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The DV revolution

Small-format digital camcorders and laptop editors are becoming standard issue at broadcast and cable news departments. The so-called digital video (DV) technology is helping TV news operations save money, while getting more cameras on the street.

"We're employing the [DV] gear when it makes sense and getting great bang for our buck," says Eason Jordan, CNN's chief newsgathering executive. CNN now has more cameras in the field than ever before, Jordan says. "But this is about a lot more than money. In many cases, we're getting better stories, and more of them, than we would get with larger-format equipment that's harder to handle and more obtrusive."

The DV camcorders, originally designed for the consumer market, cost far less than the units designed for ENG. A typical digital Betacam SX camera from Sony, for example, costs approximately $26,000, while professional DV cameras can be had for about $5,000. Panasonic's AG-DVC200 camcorder sells for $5,500. To date, Sony has sold 230,000 units worldwide and Panasonic 150,000, including 60,000 in the U.S.Laptop editors are not only inexpensive but versatile and empowering, say suppliers and users. Editing on a laptop in the field (or at a desk) allows the reporter to become part of the editing process. Many feel this makes for a better story because the reporter has the best understanding of the material. It also saves time.

CNN is one of the leaders of the small-format movement. In January, it began outfitting crews with Sony DSR-PD150 DVCAM camcorders and Macintosh laptops running Apple's Final Cut Pro software and outfitted with a FireWire connector for the camcorders. Each such laptop with software costs $10,000.

The new gear gives CNN a chance to send out smaller crews, perhaps just two people, says Jordan. He cites a story that broke in northern Canada. "It was an expensive place to get to, and, if we had to send the standard four or five people, we just wouldn't have gone."

Frank Governale, vice president, news operations, at CBS, has seen huge growth in the use of professional DV equipment in the past year. He says CBS is currently using up to 40 DV cameras in prime time broadcasts as well as for hard news. "I think some of [the popularity of DV] is a cost issue, but the size of the gear is also a huge plus for us. We're lighter on our feet."

Recognizing the value of editing in the field, CBS is testing Avid Technology's NewsCutter XP Mobile laptop editors. In some situations, these laptops can be linked to a satellite or phone so that reporters in remote places can send back stories quickly.

The laptop version of the NewsCutter nonlinear edit software also permits users to send and receive material via wireless Ethernet.

At NBC, according to Stacy Brady, vice president, network news and field operations, crews are outfitted with professional DV gear, both at the network level and in New York City. With smaller gear, the interview seems less intrusive, she says. "People who might feel uncomfortable on camera have an easier time opening up to the reporter."

Another surprise is that getting veteran camera operators to use small-format cameras has been easier than expected, Brady says. "I find that people are a lot more open to it. They are not looking at it as a replacement for what they are used to using; they see this new gear as another tool."

Big quality, small markets

Panasonic and Sony say they are selling large amounts of small-format gear to small-market TV stations, which, like the networks, are looking to do more with less.

WBOC(TV) Salisbury, Md., funnels a large portion of its annual equipment budget (roughly $400,000) into the news department because that's where most of the station's revenue comes from. The station uses 52 pieces of Panasonic DVCPRO equipment, including several newsBYTE newsroom editing systems (in a deal valued at about $800,000 over three years), to produce more than 32 hours of local news each week.

"We want something that looks good when we send it out over the digital channel," says Rick Jordan, vice president of engineering and technical operations, WBOC.

In buying DVCPRO equipment, Jordan was less concerned about cost of the 25-Mb/s gear than about image quality and durability. The station also uses three Panasonic AJ-LT85 DVCPRO laptop editors, two mounted in live remote trucks.

Michael Rosenblum, whose company Rosenblum Associates has led a series of "video boot camps" at Time Warner's NY1 news channel and Oxygen Media, has been a vocal advocate of the one-man-band approach to newsgathering. He has trained on-camera talent to shoot, edit and report stories. At Oxygen Media, he says, reporters shoot with Sony DV cameras and edit stories on an IMac DV computer, now listing for $800.

Rosenblum says that the broadcast networks in the U.S. have yet to fully embrace the small-format technology, relegating it to day-in-the-life segments and for sporadic undercover work.

"Most news groups don't understand the power behind this technology," he says. "The real impact of this equipment is that it allows a news department to create more news. Instead of having eight Betacam crews in play, you can have 300 in play. That means people can take risks. They'll make mistakes, but they'll also capture some of the greatest footage ever seen on TV."

Rosenblum says that foreign broadcasters have adopted the technology at a faster rate. He's training reporters at the BBC in London, where the UK broadcaster is converting operations to Sony's DVCAM equipment. He will travel to Sweden in the fall to convert the country's TV4 network.

Rosenblum sees the move to DV as allowing TV news operations to be more discriminating. "Every [reporter] at
The New York Times
writes something," he says. "If it's really good, it gets into the paper. If it isn't, it doesn't. Television news has got to get to that same point. Imagine what CBS News would be like if you had 700 cameras and edit systems in place every single day."

Union Issues

Although the format allows virtually anyone to shoot good pictures, NABET, the union that represents network camera operators, is concerned about using reporters as camera operators. Jim Joyce, vice president of NABET's Local 16 in New York, thinks it will affect the quality of news coverage, especially on the local level.

"You've got to know how to use this equipment to get good usable footage," he says. "I think there is going to be a lot of wasted videotape being shot."

Governale agrees that getting "broadcast-quality" images with DV requires the experience of someone who knows how to shoot video. At CBS, much of the DV footage is color-corrected before it goes to air.

Broadcast network representatives say they are hampered by union rules that prevent network news departments from allowing anyone but a certified technician to shoot news, but they are looking for ways around them. That's why DV footage seen on network TV usually ends up as part of an undercover story or for unique footage involving a breaking story.

"We are gaining some ground in terms of easing the restrictions," says Governale. "We can't assign a producer or reporter to shoot DV, but, if they're driving home, see a breaking story and happen to have a DV camera with them, we can use that footage without repercussions. Overseas, we don't have any issues with this."