by Steven Trent Smith
first international crisis to be covered electronically by the major
U.S. networks was the revolution in Iran in early 1979.
When the story broke, the news divisions overseas were still shooting
16mm film. It was possible to get the film processed in Tehran and uplinked
through the facilities of Iranian television. But when events turned
against the Shah, the film processor and the satellite link were conveniently
made unavailable. This forced the networks to charter Learjets
down to Amman, Jordan, to process, edit and feed unfettered. This was,
of course, very expensive, and slowed down dissemination of the news.
It also led to the death of an ABC producer when his charter crashed
due to pilot error.
As the story progressed, electronic coverage began to grow. In those
days, each network had its own branding for their video
acquisition. ABC used ENG (Electronic News Gathering). CBS used ECC
(Electronic Camera Coverage). And NBC used EJ (Electronic Journalism).
No matter what it was called, it revolutionized the way the nets covered
two-person crew (camera and sound) using a portable, broadcast-quality
color camera, (i.e., an RCA TK-76 or Ikegami HL-77, each of which
weighed 30 pounds or more) went out to shoot the story. These early
cameras were not very good by todays standards. In fact, I think
a $3400 Canon XL-1 could run circles around the $34,000
TK-76 Martha and I used. Of course we didn't have camcorders in those
days. The poor sound recordist had to lug around a 3/4" U-Matic
field recorder. The choices were few. Sony made the BVU-100, a hugely
overweight machine that even football-sized men had difficulty handling.
JVC made the CR-4400U not as rugged, perhaps, but a good ten pounds
lighter (and something five foot Martha could wrestle around without
When we had done our bit, our twenty-minute cassettes were taken back
to the portable edit system. This consisted of a pair of
Sony BVU-200 3/4" recorder/players, each weighing about a hundred
pounds, and a bulky BVE-500 edit controller. Add to that a pair of twelve-inch
monitors and other miscellany, and youre ready to cut. The cost
of all this? About $35,000. There was no time code then; editors had
to go by control track numbers and tape counters. A precision
edit was anything within plus or minus two frames. The BVUs
were pretty reliable machines. When you hit the Edit buttons
the controller would backspace both machines, lock them up, release
them and make the edit. The sound a proper edit made was most reassuring.
Big solenoids in the decks provided the noise. First there would be
a slight clunk (reversing the transport). Then there would
be a good, solid kathunk! (the solenoids kicking in). That
was followed by a another slight clunk and sometimes a tiny
screech (the transport stopping and the tape slipping).
Another solid kathunk indicated the switching of the solenoids
to forward. And finally, at the inexact edit point there would be a
barely audible click. Any deviation from this sequence indicated
a glitch that might or might not grind the editing process to a halt.
While the editor and producer were screening and logging the raw footage,
the correspondent was usually off writing a script. When he or she had
finished, a call was placed to a senior producer in New York, the script
was read over the phone, perhaps modified, then approved.
After the piece was cut, it would be taken off to Iranian television
to be fed back to the States (assuming they were cooperative that night).
The nets usually shared a BVU-200 and a Time Base Corrector (TBC, used
to stabilize the image to meet broadcast standards). One day the TBC
flaked out on us, just showing garbage on our monitor. Thinking we had
nothing to lose, I banged my fist twice on the top and once on the side.
That startled the TBC into working again. Satellite time was enormously
expensive - running into the thousands of dollars per hour. Sometimes
a little baksheesh traded hands to keep the bird
open and the censors off our backs. But we got the job done and were
pretty proud of ourselves.
We all thought, way back then, that this stuff looked beautiful and
wondered how it could ever be improved. Boy, were we naive.
Twenty-two years later Americas New War (branding
courtesy of CNN) has brought yet another revolution to video news coverage
in faraway places.
Much of what we are watching from Afghanistan now is shot with small
format cameras (ranging from single-chip miniDV to three-chip professional
DVCam and DVCPro). Much of what we are watching is edited on laptop
systems - either dedicated units or PCs and Macs. And when
it comes time to feed this material, some of what we are watching is
sent via satellite telephone. One iteration of this is the videophone
popularized by CNN and now copied by all the rest. Due to bandwidth
limitations. The images are jerky and hard to watch, but the point is
we can now see live images from any place on this planet, and without
the interference of meddling, autocratic
governments. Given time, the images will only get better and better.
Thats progress - as long as television journalists are responsible
and accountable for the coverage they provide us.
But there is a downside to all this technological malarkey: we sometimes
get too much information. In the U.S. we have three basic 24/7 news
channels available, plus whatever the networks throw at us, plus the
flood of stuff on the Internet. Television was long ago likened to the
Tower of Babel. But compared to what we have access to today, television
of twenty, thirty years ago seems like just a whisper. I've come to
believe this: That just because we can do it, doesn't mean we
should do it.