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Live, via videophone

In today's highly competitive environment, it's not how you get the news but how quickly. That's why, when CNN wanted to bring its viewers the first live pictures of the 24 freed U.S. Navy crew members landing in Guam, it used a videophone connected to an INMARSAT telephone to transmit the audio and video back to Atlanta. Although the pictures were displayed at less that full-frame rate (approximately 15 frames per second), it nonetheless demonstrated a capability to get live content out quickly from a remote location.

"For the plane landing, we were transmitting from several places where the traditional means of broadcasting were not available to us," explains Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of international newsgathering at CNN.

Regardless of the technology, she is responsible for bringing worldwide news into CNN's Atlanta headquarters. The network currently maintains 12 videophone systems and plans to outfit all 30 of its international bureaus with such units.

"Our coverage of the China incident was quite extensive from the start, and we were doing these kinds of live transmissions selectively as the story required. You don't want to overuse it. You want to use it only when it makes sense, because the quality is not perfect."

Once she got word that the plane would be landing in Guam, Khosravi had crews fly in from both Tokyo and London with the necessary equipment. The videophone, made by a UK-based 7E Communications Ltd., was initially intended as a backup system.

When the plane arrived, a satellite uplink truck was ready, and transponder time was booked to capture the event, but the truck had problems transmitting a microwave signal. So the videophone system, powered by a 12-volt car battery inside a van and operating in tandem with an INMARSAT telephone, brought the first pictures stateside instead. Once a reliable connection was established, the network switched to the satellite transponder, given the increase in quality footage. There were times when Atlanta switched between the two feed sources.

"The videophone system was set up and tested as a backup in case the satellite failed," says Khosravi. "As it was, the truck had never been tested because of security issues at the U.S. base in Guam, where the plane landed. The Air Force base is located at sea level, and we were having problems hitting the microwave dishes located on a hill. The microwave links were intermittently failing, so, when the plane actually landed, we had to use the videophone. Then, when the crew was disembarking from the plane, the satellite system started working, and we immediately went to that."

Throughout that day, she adds, the microwave interference was "quite immense." At times, therefore, the videophone system provided a better picture than the satellite system, so that was used on-air. "Some of our live shots were moving back and forth between the two systems. There was a lot of interference, and, at times, you could see some [breakup] in the picture."

The videophone system flown in from Atlanta was also used in Hainan on the morning the Chinese government announced that it would release the crew. With no uplink facilities, Khosravi decided to use the phone lines to get the news out. "These are events that, editorially, you make a judgment that you have to have it, so we do. Because of this capability, we ended up being exclusive on it."

To get the pictures to the U.S., footage from a Betacam SP camera was fed directly into the videophone system. The videophone is hooked into a satellite phone, which was used to dial into CNN's London bureau for transmission back to Atlanta.

"Having those live pictures, regardless of the quality, is something you have to be able to do in this business," says Khosravi. "We will do whatever it takes to get the story first. The key is to have a backup system, because viewers expect to see the news as it happens. They don't care how we get it to them."