During the first days of the Gulf War in 1990, viewers around the world were treated to live, late-breaking footage via satellite phone technology.
It was 25 years ago this week that CNN began broadcasting the world’s first 24-hour television news service. When CNN went on the air on June 1, 1980, most national television news was relegated to a regularly scheduled evening newscast.
Today there are more than 70 television channels broadcasting 24-hour news coverage around the world. CNN, now with more than 900 international broadcast affiliates, is available not only on television, but on radio, the Internet, personal pagers, wireless organizers and cell phones.
News technology during 25 years has changed dramatically. But it was in 1991, during the first Iraq war, that CNN pioneered one of the greatest technology transitions in the history of broadcast news.
Nic Robertson, then CNN’s satellite flyaway engineer and now the network’s senior international correspondent, smuggled a massive satellite telephone into Iraq and had to keep the technical gear running in the event of war.
He said this initially involved running a dedicated four-wire communications circuit that gave them the ability to broadcast live from Iraq without relying on the Baghdad TV station or PTT. They had to resort to my Robertson’s smuggled satellite telephone when the telephone exchange that the signal relied on was bombed.
Five days after the outbreak of the war, Robertson and his crew got permission to bring the satellite dish into the country. He returned to Jordan and came back a week later with a satellite TV transmitter. Robertson said the kit was so substantial that they could only bring it into the country by driving a truck up the main road between Amman and Baghdad.
Without that technology, CNN’s historic coverage of the Gulf War would never have been possible, recalled Robertson. The satellite dish enabled CNN to cover the Amaria shelter bombing, where hundreds of civilians were killed. But it was John Holliman’s, Bernard Shaw’s and Peter Arnett’s reporting on the four-wire the first night of the war that really captured the imagination of viewers.
Since then changes in newsgathering technology has transformed the way CNN works.
Robertson said video quality today has dramatically improved with the use of Apple Powerbooks (G4) and highly portable DV camcorders. He described a live shot for CNN from Riyadh that was thought by many to be broadcast from a satellite because of the high-quality look. The crew actually used the latest version of the network’s live software on the G4 and a hotel Internet connection in Riyadh to broadcast the shot.
Robertson said he expects newsgathering to go even further this year with the (Powerbook) G5, because of its fast processor, and wider bandwidth sat phone and sat modems.