Trekking Towards the Millennium
with the Platypus
Editorial by Dirck Halstead
As readers of our website know, we have some very definite ideas about where we are headed with our professions--having to do with visual communication--as we move into the last year of the twentieth century. As we observed in the Platypus Papers, the changes are now coming at warp speed. In the meantime the market for traditional photojournalism has been shrinking almost as fast. Several recent events have begun to cast light on the form these changes will take, and how they will effect photojournalists, both still and video. 

Over the New Year's weekend, two very knowledgeable professionals in the television industry weighed in with observations about what is going on in the real world of broadcast TV. The first, Steve Nelson, former engineering supervisor at CBS in Washington, is now senior systems engineer at Telecast Fiber Systems, designing digital fiber optic systems for broadcasters at major events. Telecast is heavily involved in both digital and HDTV systems. The second, Wayne Wicks, former special events engineering supervisor for ABC, and then CBS, is now national production projects coordinator for TCI (the second largest Cable TV provider in the country). In brief, their conclusion is that the days of broadcast network television--as we know it--are over. Just as those of us in print photojournalism have been hit with downsizing, reduced budgets, and shrinking news holes, the networks are going through the same process, times ten. 

While NABET strikers pace in the snow-covered streets outside ABC bureaus, many of them do so with the sinking feeling that they are on the road to obsolescence. Unfortunately, they have good reason to be concerned. The simple fact is that the great network for which they worked as photojournalists, editors, and soundmen is no longer the important property it once was. ABC constitutes only 4.7% of Disney, its owner. Less than half of the 2,400 people who went on strike can expect to return to their jobs. Disney is quite willing to leave them trudging through the snow forever. 

Wayne Wicks writes: "I was a union member myself, and unfortunately those days are numbered. TV is becoming more computer based, producers are editing, and interns can type lower thirds. Is this the way I want it--no, but the reality of the situation is, that is the way it's going.  Digital plants with major file servers can edit shows and place spots in them flawlessly, and do billing and reconciliation for the 'as runs.' When plants go digital, though, this is only part of what is happening." 

Wicks is at TCI's National Digital TV Center, a mammoth "mother ship" building in Littleton, Colorado. It boasts 7 studios and 37 control rooms, scores of nonlinear edit suites, the world's largest satellite uplink, plus a new Digital TV 51-foot studio on wheels. It is currently running over 20 networks. You can expect to see TCI start to take over the job of covering major political events such as the national conventions and major sports events in the months ahead. 

A few weeks ago, The Digital Journalist received a phone call from @home networks, it wanted to start running some of our articles and essays. They were most interested in our multimedia projects. For good reason--@home networks is positioning itself to be the AOL of broadband delivery. Owned by the very same TCI, it is quickly spreading cable modems to subscribers around the nation. In the meantime, Bell Atlantic has just offered us ADSL service here in Washington. Both cable modems and ADSL will allow Web delivery at hundreds-of-times the speed of today's 56.6k modems. 

Once these broadband delivery systems are installed in American homes, the whole experience of the Web for the viewer will change dramatically. Already, studies are showing people are spending less time in front of their television sets. Once they have the ability to experience real-time streaming video, the computer will take over. 

Steve Nelson points out an interesting historical note. This current change from analog to digital laptop hardware feels about as profound as the conversion from film to tape in the mid '70s. Then as now, new technology emerged and people had to refine and enhance their skills to survive. The implications of the digital transition are far more extensive, with the end product being delivered directly to the consumer, rather than just a new method of gathering source material. There will be a whole new layer of distribution/transmission. 

Steve writes: "The second phase of this transition is HDTV, the Hi-Fidelity of digital, if you will. 'More pixels, more pixels!' cried the producers, and the technology gods listened. Down from Mount Fuji came new tablets, but they were elongated--16:9, not 4:3. Now, we have to rethink the way we frame and shoot, not only the way we edit and transmit. All those extra pixels will also require new precision from lighting and makeup. I've already seen the loss of an 'eye relief light' produce an instant crop of crow's feet on the performer. A ruddy complexion can look like the back side of the moon. 

"At this writing, HDTV is truly the tip of an iceberg, with a handful of NFL games, a shuttle launch, and some concerts to its credit. Sony, Panasonic, and others are promoting and heavily underwriting this technology on a very large scale. The 1999 fall sports season will see some games covered only with HDTV equipment. Checkout a concert in HD with Dolby 5.1 surround sound and see what I mean. You have to remind yourself that you are not in a movie theater. This HD iceberg will wash up on the beach much sooner than anyone thought." 

However, Time Warner (TCI is part  owner) will not be standing still, nor will AT&T, which last week became partners with--guess who--TCI. 

So, what does all this portend for those of us who are photojournalists, either still or television? 

For one thing, you can kiss your staff job good-bye. The reality is that file servers will take over much of the programming. Intern-level shooters will do just fine in supplying much of the product. Already, CBS is in conversations with CNN about handling all their news. BBC North America is now run from the Littleton facility with no more than two people in the control room. Wayne Wicks adds: "The original three networks are going through a genesis that is far from finished. Looking at next year's financial projections, CBS and ABC will lose tens-of-millions of dollars and the game is not over yet. I worked at ABC in the '70s, for ten years, and basically converted the network from film to tape. I was a most hated person because the film folks could not see where we were going. I was also there when ESPN was formed. During the past year, ESPN made far in excess of what the mother network made. Why?--Cable TV, and the fact that shows are paid for up front, and are not based on rating and selling of up front sponsorship. When I was at CBS, a few years ago, the network was sold to Westinghouse for $5.4 billion. This past year, my company (TCI) was sold for $48 billion to a company worth $15 trillion. CBS today--on a good day--might be worth $7-8 billion." 

Wait! Don't throw yourself under the bus yet! 

If you can read between the lines, you will see something else: Opportunity! Yes, things will be done differently, on a more cost effective basis, but think for a moment about @home networks. Part of their plan is financial (actually, all of it). They will be setting up e-commerce solutions to allow direct-viewer-payment for content the viewer really wants to see. Now, just suppose for a moment, that TCI not only sets up TV channels capable of carrying new content by journalists, but also sets up "channels" on the Web. With the accumulation of enough content, like The Digital Journalist, for example, they can then go to advertisers and sell "block" advertising to camera manufacturers, etc. Also, they can setup the programs necessary for photojournalists to sell their work online, taking commissions for the sales. 

As we become more adept at switching back and forth in cross-platform visual journalism, we will be able to produce content that will go direct to the consumer. A TCI or a Time Warner will become a facilitator in the process. 

If your head is spinning now, just stop and realize that for today's freelance photojournalists, there is really nothing new here. That's the way it's always been. You sell yourself job by job, project by project. For staffers it is going to be a rougher road, but with enough smarts and enterprise it can be done. As Karen Mullarkey, former picture editor of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, has said, "The change from the way things are done today, to this new model, is going to be as drastic as the move was from the Speed Graphic to 35mm. The transition will be difficult, and not everyone will make it." 

And yet, for those who see the handwriting on the wall (more like blazing neon!), and start to get ahead of the process by honing new skills--depending on their own capabilities to grow--the future is one of empowerment. 

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