybody has been able to demonstrate a successful return on investment, 'buy this and it will save you a lot of money.'"
The news director can make the case that with remote control, once the van rolls up and the mast is deployed by the on-site operator (a safety necessity), the news crew can get to covering the news story while an engineer back at the station aims the antenna, deals with transmitter power and other technical issues. So the news crew is more efficient.
"Not so fast," you can imagine comes the memo from the company's chief financial officer. "Do you actually replace an employee?"
Well, no they don't. But they may be able to make the case that they can send a less technically adept employee out in the field. "It's been a trend for years to send less and less well-trained individuals out with these trucks, even satellite trucks," said Shook's Raven. "There are getting to be more of these one-man-bands, video journalists [VJs], even some of the big stations are doing it."
Remote control is being forced on some stations in their satellite trucks, where satellite vendors such as ND SatCom or On-Call Communications require that their satellite desks control the equipment on the satellite truck (see "ABC Upgrades SNG, p. 1). "Auto-acquire, auto-peak, auto transmits systems are attached to these services to allow the system to be remotely controlled from the satellite desk," said Wolf Coach's Jennings. "The truck operator doesn't control power up, power down, it's all controlled by the provider."
Steele at Frontline said his company has been rolling a prototype of a hybrid ENG vehicle around the country that's received a lot of interest. It has a mast but requires no hole punched in the roof to mount it, and it uses the vehicle's traction motor battery system to power the broadcasting equipment, eliminating the need for a generator.
"We keep getting people offering us checks for it, telling us to take a cab home," he said.
Luckily for the van builders, the U.S. government kind of put a stimulus package in place for them well ahead of the current recession in the form of a lot of orders for command and control vehicles for homeland security. So they're all still building vans, if not so much for TV customers. But the TV van business will likely be back.
"I don't think the news truck is going to go away," said E-N-G's Reed. "People like to be in, out of the rain, be in a secure environment to edit, they like air conditioning,"
What about the journalist with a camcorder and laptop? "Starbucks is going to throw you out on the street if you don't buy enough coffee while you're sitting there editing," he said.