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More timely than news

Do you remember the good old days when television news began covering real-time and near real-time news events?

I was in high school when I watched the events unfold in Dallas after President Kennedy was shot. I sat mesmerized as Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald before Kennedy was even laid to rest. Two years later — while still in high school — I produced my first video documentary, examining the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.

By 1971, I was directing the news for the ABC affiliate in Tampa, FL. The news crews shot 16mm film every day and rushed back to the station by 4 p.m. so they could process the film and splice together their stories in time for the 6 p.m. newscast. While they were editing, I was often colorizing AP wire photos with translucent markers. (Talk about the news highlights of the day.)

While all of this was going on, the networks were pushing the envelope, covering a war halfway around the world in Vietnam. For the first time in history, Americans experienced warfare on the TVs in their family rooms within days of the film being shot. Before that, my parents went to the local theater to watch the newsreels.

Changing times

A few decades and a new world of technology later, news crews now sit on the beach broadcasting live via satellite as troops land for an invasion. We live in a world of virtually instant ENG and made-for-TV live news events.

Who can forget the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the news broke that a plane had hit the World Trade Center? I turned on the TV and watched the second plane hit the other tower. We experienced the tragedy as it happened, together as a nation.

Less dramatic, but equally relevant, is the growth of live faux news. Crowds gather for a demonstration, pose for the ENG cameras and then disperse the moment the ENG trucks leave. Much of what passes for news these days is planned and staged. There are more TV studios in Washington, D.C., than New York and Hollywood combined. Capturing real, live news is rare and happens by chance. We have an appetite for more live news than ever. Enter the viewer-reporter.

For example, a French videographer, working on a documentary about New York firefighters, captured the only high-quality video of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.

Cameras in police cruisers, and security cameras on street corners and in shopping center parking lots more frequently capture news events as they unfold. Today, the average citizen captures that one-in-a-million still image or video clip of a news event as it happens via his or her cell phone.

One might think that the technology for portable ENG has completely matured — or even that it has come a bit too far. Some believe that the next big thing in TV news has little to do with the ability to capture news anywhere, anytime, in real time. Rather, the world of news is being transformed by the Internet and the ability for consumers to find the news they want and to consume it anywhere, anytime, often in mobile and portable viewing environments.

A more enlightened view is that ubiquitous IP networking is about to revolutionize the techniques used to capture the news and the ways in which those stories will be distributed and viewed.

Untethered … but still on a leash

ENG technologies keep evolving, in large part because of the high cost to put news crews on the street or in the air. In the '60s, only the networks could afford to cover news events live, relying on the telephone companies to get their signals back to the operation centers in Los Angeles and New York. Satellites transformed the news landscape at the same time the film cameras were being replaced by portable cameras and U-matic tape decks, which evolved into camcorders.

In recent years, many stations purchased inexpensive DV camcorders for ENG applications, allowing them to put more cameras on the street — and to throw them away when they break. The more innovative stations have taken advantage of the digital workflow enabled by DV camcorders, which can easily feed notebook and desktop video editing systems. Now this workflow is being updated with tapeless camcorders that use solid-state memory and recordable optical discs.

ENG trucks are now commonplace. While they use wireless satellite or microwave links to get the signals back to broadcasters, in most cases, the cameras are still tethered to the truck. That too is changing thanks to advances in video compression and wireless microwave links between camera and truck.

At NAB, JVC introduced the ProHD Libre, a 720p HD camcorder with integrated MPEG-2 compression and an onboard camera-back transmitter developed by Broadcast Microwave Services. The system allows ENG crews to work in locations away from the ENG truck where it is not feasible to pull cables. These capabilities helped earn the Libre a Broadcast Engineering Pick Hit award at NAB2007.

Compact video compression products are also making it possible to use a wide range of wireless IP networks to send stories back to the station, both as live feeds or as downloaded files. In some cases, the compression technology is little more than a software package that runs on a laptop computer, which also serves as the editing system for packaged stories.

In essence, it is now feasible to feed ENG-quality video from any building with a broadband IP network. Advances in wireless network bandwidth are likely to make it possible to feed live HD video from virtually any location in most cities within the next five years.

These advances, along with the relentless advances in the Swiss Army knife of mobile communications — the cell phone/PDA — are creating new venues for the consumption of news as people commute or sit in airports.


The trend away from packaged TV news may well be the biggest story here. Alternative distribution channels that rely on the Internet are beginning to challenge the major news media outlets. Blogs, podcasts and video-sharing services such as YouTube are giving voice to many alternative viewpoints and to information rarely covered by the big news organizations.

Bottom line: Portable news technology is changing the way news is covered. Freed from the cost and distribution headaches of paper, even local newspaper reporters may soon carry camcorders instead of notebooks and compete for eyeballs.

Newspapers, radio stations and TV stations might already have merged were it not for government regulation, but that's another story.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Web link

Broadcast Engineering NAB2007 Pick Hits; June 2007 issue

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