War coverage technology

Ask almost any war correspondent and they'll tell you that covering a story is the easy part — filing it is a much different situation. Today's network news directors expect their field reporters to feed their stories back in for broadcast promptly and even do live shots.
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Ask almost any war correspondent and they'll tell you that covering a story is the easy part — filing it is a much different situation. Today's network news directors expect their field reporters to feed their stories back in for broadcast promptly and even do live shots.

Until recently, if a news producer wanted live coverage where no uplink was available, the common practice was to go on the air with a still of the reporter and use telephone audio.

Reporters now have the ability to do a stand up from nearly anywhere in the world via the videophone. The use of videophones to transmit pictures and data dates back to the Gulf War. They were also used, to a limited extent, in Kosovo.

The Wall Street Journal called the satellite videophone “the hottest new weapon” in news coverage. Probably the most attention to the methodology came when slightly modified videophones were used to do live shots from Afghanistan; a country with little broadcast technology.

CNN's vice president of satellite and circuits, Dick Tauber, said: “Our viewers have grown to depend on us to be their eyes and ears for breaking news. With this responsibility, we want to put them right there.” Tauber said CNN uses several devices that have grown out of video conferencing technology. The key is to have a live presence that gives the network a certain level of creditability.

Tauber described the CNN system as small, light and portable. Basically, it consists of a camera and mic that plug into a specialized codec, which feeds two 64 kbits/s, INMARSAT M4 satellite phones which, combined, provide 128 kbits/s bandwidth. The whole setup is powered by a car battery. “The pictures aren't exactly the finest,” Tauber concluded, “but the package does live and only live. For CNN, that's just what we want.”

NBC's approach is similar. Stacy Brady, vice president of network field operations, said they have several of the 128 kbits/s units in various shapes, configurations and sizes. “The whole idea is to be portable and get to the front line; if you're not portable, you're not going to able to get there.”

“We have about 20 of the 128 kbits/s units. One of them was used for the Antarctica rescue mission earlier this year, and there is no question that they'll be used even more now.”

Brady said the pictures are received in their Secaucus, NJ, facility, where they are transcoded to NTSC and sent to NBC's news headquarters in New York City.

Brady said improvements in the technology should allow for significantly better pictures, adding, “We are testing a 256 kbits/s device that produces a beautiful picture. Although we haven't used it yet, it will be ready soon.”

Because these videophones are full duplex, it's easy to send programming back to the field correspondent for various purposes. The phones can also be used for communication between correspondents.

Frank Governale, vice president of operations for CBS News, doesn't see the videophone as a significant item at this stage. “It's a great tool for advance surveys, but I don't think it'll replace our uplinks — it's just not broadcast quality. Uplinks provide a lot more facilities for CBS News. When we use videophones we have to shrink the picture 20 percent to 30 percent and put a graphic under it to mask the poor quality.” He said CBS uses communications equipment that provides four-wire, IFB and telephone access in the field.

Governale said that CBS owns several Talking Head videophones from the 7E Company, but that its London bureau has bought off-the-shelf codecs and interfaced them with other INMARSAT M4 phones with equal success. “These and other units are being used on air from Pakistan and Afghanistan. I believe we have about nine in the field.” Governale pointed out that the videophones have one advantage in that they are full duplex. CBS uses the back channel for IFB to cue the talent.

William Tracy, ABC-TV's director of electronic news gathering, said that CNN's use of videophone technology to cover the story of a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane's emergency landing on Hainan Island made ABC realize it needed videophones for live coverage. “Although we were there, we weren't ready to go live. It was that event that made us realize that we needed a device of this type,” said Tracy. ABC now also uses the Talking Head videophones.

“As the technology improves,” Tracy concluded, “I could see these devices being used to send slow bit rate, pre-recorded digital videotape back to the studios for editing so it can be used with the live shots.”

Another company providing videophone technology is GMPCS, based in Pompano Beach, FL. GMPCS' owner, Craig Van Wagner said, “Videophones come in all shapes, sizes and durability and can be configured to the needs of the broadcaster.”

For the most part, videophones available today are compliant with several international videoconferencing standards: H.320 for ISDN, H.324 for POTS and H.323 for LANs.

It should be pointed out that the codec technology used in videophones supports standards-based, two-way real-time transmissions over both analog and digital lines, in compliance with the international standards mentioned earlier and communications protocol software, to ensure interoperability between units from different vendors. Most units also support G.723 audio compression/decompression as well as MPEG-1 playback, making it a full-function multimedia platform for PCs and other consumer systems.

Do videophones need to be part of every newsroom's cache of equipment or are they a luxury? Videophones range in price from $2,000 to $25,000, depending on their configuration and features. Considering that they can fill a need, that they cost perhaps one tenth as much as a typical satellite uplink facility and are highly portable — you be the judge.

Send questions and comments to: larry_bloomfield@intertec.com