3 Newsgathering now
3.1 Introduction to SNG and ENG microwave
Taylor's paper, From Newsreels To Real News, provided a historical overview of newsgathering up to the time the paper was written in 1995. It provides a good background but is out of date as I write this in 2005 (ten years is a very long time in the recent history of IT). Taylor wrote an updating paper, Real News Meets IT. I shall be drawing on Real News Meets IT in later sections of this course. In this section, I have reproduced an extract from a book (Higgins, 2004) which introduces the principal elements used by a TV station to get a report for broadcast.
Higgins says that his book was written to offer 'beginning professionals in satellite and electronic newsgathering an introduction to the technologies and processes involved in covering an event'. Like Taylor, Higgins worked in the news industry for many years and so has the authority of an 'insider'.
The extract here is from the beginning of the book and you should be able to follow most of the content from what you already know. As you read, try to make links with the issues raised in Taylor's paper as well as your developing understanding of IT generally. I also found it helpful to think about news reports that I have seen on television to set the paper into a context that I could recognise.
Introduction to SNG and ENG Microwave
J. Higgins, 2004, Elsevier Focal Press
Basic Overview of the Role of ENG/SNG
Television newsgathering is the process by which materials, i.e. pictures and sound, that help tell a story about a particular event are acquired and sent back to the studio. On arrival, they may be either relayed directly live to the viewer, or edited (packaged) for later transmission.
The process of newsgathering is a complex one, typically involving cameraman and a reporter, a means of delivering the story back to the studio, and for live coverage, voice communication from the studio back to the reporter at the scene of the story.
Coverage of a sports event involves essentially the same elements but on a much greater scale. Instead of a single reporter you would have a number of commentators, and instead of a single cameraman, you might have up to thirty or forty cameras covering a major international golf tournament.
Whether it is a news or a sports event, the pictures and sound have to be sent back. This could be done by simply recording the coverage onto tape, and then taking it back to the studio. However, because of the need for immediacy, it is far more usual to send the coverage back by using a satellite or terrestrial microwave link, or via a fibre optic connection provided by, say the telephone company.
[As I shall discuss in a later section in this course, tape is likely to be replaced by other storage media over the next few years. The story described here would be essentially the same, though, using, say, flash memory.]
Principal Element in Covering an Event
Let us just look at the principal elements of covering a news story from where it happens on location to its transmission from the TV studio.
We will pick a type of story that is of local and possibly national interest. Just suppose the story is the shooting of a police officer during a car chase following an armed robbery.
Camera and sound
The shooting happened around 2.30 pm, and the TV station newsroom was tipped off shortly after by a phone call from a member of the public at the scene.
Having checked the truth of the story with the police press office, by 3.00 pm the newsroom at the TV station despatched a cameraman (generically applied to both male and female camera operators) and a reporter to the location.
Generally these days, the cameraman is responsible for both shooting the pictures and recording the sound. The reporter finds out all the information on the circumstances of the armed robbery, the car chase and the shooting of the police officer. The cameraman may be shooting 'GVs' – general views of the scene and its surroundings onto tape – or interviews between the reporter, police spokesmen and eyewitnesses.
The reporter then will typically record a piece-to-camera (PTC) … which is where the reporter stands at a strategic point against a background which sets the scene for the story – perhaps the location where the officer was shot, the police station, or the hospital where the officer has been taken – and recounts the events, speaking and looking directly into the camera.
So by 5.00 pm the cameraman has several tapes (termed 'rushes'), showing the scene, interviews and the reporter's PTC. Now, will this material be edited on site to present the story, or will the rushes be sent directly back to the station to be edited ready for the studio to use in the 6.00 pm bulletin?
The 'cutting together' of the pictures and sound to form a 'cut-piece' or 'package' used to be carried out mostly back at the studio.
Mobile edit vehicles were usually only deployed on the 'big stories', or where there was editorial pressure to produce a cut-piece actually in the field. In the latter part of the 1990s, with the increasing use of the compact digital tape formats, the major manufacturers introduced laptop editors.
