TV Goes to War

When the U.S. began rolling tanks and troop carriers, firing cruise missiles and dropping one-ton smart bombs on Baghdad March 20, the world's news media began executing their own battle plans in the theater.
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WASHINGTON

When the U.S. began rolling tanks and troop carriers, firing cruise missiles and dropping one-ton smart bombs on Baghdad March 20, the world's news media began executing their own battle plans in the theater.

"We were all a bit surprised by the Wednesday night startup of the war," said Stacy Brady, vice president of Field Operations for NBC News. But other than getting everyone quickly in place, "we didn't have too many challenges."

"We just hit the great big 'on' button," said Dick Tauber, CNN's vice president of satellites and circuits. "It was not like chaos or anything, it really was just the opposite: A smooth plan that just started off and went into practice, and we just went with it."

Brady, Tauber and other news operations heads from the broadcast and cable networks reported that their planning paid off big-time.

"The people have done an extraordinary job," said Frank Governale, vice president for operations for CBS News. "The processes we've put in place have been very successful in what we're doing."

UNMANNED CAMERAS

Associated Press Television News, tasked with supplying its members with video of the conflict and production support, had maintained a permanent bureau in Baghdad. "[We had] taken the gamble to start our live coverage from key locations four days earlier," said Nick Evansky, director of Technology for APTN. He credits that decision with their ability to bring the first moments of the conflict back to viewers.

The Iraq War's opening night coverage from the networks had the look of a multi-camera remote thanks to a last minute pool agreement between the various news organizations. Video came largely from unmanned cameras atop Iraq's Ministry of Information building.

The Iraqi government required the networks to headquarter and operate out of that building, but the journalists and their bosses feared the building would be a target for coalition missiles and bombs.

"A lot of the networks just turned their earth stations on, and generators, and attached a camera and had that running, locked down on a portion of the city," said Tauber. "Different cameras show different pieces of the city."

CNN's employees didn't have a choice; Iraq threw their journalists out of the country in the days before the attack. But Tauber said they had local people to replenish fuel to their generator during the relatively safe daylight hours to keep the camera functioning.

Downtown Baghdad live video coverage wasn't limited to U.S. network resources. On that first night and as the bombing continued during the first days of the war, news services aired live shots from European news services and others, including Arab network Al Jazeera.

Live coverage wasn't limited to showing the effects of the attack.

Embedded journalists aboard two aircraft carriers launching the cruise missiles and aircraft went live with their reports using geo-stationary satellite phone dishes from the U.S.S. Constellation and Lincoln aircraft carriers. So did their embedded land-based counterparts in their "Mad Max" dashes across the desert.

FAVORITE GADGETS

The tools enabling their journalists to go live from these moving platforms were some of the network operations chiefs' favorite pieces of new technology.

"My personal favorite?" asked CBS's Governale. "I guess it would be the John Roberts Humvee, which is sort of a compilation of an uplink, two sat-phones; we've got a videophone in the truck as well so he can be driving at 40 or 50 miles an hour, transmitting pictures back at 128 kilobits a second."

Roberts' Humvee sports five cameras. "We can have shots out of the front, the back, the sides and inside the vehicle," said Governale. "He gets to be a one-man mobile unit."

Tauber's favorite of CNN's new tools? "Right now it's the small, geo-stationary high-speed data dish inside these little domes," he said. "We've got them on a number of the Humvees out in the field that are giving us these moving videophone pictures while these folks are moving. We've got similar gear on the Constellation and the U.S.S. Lincoln aircraft carriers."

The satellite phones deliver low bandwidth video, with limited resolution and low frame rates. NBC's Brady said her network one-upped the competition with their "Bloom Mobile."

"David Bloom is with the Third Infantry, and while everybody else has their videophones running while they're moving, we have live, realtime, full-bandwidth video on a satellite with Bloom," she said.

NBC correspondent and weekend anchor Bloom rode atop a heavily armed tank recovery vehicle, with technician Craig White inside controlling the camera. While the Bloom Mobile was bumping along near the front of the attack group, his full bandwidth video and audio was microwaved back to an uplink vehicle with a gyro-stabilizing dish on it. From that vehicle, the full bandwidth video was uplinked back to the network.

"The pictures are fabulous," said Brady.

She was also quick to mention a satellite package supplied by Raytheon Co. and Tandberg Television. "That is our two piece uplink which gives us video, audio, comm, data and return video, all in the two boxes," said Brady. "That has been working so great that people don't even know that they're looking at highly compressed video, because the picture is so incredible."

