TV news vs. technology

News organizations have been partners with technology since the days of the Speed Graphic camera. The Speed Graphic may not have been developed with newspaper photographers in mind, but it became the standard press camera and remained so for decades.

In this situation, the news industry found a solution by adopting existing technology. Along the way, camera manufacturers and news operations began working together to develop products with features and options that were more news-centric.

This relationship kicked into high gear in the 1970s, when lightweight ENG video cameras and VTRs were introduced as film replacements for local news and remote production. The benefits of video capture versus film were quickly realized when an ENG camera was combined with a transportable microwave system to provide live coverage of breaking local news. The advent of live news created an opportunity for a diverse group of manufacturers, who rushed to provide smaller and more sophisticated recording, switching and microwave transmission equipment, as well as specialized vehicles for ENG.

In ENG, technology was the catalyst, but the new tools were quickly mastered, and crews began pushing the equipment to its limits. Soon, compact mobile satellite systems were developed to get the story in places that were not accessible via microwave.

With a host of new ENG tools in place, the pace of news coverage sped up considerably. Adapting to the new technology was not too difficult, as the workflow involved in videotape capture and editing was in many ways similar to film, only much quicker and with a steadily increasing array of graphics and other video tools.

Today, TV news has made the leap to digital and is rapidly going tapeless, resulting in different workflow requirements because of its nonlinear nature. Storage media and transmission methods are multiplying as fast as the ways in which they can be used. At times, it's hard to tell if news is driving technology, or vice versa. The answer depends on whom you ask.

Next-generation crews

Seasoned ENG crews have already been through the digital conversion, but are somewhat suspicious of the increasing rate of change. New recruits were raised on cell phones, digital snapshots, the Internet, iPods and video games. To them, rapidly changing technology is just a way of life. But what do the new recruits bring to table, and how will they fit into the changing paradigm?

Experienced crews know their ENG vans inside out. If something breaks at a critical moment, they know how to create an emergency work-around and get the story on the air.

The new crop of operators can master digital capture, graphic interfaces, microprocessor-controlled equipment and PC editing stations quickly and with an intuitive grasp. However, they are primarily appliance operators and may not know how it all works. When the inevitable equipment malfunction or breakdown occurs, some of the newbies will have problems devising work-arounds because they grew up on dumpster technology (meaning: if it breaks, throw it away, and get a new one). Also, real-time transmission has not been a top priority for the Web-enabled generation; just hit the refresh button or wait for the buffers.

The future of ENG

The ENG operation of the future will be different. Manufacturers are already taking advantage of IP interfaces for storage media and editing systems. ENG cameras produce video as a compressed digital stream that can be transmitted in real time or recorded as a file. The file can be edited on a laptop PC, a specialized mobile editor, or, in some cases, use the camera's own storage media for a cuts-only version. The file will be transferred to the studio server in one of several ways, some of which are still under development.

The key to success will be adapting current crews to new IT-based tools, as well as teaching newcomers how to deal with real-time issues and how to react to emergency situations. When future ENG crews are in trouble, it's likely someone at the studio will be able to help. ENG van equipment will include Ethernet control ports that can be accessed remotely. An engineer at the studio will be able to control the van's on-board equipment using a GUI on a PC via wireless hookup.

With so many tools and technologies to choose from, making the right choices will be difficult, but history has shown that value, speed and ease of use will be the winning combinations that move the news from the good old days of “Film at 11:00” to wherever the future takes us.

George Maier is president of Orion Broadcast Solutions, a consulting firm.