Finance cable network moves to wireless coverage
NEW YORK: Ever since it launched in 1989, CNBC has probably done more than any other medium to bring the sights and sounds of Wall Street to TV viewers. However, advances in digital technology are allowing the network to now get even more "up close and personal" with the stock exchange.
In September, the cable network, which, during the daytime, broadcasts real-time financial news from around the world, began conducting interviews during trading hours on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the main trading market on Wall Street. This meant that the days of watching Maria Bartiromo gazing into the lens of a distant camera were over; now reporters could provide a "traders-eye" view of the floor, bringing the hustle and bustle of the stock exchange into the living room and boardroom.
In a hectic environment like the NYSE, however, wired cameras were out; the network had to find a way to transmit from the floor without its wires getting in the way of traders.
Enter RF technology in the form of COFDM. The network employed a microwave-based system from U.K.-based Link Research to wirelessly broadcast audio and video from the floor. Steve Fastook, vice president of technical and commercial operations for CNBC became familiar with COFDM several years ago when NBC was looking for a way to provide more flexible coverage of the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade in New York.
"We had always used wireless cameras but they were the traditional camera with the pointer," Fastook said. "It was very clunky, however. And it was almost impossible to keep a good signal."
Using COFDM, however, allowed the network to broadcast from Broadway without requiring line of sight, freeing up production crews to get closer to the action.
"We got coverage as far uptown and downtown as we could possibly go and it didn't matter if it was line of sight or not," Fastook said. "It was so good that we decided to use the cameras for air; we didn't even set up the traditional analog microwave. That revolutionized the show."
NBC has since adopted COFDM for wireless capabilities throughout its newsgathering division. Bringing the technology to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange took a little more time, however. The influx of numerous new wireless technologies has turned the NYSE building into "RF hell," according to Fastook.
"All the traders carry these little wireless devices, plus there are special cell phones in there, " Fastook said. "It's a very difficult RF environment."
Working with the NYSE after hours, CNBC and Link Research engineers used spectrum analyzers to test their system on the floor, using a special program created by the NYSE that sends out packets of false trades and then analyzes them for dropped packets.
"We took our cameras, fired them up and took them all over the place, any place, any possible scenario to see if there was any loss of packets or anything outside the spectrum, and then we locked ourselves into a frequency and hard-programmed the camera to that frequency."
Early results from the trading floor were spotty however.
"There was so much interference in the air that we were getting very minute digital hits," Fastook said. "Our transmitter is a 10 milliwatt device, it's extremely low power, so the receiver's very sensitive. It would only happen when people were out there trading." Engineers fixed the problem by installing block filters around the operating frequency, and "we've been rock-solid ever since, " Fastook said.
"We're very pleased to have taken this technology to the field for CNBC," said Newlin Warden, director for Link Research. "The stock exchange has thousands of wireless devices that they use for trading and it was absolutely critical that we not interfere with that operation."
FIRST, DO NO HARM
Currently, reports from the show floor occur during peak times of the day, around the opening bell and during mid-day, but the network hopes to expand its presence on the floor in the near future. And while the camera crew may not be currently eligible for combat pay, the risk of broadcasting from such a busy place has its own special hazards. Along with the cameraman and correspondent, a "spotter" is used to prevent accidental collisions.
"The traders are very deliberate," Fastook said. "They're heading from one place to another, they don't really care what's in their way. They move quickly and they don't really look around, so we have to watch them. The number one thing is that we cannot affect what's happening on the floor."
Audio is also of particular concern. Producers use a combination of wireless lavs and stick mics but propagation delays can cause audio sync problems.
"We have to make sure that no matter what we do, we run the mic through the wireless so that it locks in sync with the video," Fastook said. "Otherwise you have lip sync problems. So if you use a stick mic or lav, it's received on the wireless."
Prior to September, CNBC's coverage of the NYSE floor consisted of a fixed camera attached to a wired robotic head on a perch overlooking the main trading floor. The camera is still used to intercut with the floor coverage, to provide perspective. This prompted some creative thinking on the part of producers who want to combine footage from both wired and wireless sources.
"It's okay as long as we know that the audio goes through the same path as the camera, or that the shot is wide and far enough apart that you can make out the details," Fastook said. "It's only half a second, but if you were doing closeup interviews and you were intercutting between a wireless and wired [source], you'd see a difference in audio sync."
Reaction from the NYSE has been very positive, according to CNBC correspondent Bob Pisani, who noted that the coverage has twice drawn kudos from NYSE CEO John Thain.
Although Internet trading hasn't made the stock exchange obsolete, trading organizations such as the NYSE are more aware of the need to promote themselves these days.
"This is a business and there is serious competition with electronic exchanges and the NASDAQ," Pisani said. "They've got to show people that this is a working, dynamic, functioning place."
The new setup has invigorated CNBC's coverage, echoed Fastook.
"We're bringing energy and presence to [the trade]," he said. "We're letting the world see the energy these guys have, which I think is their biggest value."
Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.
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