Videophones' Toughest Test

As the world digs in for a war with evasive enemies and an indefinite timeline, news organizations are clamoring to get their people and equipment to the world’s hot spots. The extreme conditions of central Asia could test the limits of a new generation of newsgathering tools aimed at meeting the public’s ever-growing demand for live coverage of history-making events.

Among the hot items in the trenches is a briefcase-sized satellite videophone, the Talking Head, manufactured by London’s 7-E Communications, Ltd., which is working at crisis-level speeds to fill scores of new orders. Viewers worldwide have already seen transmissions from the latest model, the TH-2, which can link two InMarSat phones to send video and audio at 128 Kbps.

That quality is too low for most news purposes, but will suffice when reporters reach the news before flyaways or other cumbersome uplinks arrive ¾ if they arrive at all.

"There’s so much to be said that’s positive about these, as a first-strike kind of news tool," said Dick Tauber, CNN’s vice president for satellites and circuits. "It was designed and meant to do just live, and that’s our bread and butter."

And, it can fit into an airplane’s overhead compartment, can draw power from an automobile’s cigarette lighter, and has all the video and audio interfaces reporters need.


Peter Beardow, managing director of 7-E, said his company is cranking out 25 to 30 of the boxes per week since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., compared to five or six previously.

"They can go on-air with a comment almost instantly," Beardow said. "It is aimed at basically doing a stand-up with very, very good lip-synch."

Beardow stresses that the device is not a replacement for a flyaway. But it is better than nothing, as CNN discovered when they used a Talking Head to grab footage of the release of American service personnel by Chinese authorities after the American airplane crash-landed on China’s Hainan Island in April.

"The correspondent pointed it at the airplane [that departed China with the Americans]," Beardow said. "All those families back in the states, would they like to see a grainy picture with the wheels leaving the ground, or wait three-quarters of an hour to see a very nice picture of the wheels leaving the ground? The story was that the wheels were leaving the ground, not that the tires were made by Goodrich."

The area in Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance is not the site of U.S. air strikes, as of press time. Nevertheless, reporters have swarmed there with their 7-E products, Motion Media 225 teleconferencing equipment, Toko store-and-forward videoconferencing equipment (which sends better-quality images, but too slowly for live feeds) and various improvised combinations of video encoder, satellite phone, and power supply.

"We have many varieties of videophones and we have been building our own stuff and experimenting," said Stacy Brady, vice president of network news field operations for NBC. "The problem, of course, is it’s in development, and what we wanted to do is get stuff on the ground immediately. So we did buy some more from 7-E. It’s all about mobility and price and quality and being totally self-contained. You don’t want to ever have to worry about power or phone lines or anything like that."

CBS also has some homegrown, improvised videophones.

"The Talking Head device is a great device, very well-packaged, but there are other people out there doing the same thing," said CBS’ Vice President of News Operations Frank Governale. "And actually, it’s standard teleconferencing equipment, packaged very nicely and made easily adaptable to satellite transmission on InMarSat phones."


Most people involved with the Talking Heads agree that 128 Kpbs won’t make the cut unless it’s absolutely the only picture. And 7-E stresses that you have to use it right.

"The subject has got to be lit very well. You’ve got to keep the color contrast down. And if you can, keep the image slightly soft, lose some of the sharp edges," Beardow said.

Professionals, Beardow said, can do plenty to improve their odds of a good shot. Point the antenna in the right direction, he advises. Put the camera on a tripod and avoid jerky movements. Keep background movement to a minimum. Keep the reporter the correct size in the frame, to avoid excess lip and leg movement. Mike the reporter correctly, and be aware of the system’s limitations. Beardow worries that his box will get a bad name because of people using it in a way that’s not intended. Why do you think, he asks, did they give it its name, "Talking Head?"

To improve the appearance of the low-quality images, networks can shrink the picture or otherwise distract the viewer. The anchor can turn to the virtual window behind him or her to chat with the correspondent, for example.

"You put it in boxes, or you put a graphic around it so that you can put down who it is, and maybe a map next to them so that it’s graphically informational, but also makes the perceived quality a little bit higher than it would be otherwise," said CBS’ Gordonale.

Not that the picture is woefully inadequate.

"Originally, a lot of this stuff was done at 64 [Kbps]," said CNN’s Tauber, referring in part to coverage of the December 1999 Indian Airlines hijacking standoff in Kandahar, Afghanistan. "When you double bandwidth you’ve made a nice improvement in picture quality."

"I have to say our pictures look great," said NBC’s Brady, speaking of the 128 Kbps feeds. "They do look so good that we are using them full-screen."

But as uplinks reach northern Afghanistan, they replace the videophones, which reporters may bring with them to even more remote places, including some that they don’t disclose to their viewers. Networks also rely on AP Broadcast, which has already had bureaus in place from Turkey to Nepal and provides its member networks with a vast footage library.

"We’re already on the ground there," said Marketing Communications Manager John Jones. "We already have a huge infrastructure of outstanding people."


Dust is a big problem in central Asia, and engineers are continually opening up and cleaning equipment in what could be a marathon story with no spare parts.

"No one knows how long these things last, especially under bad conditions," said John Stack, Fox News Channel’s vice president for newsgathering. "Certainly the conditions in the region where we’re using them, with the potential of sandstorms and bad winter weather, could become an issue. We don’t know how they’ll react to that. So it behooves us certainly to have potential replacement equipment on hand."

Beardow is confident 7-E’s equipment is battle-worthy. He points to the videophone’s use on a rowboat that British Royal Navy commandos attempted to pilot across the Pacific Ocean until a Sept. 17 collision with a tuna boat ended the trip.

"The Talking Head unit they used in that boat is now in Islamabad. It went the same afternoon," Beardow said. "It had spent four months at sea in a 23-foot rowboat.

"This is not desktop video conferencing equipment."

None of the fancy gizmos will work without satellite linkups connecting the world. Fortunately, technology has eased the burden on the orbiting transponders.

"The digital era has come upon us, and by digitizing signals you can send a decent video signal a two megabit rate and actually get some very good video out of it, so therefore your bandwidth requirements on the satellites keep shrinking," said Bob Behar, president and CEO of GlobeCast America, which provides satellite services for broadcasters and can usually get its self-contained equipment, complete with generators, anywhere in the world within 36 hours.

"The days of using 36 MHz or 27 MHz of analog transponder capacity have gone away for the most part," said Jon Ramm, general manager of British Telecom Broadcast Services for North America. "In the last eight or nine days, I’ve done maybe two or three analog transmissions and the reason they were done was because the transportable they were coming out of happened to be analog.

"And from a broadcast standpoint, all we’re trying to do is make it so that when the public is looking at the news, they’re not looking at a map and listening to somebody on the phone."