The camera becomes a means to an end

These days, when looking to buy a broadcast ENG camera, the key purchasing issues for broadcasters revolve around how the images will be used once they leave the camera. That is, how they fit into a high efficiency, minimal labor, news production workflow.

On the list of desirable camera features, scanning method, digital signal processing and low-light sensitivity appear to have become secondary concerns to how the images are stored and output from the camera.

This is true for both tapeless and tape-based acquisition systems, both of which rely on proprietary compression formats. Indeed, new technology developments in imagers (both traditional CCD- and CMOS-equipped models), data transfer rates (25Mb/s, 75Mb/s and 100Mb/s for HD alone) and removable recording media are getting a lot of press. But in the scheme of the news production chain, when it comes to making purchase decisions, stations often now look at the camera as simply a means to an end.

While many news departments are aggressively moving to tapeless operation in all aspects of the production process, videotape still plays a major role in electronic newsgathering, both in SD and HD. In tandem with this move away from tape, the emergence of the highly affordable HDV (25Mb/s) format has allowed stations to acquire local news in 1080i or 720p HD. They could never afford to do this otherwise, so the use of tape is still a practical alternative.

Every station has a different way it likes to work, based perhaps on multi-client browsing, the NLE system in use and the various steps the program goes through before being broadcast to air. Therefore, when buying a camera, the goal is to choose a model that allows the crew to move material through a station's news production infrastructure faster, while maintaining the highest possible image quality within the set limits.

The ideal camera, be it SD or HD, should somehow improve the existing production process and be compatible with the way your staff likes to operate (e.g., proxy files, Long GOP files, compression methods) and the NLE system they use. Some cameras require the user to transcode the IT-centric file captured with the camera to baseband video before you can begin editing. Others create a proxy (clone) of an MPEG-compressed file, allowing you to start working immediately.

This new way of looking at broadcast cameras is because the digital processing circuitry in general has gotten so good that users can count on most models to produce images that are crystal clear and can make any on-screen newscast shine — especially when compared to analog cameras of the past. (There are still some network divisions and local stations using Betacam SP and, gulp!, M-II.) Price and feature sets are the big differentiators, with new broadcast production-style models now costing from approximately $5000 to $65,000.

In introducing new, lighter models with smaller sized CCDs (going from 2/3in to 1/2in), camera vendors have strived to offer more features at lower costs. This year's NAB saw the emergence of the sub-$25,000 high-definition 2/3in and 1/2in camcorders for news, something unheard of even three years ago. There were also sub-$6000 HD 1/2in and 1/3in cameras that capture in SD as well.

As stations continue to control expenses, camera manufacturers are attempting to spread their R&D investments by simultaneously offering products that address the high and low ends of the production spectrum. Consumer divisions now help market and sell to broadcast customers.

Creatively, the lines are blurring as small-format HDV cameras are increasingly being used in tandem with larger format models on the same production. It's happening more often at both the network and local level.

The less expensive cameras may use smaller CCD imagers, operate at 25Mb/s or provide fewer operator features. Some news and technical directors say this limits the final HD image quality by providing less color space and image/lighting latitude.

However, it appears that many stations, even those doing their local newscasts in HD, are willing to accept these limitations in order to meet budget demands. Stations often use higher end cameras in the studio but still settle for unconverted 50Mb/s SD images from the field. This may not be a perfect HD solution, but it does improve a station's on-screen look and helps it stay competitive. And, we're still at the stage where most viewers won't notice the difference.

Consider the workflow first

As anyone who's worked in news will tell you, at the end of the day, it's all about who gets the big story to air first. That's why a variety of tapeless camera systems are beginning to flourish. Sony's Bob Ott, vice president of the optical and network product marketing division, said recent camera sales have become less about image quality and more about how fast the operator can get the images out of the camera and into an edit system. Although, many operators say the pictures sell the camera, especially among network-level purchases.

Bruce Cowan, director of broadcast technology and operations at Canada's CHUM Television network, said moving from a tape-based workflow to a tapeless workflow was the main motivation behind the decision to purchase 49 Ikegami Editcam3 camcorders. These cameras, with removable FieldPaks, are being distributed among its Toronto, Vancouver and Alberta news bureaus.

Cowan said the Editcam's FieldPaks interface directly to CHUM's Avid NewsCutter NLE systems (with Avid's ISIS storage), thus it eliminates the time-consuming need to copy or transcode raw material into the system. The FieldPaks provide more than two hours of record time and use standard laptop disc drives (internal to the FieldPak), which, he said, are key to fast news turnaround. CHUM plans to install Sony HDC-F950 HD cameras in the studio.