The laptop editor has both a tape player and a recorder integrated into one unit, with two small TV screens and a control panel. These units, which are slightly larger and heavier than a laptop computer, can be used either by picture editor, or more commonly nowadays, by the cameraman.
During the 1990s, the pressure on TV organisations to reduce costs led to the introduction of multi-skilling, where technicians, operators and journalists are trained in at least one (and often two) other crafts apart from their primary core skill.
However, the production of a news story is rarely a contiguous serial process – more commonly, several tasks need to be carried out in parallel. For instance, the main package may need to be begun to be edited while the cameraman has to go off and shoot some extra material.
The combination of skills can be quite intriguing, so we can have a cameraman who can record sound and edit tape; a reporter who can also edit tape and/or shoot video and record sound (often referred to as a video journalist or VJ); or a microwave technician who can operate a camera and edit.
So it is often a juggling act to make sure that the right number of people with the right combination of skills available are on location all at the same time.
Getting the story back
There are now three options as to how we get the story back to the studio for transmission on the 6 o'clock news bulletin – it can be:
taken back in person by the reporter and/or the cameraman
sent back via motorbike despatch rider
transmitted from an ENG microwave or SNG microwave truck.
The first two are obvious and so we need not concern ourselves any further. The third option is of course what we are focused on – and in any case, is the norm nowadays for sending material in this type of situation from location back to the studio.
As it turns out, the newsdesk – realizing the scale of the story once the reporter was on the scene – had despatched a microwave truck down to the location at 4.00 pm. The ENG microwave or SNG truck (for our purpose here it does not matter which) finds a suitable position, and establishes a link back to the studio, with both programme and technical communications in place.
By just gone 5.00 pm, the tape material (rushes or edited package) is replayed from the VTR in the truck back to the studio.
The reporter may actually have to do a 'live' report back to the studio during the news bulletin, and this is accomplished by connecting the camera to the microwave link truck (along with sound signal from the reporter's microphone) either via a cable, a fibre optic connection or using a short-range microwave link […].
From the studio, a 'feed' of the studio presenter's microphone is radioed back to the truck, and fed into an earpiece in the reporter's ear, so that the studio presenter can ask the reporter questions about the latest on the situation. The reporter will also be provided with a small picture monitor (out of camera shot) so that they can see an 'off-air' feed of the bulletin.
This is commonly known as a 'live two-way', and what the viewer sees is a presentation of the story, switching between the studio and the location. […]
Typical transmission chain
We now have all the elements that form the transmission chain between the location and the studio, enabling either taped or live material to be transmitted.
The camera and microphone capture the pictures and sound. The material is then perhaps edited on site, and then the pictures and sound – whether rushes, edited or 'live' – are sent back via the truck (ENG microwave or SNG) to the TV station.
The processes that occur at either end of the chain are the same no matter whether the signals are sent back via terrestrial microwave or via satellite.
Earlier we saw that Taylor suggested eight areas in which digital methods promised improvements:
More efficient newsgathering.
More options for getting the story back.
Faster post production.
Greater editorial freedom.
Broad multiskilling opportunities.
Improved technical quality
Lower operating costs.
Can you see any of these appearing in Higgins's description?
Of Taylor's suggestions for where digital methods promised improvements, the area that I particularly noticed was number 5, multiskilling, because Higgins explicitly discusses this, and gives examples of:
a cameraman who can record sound and edit tape; a reporter who can also edit tape and/or shoot video and record sound … or microwave technician who can operate a camera and edit.
Higgins says that the multiskilling was motivated by the need to reduce costs. Assuming the desired outcomes were realised, this is evidence of number 8, lower operating costs.
Several of the others are implied by Higgins, although maybe not made explicit. For example, he describes the use of laptop computers to do editing in the field. This is likely to deliver 'faster post-production' and 'greater editorial freedom'.