CNN moves to small-format ENG
Smaller news crews will go with new Sony camcorders
By Michael Grotticelli -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/13/2001 8:00:00 PM
The belt-tightening at CNN has affected more than just personnel levels. Electronic newsgathering crews—in both U.S. and overseas bureaus—are being outfitted with less costly digital video (DVCAM) cameras and Apple Final Cut Pro laptop editing software to provide operational efficiencies and more flexibility in transporting the gear, as well as the need for fewer technicians.
"The form factor is small [6mm tape], which is part of our motivation here," says Gordon Castle, senior vice president of Strategic Digital Systems R&D at CNN, who adds that, given the gear's lower cost, management expects to see a 30% reduction in overall ENG capital expense. "For a while, we had been wanting to change the way we think about newsgathering—that is, acquisition and editing in the field. We made a first move in this direction when we purchased Betacam SX equipment" in 1999.
Previously, most CNN crews consisted of three or four people using Sony Betacam SX equipment. The acquired raw footage would be uplinked directly to Atlanta, or a basic edit-decision list would be created in the field on a dual-VTR Betacam SX laptop editor. This all required significant resources, big equipment and the costs associated with moving the resources and equipment around.
In the aftermath of parent Time Warner's merger with AOL, CNN has evaluated its ENG operation, hence the move toward smaller cost-effective gear, primarily Sony's DSR-PD150 DVCAM camcorder. A typical DNW-7 Betacam SX camera sells for $25,850, without battery or lens; the DSR-PD150, for $4,400 and includes both.
Given DVCAM's ability to connect via a fast, IEEE-1394 interface (Sony calls it "i-Link") to a laptop computer running Apple's Final Cut Pro, the new equipment gives CNN the means to edit video on a laptop computer as opposed to a laptop tape machine, Castle explains. "That changes the whole paradigm of power requirements, size, weight and everything about what is required in the field. Most important, it gets us to think differently. News reporting is suddenly about more creativity and nonlinear capability in the field. It's also about being able to get the equipment into the field faster and better than with larger gear. That's a powerful thing for news crews."
This cost-conscious strategy was outlined in an internal memo sent to employees in January, when CNN laid off about 400 people. In the memo, the company said CNN employees will no longer work for only television, radio or interactive channels but will float among all three.
As for technology, it said that CNN intends to "accelerate our plans to introduce compact, high-tech newsgathering gear. Look for the quick introduction of small, high-quality DV cameras and laptop editing equipment, enabling us to deploy smaller reporting teams, one or two people at a time, when it makes sense. Larger gear will be with us for some time to come and will be used as needed.
"As we introduce this gear," the memo continued, "correspondents would do well to learn how to shoot and edit (even if called upon only occasionally to utilize those skills), and smart shooters and editors will learn how to write and track. While this is not a one-size-fits-all strategy, and CNN will always value exceptional ability, the more multi-talented a newsgatherer, the more opportunity the News Group will provide that person."
The issues involved with this method of using fewer people with increased responsibility has caused vocal opposition from the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians (NABET), the union that represents ENG crew members.
"Having more cameras on the street, especially in local news, is always a good thing, so employing fewer people can have an effect on the quality of the coverage," says Jim Joyce, vice president of NABET's Local 16, New York City. "How these DV cameras are going to handle major live, breaking-news events remains to be seen. I don't think you'll see many broadcasters with one DV camera at the Timothy McVeigh execution."
Castle admits that this is a sensitive subject at CNN, one that management is working through with caution.
Initially, 25 ENG crews were given DVCAM. Their gear consists of two DSR-PD150 cameras (facilitating a two-camera shoot by one person or using the second as backup) and a Mac laptop with FinalCut Pro editing software. They can acquire footage on a handheld DVCAM camera, i-Link it to the Mac laptop, edit the finished story and uplink it to CNN's Broadcast Operations Center in Atlanta.
The DV format does have its technical limitations, such as an inability to handle changing light levels, less-sensitive audio and some plastic parts that do not hold up to the daily ENG grind as well as the larger cameras do. Image quality is also a concern, but CNN believes that most of its coverage can be well served by the digital clarity.
"Side by side, depending on the conditions, a Betacam SX image will look better," Castle acknowledges. "However, the amount of gear you have to carry with an SX package affects how we cover news. With DVCAM, the crew can carry it on the plane. That affects crew size and even how stories are portrayed. The DVCAM camera is less intrusive, so you tend to get on-camera subjects to relate better on screen."
The equipment ordered from Sony is valued at more than $400,000 and includes DVCAM camcorders (both NTSC and, for overseas crews, PAL versions), VTRs, related portable lights, batteries and external handheld microphones.
The move to 6mm DV is not a signal that CNN is abandoning its goal of gradually moving to a 1/2-inch MPEG-compressed environment, Castle says. In fact, CNN will continue to use Betacam SX for the foreseeable future, until an MPEG-based disk camera with "stronger nonlinear capabilities" becomes available.
"Domestically, you'll be more likely to find a mix of DVCAM and Betacam SX in the same bureau," he says. "Internationally, some bureaus will have only the DVCAM equipment, and some will continue to use Betacam SX. The reality is that DVCAM will be used whenever it's feasible. There will be some stories where the conditions warrant SX gear, so we'll use that. However, there are no stories that can't be covered with DVCAM."
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