Most of today's SD and HD cameras offer 4X to 6X transfer speeds via FireWire connections. They are equipped with removable hard drives, a solid-state Flash memory card or optical discs and are adept at moving data from the camera to an NLE system. Grass Valley's recently released REV PRO cartridges are recognized by many computer editing systems as just another file on the desktop (or in the timeline).

Lots of choices

JVC's GY-HD100U 720p HDV camcorder has been popular with broadcasters looking to move to HD cost-effectively. And it's not only at the local level. In November, using the HD100U, ABC's national “Good Morning America” (GMA) became the first regularly scheduled network news program broadcast in HD. The JVC camera captures the opening exterior shot of GMA's Times Square headquarters, as well as POV images that are regularly intercut with the show's HD studio feed.

With the introduction of JVC's HZ-CA13U 16mm film lens adapter, the GY-HD200U can accept a variety of stock prime and zoom lenses. The camera also has an Image Inversion function, which allows for the compensation of picture reversal created by prime lenses so that special editing functionality is not required for correct recording of the image. JVC will soon deliver a second HDV camera, the GY-HD200U, which is designed specifically for ENG applications and will include a 60p encoder as well as enhanced gamma and genlock features.

Regarding tapeless ENG acquisition, Ikegami offers 80GB and 120GB FieldPaks for its HDN-X10 Editcam HD and DNS-33W SD Editcam3 camcorders. The 120GB FieldPak costs $750 and records 90 minutes of 145Mb/s HD video or nine hours of 25Mb/s SD video. The company also announced a 16GB RAMPak solid-state Flash memory that will sell for less than $1500. The 16GB RAMPak can hold more than 70 minutes of DV25 video.

Hitachi offers new Mediapac cartridges for its Z-DR1 solid-state hard drive recorder, which docks to the company's Z-4000W SD camera for ENG use. The cartridges come in 8GB and 16GB versions, and soon a 160GB hard-disc storage drive will be available. At this point, the system accommodates only SD production, but, as Emilio Aleman, product manager at Hitachi, will tell you, there's still an awful lot of SD production being done. Although HD production is growing, SD production will be around for a long time to come.

The Mediapacs are aluminum-encased Hitachi hard discs, ranging between 40GB and 120GB capacity, which offer up to nine hours of recording time per Mediapac.

Panasonic has gained considerable traction with its DVCPRO P2 solid-state recording system, including large purchase orders from Raycom Media (21 stations), Nexstar Broadcasting Group (26 markets) and Media General (20 stations). The solid-state PCMCIA P2 card is available on several of its new DVCPRO cameras, including the AG-HVX200 HD (1/3in CCDs) and new AJ-SPX800 (2/3in, 24p) SD camera. At NAB, the company also showed the new tape-based AJ-HDX-900 HD camera.

As Panasonic predicted, the price of solid-state storage has begun to drop. Last year, a 4GB card cost about $1400. Today that same card goes for $550. The Secure Digital P2 memory cards provide approximately 35 minutes of DVCPRO 50 recording on a 4GB PCMCIA card. Plus, a variety of frame rates can be stored on a single P2 card. Panasonic says most customers purchase about five cards per camera.

Sony's XDCAM optical discs have also been embraced by a wide range of broadcasters, including the CBS News division and all 16 network O&Os, several Gannett stations and Cablevision's News 12 (in New York). The Sony XDCAM HD family of optical products includes two camcorders with varying features. The CBS deal was announced at NAB, but as of press time, the cameras remain undelivered because of a lack of 1/2in lenses. Both Canon and Fujinon unveiled such lenses at the NAB convention this year. The lenses can be used either in the studio or in the field and are specifically tailored to ENG and location production.

Following Sony's ongoing camera strategy of legacy compatibility, the same Professional Disc media used in the SD version of the XDCAM system also works with the new HD version. Users can record up to two hours of HD content on a single 23.3GB optical disc, with a data transfer rate of 72Mb/s (per optical head).

Grass Valley's new Infinity series HD camcorder has 2/3in lenses and a wealth of storage options, but the camera has yet to be delivered. (Two stations in the United States are said to be beta testing it.) The camera, which has shaken up the industry in terms of price and performance potential, uses the Grass Valley 35GB REV PRO cartridge (manufactured by Iomega) as its primary storage device, but users also have the ability to record to solid-state (SanDisk) and USB storage as well. The highly flexible camera also offers a choice of MPEG-2 or JPEG2000 compression recording.

Plenty of good solutions

With the need to produce images for an increasing variety of platforms (e.g., TV, Internet, handheld devices), the camera, which was once viewed as a separate tool, is now seen as part of an overall system purchase order. The variety of choices now available allow stations to select the model, compression and recording format that best fits their needs.

Michael Grotticelli regularly reports on the professional video and broadcast technology industries.