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Capturing the future

The news industry is in turmoil. The Internet is changing the fundamentals of how Americans (as well as people globally) get their daily news fixes. Virtually all of the traditional news sources are losing audiences as more people turn to the Internet to augment the sources they have traditionally relied on for local, national and international news.

Newspapers are taking big hits in subscriber levels; however, they are embracing the Internet and the economic advantage of creating and distributing bits as opposed to physically distributing bits of dead trees with ink blotches. While the newspaper industry has already experienced massive consolidation, most markets have only one economically viable daily newspaper today. Those that remain are acutely aware of the challenges to stay relevant in a world where most of what gets printed is a rehash of the stories that radio, TV and the Internet have already covered over the last 24 hours.

The situation in the newspaper industry has grown so acute that the chairman of the FCC is promoting the idea of newspaper and TV cross-ownership in the top 20 U.S. TV markets. (For more, see “Web links” on page 14.) In an op-ed piece published in the “New York Times,” FCC chairman Kevin Martin noted falling newspaper circulation and dwindling advertising dollars as indications of the poor health of the industry. (See “Web links.”)

Martin wrote: “At the heart of all of these facts and figures is the undeniable reality that the media marketplace has changed considerably over the last three decades. In 1975, cable television served fewer than 15 percent of television households. Satellite TV did not exist. Today, by contrast, fewer than 15 percent of homes do not subscribe to cable or satellite television. And the Internet as we know it today did not even exist in 1975. Now, nearly one-third of all Americans regularly receive news through the Internet.”

What Martin did not mention is that the long-standing advantages of the electronic news media — sound and pictures — are available to any news organization when a viewer turns to an Internet news portal for the latest stories. In many cases, audio and video coverage of a story is available on demand, not just from the evening news.

Such is the reality in a world filled with inexpensive SD, and now HD, camcorders and citizen news reporters equipped with phones that capture high-resolution stills and video.

Which path to follow?

It's not like things are all rosy in TV land either. In its report on “The State of the News Media in 2007�� (see Web links), the Project for Excellence in Journalism says: “Local TV news, long America's most popular information medium, is hardly proving immune to the revolution changing journalism. In 2006, audiences appeared to be dropping for newscasts across all time periods during the day — even mornings, which had been growing.”

Local TV news organizations, already challenged by declining ratings and competition from the Internet, are in many cases facing budget cuts. This comes at a time when the investment in new technology for newsgathering may be critical to their future prosperity.

To further complicate the situation, stations are confronting the imminent transition to DTV, including the ability to deliver widescreen images in standard and high definition. Upgrading a station's news organization to HD is the most visible way a station can demonstrate it is embracing DTV. This may become a competitive necessity as other stations in a market upgrade to HD.

As broadcasters approach this crossroad, the choice is not which path to follow, but how to follow multiple paths:

  • Should the station upgrade to HD for studio segments of its newscasts?
  • Should the station upgrade to HD ENG for field acquisition?
  • Should the station divert or add resources to take the stories that are created for on-air use to the Internet?

As the newspaper industry is learning, sticking with what has worked for decades is not an option. The industry already has a considerable lead over local TV news organizations with respect to the development of functionally useful news portals.

Should a station invest in HD to keep up with other stations in its market? Should a station focus on the development of an Internet news portal? Can it do both?

If the answer is both, which from this vantage appears to be the only viable option, how does this impact investments in newsgathering gear and the back-end infrastructure needed to deliver the news through multiple distribution media?

Being digital

The DTV transition involves much more than transmitting bits that deliver higher quality pictures and sound. Nicholas Negroponte, in his book, “Being Digital,” talked about the many benefits that flow from turning all forms of information into bits. (See “Web links.”)

At its core, the DTV transition is about the digitization of virtually all of the workflows (and the underlying technology) that stations need to support existing operations. But even more important, being digital means that the bits that the station produces can easily be repurposed for new applications — for example, to provide content for an Internet news portal.

To draw this column to a logical and productive close, let's focus on a single issue: How should you be acquiring images from the field?

Many stations are taking the HD news plunge. The first step typically involves upgrading the news set and the studio cameras to support HD. SD sources are upconverted, and a station may place information in the pillarbox areas around 4:3 sources.

The second step typically involves HD newsgathering equipment, where there are many emerging options for field acquisition gear. JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Thomson Grass Valley are delivering acquisition products for the HD ENG market.

There is another option, however, that stations should explore that may help bridge the expensive decision to purchase HD ENG gear. Your station may already have camcorders that can capture news footage in the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, and there is wide range of affordable camcorders that can acquire widescreen SD images. These widescreen assets can be upconverted for integration into an HD newscast with very good quality.

Shooting in widescreen formats should be the first step. Even if a station has not upgraded the studio infrastructure, it will help the field crews become accustomed to the issues of shooting in a widescreen format and improve the archival value of stories. And these widescreen assets can be repurposed immediately for an Internet news portal.

If you are planning to take the big plunge to HD ENG, think progressive. Interlace complicates the transition to being digital. It is a legacy compression technology that is disappearing along with CRT-based television displays. Frame-based images can easily be converted to any resolution for display — up for the highest quality 1080p displays or down for Internet and mobile TV applications.

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

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