With all the communications built into the unit, including six telephones and Internet connectivity, NBC's embedded team is sharing with their hosts. "A lot of the military is sort of using our phones, they work so well."

SATELLITE COVERAGE

There are some limitations to live coverage.Since uplinking from a satellite phone can give away the phone's and the accompanying combat unit's position, there are times the units can't be used.

There had been fears that satellite resources would be stretched too thin. In the months before the war kicked off, the United States military was contracting for commercial satellite capacity to back up its own. Add to that the fact that Iraq has historically prevented operators from putting satellites in stationary orbit over the country.

But Inmarsat, operator of the satellites favored by many of those transmitting video via satellite phone, diverted one of its spare satellites into the Middle East region. "They basically have gone through extreme measures to get additional capacity into the region," said CNN's Tauber. "I give them a lot of credit. They've done a terrific job."

One writer for the New York Times opined that television showed more live coverage in one day than it did in the entire 1991 war. While the accuracy of that notion will have to wait for some academician's doctoral project, it seems about right.

However, new technology was also in evidence in the prepackaged news reports. Small DV cameras and laptop editors are everywhere with television journalists in the Iraq War theater.

The satellite phones allow them to upload their stories, via file transfer protocol, back to their newsrooms for playback on air. Because of the low bandwidth of the phones, this store and forward process can last many times the duration of the video, but it frees the news team from being tethered to a larger satellite uplink.

"The Strassman piece that had the grenades go off in it, that's how that video got back to us," said CBS's Governale. Correspondent Mark Strassman was a few tents away when a U.S. soldier threw grenades into a 101st Airborne command center.

"The cameraman shot the video, edited a real quick little pitch reel, which was compressed, and forwarded to our FTP server, all within 10 minutes. It was unbelievable."

The small size and affordability of laptop editors has allowed them to be placed in a lot of hands. "Producers and correspondents and our techs have laptop editing, and you know one of the applications on there is the Avid Xpress DV, said Governale.

"It's been working very, very well in terms of editing pieces, compressing them, and sending them with store/forward software to our FTP server either in New York or London, and we put them on the air."

CNN's Tauber said he thinks that though live coverage dominated the early days of the war coverage, his networks' news teams sent back 20 to 30 edited packages a day. "The real issue with the laptop stuff is the amount of time it takes, once you've edited that piece, to FTP it in; because you've got to have the phone up and running, and you've got to be connected for usually anywhere from one to two hours."

Still, the convenient editors and store and forward technology has allowed more video to reach the newsroom more quickly than in prior war coverage. "What was happening, I think, in previous efforts was that other footage never made it back until after the war," said David Schleifer, Avid's director of Broadcast and Work Groups.

"So now when they're not online, they can cull down the material and feed it, or they can cut together much better produced pieces and send them on."

KEEPING TRACK

With hundreds of hours of video, live and prepackaged, that arrived back in the newsrooms, strategies needed to be in place to keep track of it all.

"There are different desks that have been assigned to work with the different locations where we are-everybody from Baghdad to Kuwait City, Jordan, Northern Iraq, all throughout the region," said Tauber.

"A number of people are just working with our embed teams to make sure that we can get their material up, their feeds up, get them in-house, and then get them on-air when they're ready."

Other networks have similar systems in place.

"In order to handle all the additional feeds for the war, we had to expand our technical infrastructure and add additional record and replay devices and people to log and track all of the incoming video," said APTN's Evansky.

AP's own reporters found its own Electronic News Production System was key to this system. "It plays a crucial role in managing the volumes of multimedia," said Evansky.

Sandstorms and other harsh conditions took its toll on news journalists' equipment during the war's first days. But spares and quick thinking kept them covering the stories and filing reports.

When Inside Edition had one of its laptop editors fail, one advantage of using non-proprietary PCs came to light.

"They literally had sand stuck in one of the cards and couldn't make it work," said Avid's Schleifer. "They went to a local computer store in Kuwait and picked up a FireWire card, and they were up and running."

One advantage news operations enjoyed in covering the Iraq conflict was the lack of any other story to compete for resources. Well, almost nothing else. On the first weekend CNN wanted to get a truck to Texas to cover a military family story.

"We were calling around and all of the sudden there were a zillion trucks going to Los Angeles for the Oscars," said Tauber.

In the end, it all came down to planning. Network operations chiefs described hundreds of hours of meetings stretching over more than half a year in preparation for covering war in Iraq.

NBC's Brady said her network designed their whole technical system in Visio drawings. "We've talked about it so much and gone through the plans so much that it's not just on the drawings; it's embedded in our heads."