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NewscastingRobotically Shot

It’s a little bit like Forbidden Planet here in Studio B at WWBT, Richmond, VA. There are cameras shooting the news, panning and changing points of view—apparently without operators. You expect one of them to glide over and ask if you speak English, and inform you that if you don’t, it speaks over 187 languages and their various dialects and subtexts. This is the reality of robotic automation and news.

Actually, there are camera operators at WWBT, but if you don’t know where to look, you might not find them. Over in the corner of Studio A, the larger of the two studios, a young guy in a T-shirt and jeans is plinking away at a little touch-screen map on a computer monitor. Robby the robotic camera, actually a Sony ENG camera with a hard lens mounted on a Vinten SP-2000 robotic pedestal, has a programmer.

Don Shaw is manager of Broadcast Operations at WWBT, one of three Jefferson Pilot (JP) stations. He’s worked at the station for 25 years, and has witnessed a technical advance or two in that time, but automating the station last summer was a nail-biter. Shaw and Director of Engineering Bruce Tinoco had anticipated the possibility that one day they would automate the station, and started exploring options a few years ago. Then, when the financial pressures of the digital transition and the price-points of automation technology intersected, management gave them the green light. Now they were looking at another quarter- to half-million-dollar transition in addition to the expense of beaming out that digital signal to at least six homes. One of their pivotal purchases was three Vinten SP-2000s, at around $100,000 each (they have a total of four in-studio cameras). Tinoco and Shaw share a sly glance when they relate those early decisions about automating. You get the sense they both parked very close to the back door for a while.

Luckily, there was no need to evade an angry pack of JP executives. The robotics equipment was originally purchased on a five-year payback plan, but combined with other station automation projects, WWBT will see ROI in three years.

As for functionality, the SP-2000s work like a physical extension of a video game. Instead of having operators on each camera doing the same series of rote shots day-in and day-out until their minds go numb, a single operator works all three cameras from a control bay in the front of the studio. Up to 300 shots per camera can be saved and called up in the Windows-based Smart Screen system. The operator sees the shot on the touch-screen monitor, so there’s not a lot of rubbernecking. Around 50 to 60 shots are saved for each camera for the morning and evening news shows; more like 10 for the noon show. Now that most of the initial programming is done, training on the new system is typically a three-day affair.

Most of the work was up-front, as with any new computer system. The shots had to be blocked, programmed, and tweaked, and operators had to learn to “drive” the cameras between the two studios with a joystick. This went exactly as you might think. Accidents happened. Fortunately, the SP-2000s have a substantial bumper-car skirt around the base that automatically halts movement if it hits something. There’s also a big red “stop” button on the pedestal so the ever-vigilant operations manager can manually avert collisions.

One structural change was necessary to make the pedestals operable in both studios. A pillar had to be removed from the signature NBC homey brick-arched set to make room to drive the cameras between studios. Crews had to add another lane to the highway, you might say. Now the cameras glide easily through the opening, like Robby bringing tea to the self-deluded Dr. Morbius in the aforementioned 1956 sci-fi thriller.

And just as the world of science fiction is never without the need for a flashlight, WWBT’s new automation set-up required one very basic device to function properly—a dust mop. The pedestals position themselves through optic sensors in the base. Three black-and-white tile fields are located on the floor of both studios. If too much dust accumulates, the sensors can be thrown off.

A little extra housekeeping is fine with Shaw, considering the alternatives to the optic-sensor-driven SP-2000s. Other robotic pedestals used laser-beam siting in relation to walls and surrounding objects. The trajectory of the walls and surrounding objects in the WWBT studios can best be described as a dissected, disrupted sinusoidal wave.

“My new best friend is a Swiffer,” Shaw deadpanned.

Automation, as expected, did not come without a human toll. In all, one full-time and five part-time people were notified two months in advance that they would be cut, and given six weeks of severance pay.

Now there are 34 people in operations, commercial production included. Of those, 27 are trained in robotics, including the master control staff. Automating tape playback freed up their mornings for camera operations. The next step for Shaw and Tinoco is automating JP’s other two stations, WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte, NC, and WCSC, the CBS affiliate in Charleston, SC.

Colloquial English will do just fine, thank you.