“It is not strange...to mistake change for progress.” -Millard Fillmore
I’d like to turn the clock back more than 70 years to 1948, when the first live television remotes began. They were enabled by microwave transmissions and initially used just for parades and specials. Microwave became the every-day solution for remote news and sports programming by the early 1970s.
Shortly thereafter, new technologies—first analog satellite newsgathering in the late 70s, followed by digital SNG and microwave transmissions—provided greater access and significantly higher quality while using bandwidth more efficiently.
While I am not one who pines for the past, I believe we lost something important along the way. With this technological progress came the curse of latency, which has cost TV its intimacy. In today’s content landscape where authenticity is prized by a demanding audience, delays are not free. The price is a high one that we cannot afford to continue to pay. Let me explain.
THE DOOR TO DELAY
One advantage of those early remotes was that they were analog and not subject to any meaningful delays. A correspondent’s or a sportscaster’s report would be beamed to the studio at the speed of light, where it would be switched, released over the television transmitter and sent back for the contributor to view immediately on an off-air monitor. They were instantly and intimately connected to the discussion with the studio.
As time marched forward and digital improved, correspondents in the field were forced by a technology-induced delay to depend upon an audio-only mix-minus IFB (interrupted fold back). They could hear, but not see the people they were communicating with, robbing them of subtle, but vital visual cues from their studio counterparts. Later HDTV and digital television transmission added further delay, rendering the possibility of the off-air real-time monitor a thing of the past.
Since the door to delay had already been opened, it was just business as usual when new compression algorithms were used to squeeze a full broadcast-quality signal onto a couple of cell signals. Bonded cellular was remarkable in that it allowed crews to contribute with only a backpack of equipment, freeing them to make reports from more locations, at a dramatically lower cost. No need for trucks! The trade-off was even more latency, this time, significantly magnifying the delay in the reporter's path back to the studio.
The visual impact was dramatic and remains today in that all too familiar scene of reporters foolishly nodding their collective heads, sometimes at painfully inappropriate moments. Effectively, the studio is taking the heavily delayed remote feeds seconds before the beginning of reporters reply. The “yada, yada, yadas” that Jerry Seinfeld so aptly described have become an inescapable part of every-day broadcasts.
LOSING THE BACK AND FORTH
I am no Luddite. I have spent decades optimizing signal paths, sometimes obsessing over hundredths of milliseconds, while always embracing the forward march of technology. But I am troubled by our acceptance of that loss of intimacy. Producers are taught to bring the viewer into the story; to make them part of the family. When a reporter in the field and their anchor communicate instantly, their banter adds life and energy to the story. This only works when they are present in the moment in a way that lets the viewer witness the dynamics of their interpersonal relationships.
We’ve lost the back and forth of real conversation. The relationship between today’s remote and host is as cold as a factory—one person on an assembly line handing off the widget to the next worker. It’s mechanical, contrived, distracting and harms the relationships between the host and reporters while alienating the audience. Worst of all, it is totally unnecessary.
Audiences are attracted to stories and engaging casts. We should be smart enough to recognize the value inherent in delivering that experience. We can recapture that lost intimacy and rivet the viewer to the screen not only with the story but with the people behind the story.
The combination of high bandwidth IP everywhere and mobile devices with remarkable processors and built-in cameras and screens can replace traditional equipment while changing everything. High-quality, low-cost, two-way visual communication between host and remote opens up totally new, dynamic ways of telling a story. A reporter on location can share the emotion of the moment with the anchor and the audience. A sportscaster on the sidelines can narrate over B-roll, or even do play by plays remotely. Existing technologies can provide two-way hyper-low latency between studio and field, making it possible to recapture lost intimacy and inspire new forms of storytelling.
Real progress means we can have it all!
Want to dig into this some more? Join me in Las Vegas at NAB, on April 9 at 9 a.m. in room N258 in the LVCC where I’ll be speaking on this in detail at "Beyond Bonded Cellular; A Workflow for Broadcast Remotes via Smartphone." Hope to see you there.
Larry Thaler is the president of Positive Flux, a consulting firm that specializes in helping media companies take advantage of the rapid changes occurring in the industry. He can be reached via TV Technology.