Despite the many advantages of new IP tech for covering news from the field, especially during disasters, savvy broadcasters know it’s also valuable to have some tried-and-true gear in reserve. “If there’s another Superstorm Sandy, I would be very grateful that I still have satellite trucks, and I would be grateful that I still had satellite phones, even if I haven’t fired them up in five years,” says Peter McGowan of WCBS-WLNY New York. (Photo: Jill Altmann)
While bonded cellular transmission systems, handheld cameras and other 21st century newsgathering tools have had a profound impact on how TV news is produced in the field today, most broadcasters still aren’t ready to give up time-tested traditional technologies like microwave links, Ku-band satellite trucks and full-sized broadcast camcorders. Instead, they see the new IP-based systems as simply adding to their newsgathering arsenal instead of replacing their favorite old weapons.
That was the clear message Tuesday at TVNewscheck’s NewsTECHForum in New York, where news technology executives gathered for the panel discussion, “Optimizing Production in the Field,” moderated by consultant (and former WPVI Philadelphia VP of technology) Hank Volpe of MDR Consulting.
In fact, according to several panelists, an overreliance on the latest newsgathering tools can sometimes put journalists in danger when covering natural disasters like hurricanes or forest fires.
Dave Sirak, director of news technology for Cox Media’s ABC affiliate WFTV Orlando, Fla., said Hurricane Michael in October was the most dangerous storm to date for the station’s news crews precisely because the lighter, more portable gear allowed journalists to get that much closer to the storm when it made landfall in Mexico Beach, Fla.
“The takeaway was that with all the technology we have out there, we need to make steps to keep our crews safe,” says Sirak. “Sometimes now with the added mobility of technology, you can put yourself closer to the front lines than maybe you should have. In the old days when you had a satellite truck, you were limited where you could park it, you get limited in some of those things. Now I think there needs to be a reminder. Luckily, in our case our crew was not injured, but when it was coming ashore and we couldn’t move them, it was really scary. So I think that with the added ability to move you almost have to add twice the amount of caution.”
Larry Lafferty, director of domestic and international ENG operations for ABC News, had a similar experience with ABC’s coverage of Michael from Mexico Beach. While ABC had chief meteorologist Ginger Zee, a producer and an engineer on site to deliver around-the-clock coverage from a satellite truck, eventually the network had to shut the location down because it got too dangerous. Lafferty adds that parent company Disney has very strict guidelines and mandated training for West Coast stations covering forest fires.
WFTV has used IP tools in a very innovative way to reduce danger with a remote camera setup called Dorothy IX (named after the tornado sensors in the movie Twister) that can be left unmanned to provide storm coverage when it’s too dangerous for journalists to remain on location. The Dorothy IX camera system, which has its own Instagram page (dorothyixwftv), runs on marine batteries and comprises two Nest doorbell cameras with both Wi-Fi and bonded cellular links, as well as live weather sensors to measure temperature, rain and wind.
For everyday coverage in the widespread market of NBC Connecticut/NBC Telemundo in Hartford, bonded cellular has been a game changer, says Technical Manager Jack Kane. Bonded cell systems on Ford Explorer SUVs even allow news crews to get to places where they couldn’t go before, like over low bridges that couldn’t accommodate a 13-foot satellite truck.
“With the geography that Connecticut has, there were areas that for years that you had to send a sat truck because of buildings or mountains,” says Kane. “That’s changed with the broadband. It’s allowed us to get closer to where the action is, where before we would park a truck and pull cable.”
In some cases, bonded cellular can even increase the safety factor for news crews covering events like Superstorm Sandy, says Peter McGowan, director of news operations and new technology for WCBS-WLNY New York, because a bonded cellular system outfitted on a large SUV like a Chevy Suburban is less vulnerable to high winds than a traditional Ku-dish on a van. That is, until the cell networks go down when their generators run out of fuel, which happened during Sandy.
“If there’s another Sandy, I would be very grateful that I still have satellite trucks, and I would be grateful that I still had satellite phones, even if I haven’t fired them up in five years,” says McGowan. “We just ordered a new satellite truck, and I made sure they put a sat phone in there, and people thought I was crazy for doing so. But Sandy had an arc. It was: before the storm, where everything worked; during the storm, where only the bonded cells worked — and back then it was 3G, so it was amazing that it worked — and after the storm, when the cell towers lost their fuel supplies, their power supplies, and the only thing that worked was satellite.”
McGowan says the “death of the Ku/microwave truck is greatly exaggerated,” and pointed to an unnamed West Coast station that ran into contribution problems when its bonded systems went offline for six hours. He feels the same about full-sized camcorders. While CBS uses a lot of small handheld units, he doesn’t see them supplanting full-size professional models.
“They’re not going to replace them,” says McGowan. “For one thing, you drop them, they’re disposable. We found out the hard way. Sony’s a good example — you can fix the professional ENG Sony cameras. We’ve had people drop an $8,000 prosumer camera, and they say it will be $7,000 to fix, and you’ll get it back in six weeks.”
ABC News makes ample use of TVU Networks IP transmission systems for its coverage, in both bonded cell and terrestrial Internet configurations, in addition to traditional Ku-band links. It is also exploring IP-over-Ku systems. But for recent coverage of the forest fires in Malibu, Calif., with anchor David Muir, ABC had problems with cell coverage for bonded cellular and also experienced trouble getting a Ku-band uplink.
So it turned to an almost-forgotten tool in its kit, two Inmarsat BGAN portable satellite uplinks, to go to air for its network newscast. Lafferty says that while ABC has some 250 BGANs worldwide, they are rarely used today.
“We’re still paying a lot of money every year to have that opportunity to use it, to have it in our back pocket,” says Lafferty. “That’s one of those older technologies that you have to use when you need it. We stood up that show, a network news show, on BGAN, which we normally think we would never have to do.”
One newer technology that both Sirak and Lafferty say they are using are IP-based intercom systems from vendors like Unity and Clear-Com that can run over broadband connections through smartphone apps. And Ray Thompson, Avid’s director of market solutions for broadcast and media, says Avid is seeing strong interest in remote editing and remote access to centralized content repositories from the field.
“Making it so that it’s transparent,” says Thompson. “So regardless of whether that content sits inside a repository within a local affiliate, or it’s sitting somewhere in the cloud, to the journalist out in the field it’s transparent. They’re searching for a piece of content, they find it, they use it, they put it in their rundown and they post it. That’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Here is the link to a video of this session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXlq2eZsTW0
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