From ENG to SNG
First it was ENG -- Electronic News Gathering.
But for the looming war with Iraq it's SNG -- Satellite News Gathering.
The technology that will bring this war to our living rooms is the most advanced the industry has ever seen.
More than 1,000 television reporters, photographers, producers and technicians are already in place in various places in the Middle East and at sea, many "embedded" with troops and equipped with laptops, video editing software and miniaturized communications gear that can deliver live images from anywhere at any time.
They'll bounce over the Iraqi dessert in souped-up Hummers and SUVs with satellite dishes strapped to the luggage racks; one correspondent jokes that they look a lot like the Ghostbuster-mobile that Bill Murray used in the movie.
"There has been an amazing, quantum leap in broadcast technology," says veteran NBC correspondent Kerry Sanders, who is covering the war buildup in Kuwait. "A year ago in Afghanistan, the gear we needed to go live filled 75 to 100 cases. With the technology improvements we've seen since then, we can now fit everything we need in five or six. It is simply amazing."
Sanders says desktop video is everywhere, with reporters, producers and photojournalists editing their own pieces on laptops in the field and desktops back at the hotel rooms turned newsrooms in Kuwait City.
Everything is smaller and digital. Video is being shot on new lightweight DV and MiniDV camcorders equipped with extra-long zoom lens and night vision capabilities. Instead of huge editing consoles with separate monitors, reporters are editing their own pieces on laptop computers and then sending them like e-mail back to the network through a satellite Internet connection.
Sanders edits on an Apple G4 using Final Cut pro software. Once he's finished laying off the shots, he compresses it all with a program called Discreet Cleaner 6 and then, using a satellite connection, sends it back to an NBC receive site in New Jersey through a regular file transfer program.
Some of the very same advanced satellite gear used by military planners to coordinate the U.S. attack on Iraq will be used by broadcasters to beam signals back to their control rooms.
"It's all about weight," says Byron Pitts, a CBS News correspondent in Kuwait who will be embedded with a Marine airborne unit. "Our flak vests weigh about 10 pounds. Our helmets about five. Then we have to take all the water we can carry. Those are the necessities. So our gear really has to be small."
Still, Pitts and his photojournalist partner have figured out how to squeeze five cameras in their packs. The photojournalist will bring two: his regular broadcast betacam and a smaller DV camera about the size of a forearm. Pitts is carrying a small MiniDV as a third backup.
They also have two super-miniature "lipstick" cameras, one for the pilot of the Cobra attack helicopter to wear, the other for the gunner. "Basically, they just hit 'on' and it can record for an hour or so. They're so small they won't even know they're wearing them, but they should provide a whole new perspective."
Just as the military keeps some of its high-tech weapons under wraps, so are the TV techs. Fox and CNN flat out refuse to discuss the technology they have in place.
"There's a lot of competition out there," explains Frank Governale, the CBS vice president of operations in charge of the network's war coverage technology. "We all have our digital aces in the hole, little gizmos we've developed or packed along that we don't want the competition to know about but may help us get through when they can't."
CBS crews have satellite phones that work on three different systems, for example. That means journalists will have other ways to reach control rooms in New York or London if, as suspected, the military claims exclusive use of one or jams another to keep Iraq from using it.
Governale says CBS has loaded every laptop with the same programs. "This will be known as the digital war," he said. "Our people will be able to tap into the newsroom e-mail system at any time from right on the battlefield."
CBS is using all Windows PCs with three different editing programs –- Avid for the more experienced editors who will be in regional centers like Kuwait City or more permanent base camps, Adobe Premiere for producers and photojournalists closer to the action, and the basic free MovieMaker 2 program that Microsoft includes with its Windows XP operating system. "That's a very simple program, but it allows one of the embedded correspondents to do some basic cuts right in the field."
The last Gulf war in 1991 introduced the satellite phone for live audio reports. In Afghanistan, the networks scrambled to equip their war correspondents with satellite video phones that transmitted shaky, often fuzzy and herky-jerky video images along with the voice reports.
But with a war in Iraq seemingly about to launch, the networks are using new tools like the IPT Suitcase, a Swedish made SNG unit that folds up and fits in a case the size of an airline carry-on bag. It weighs around 70 pounds and can be unpacked and set up in three and a half minutes.
A collapsible dish antenna expands to about 35 inches in size and automatically, almost instantly, zeros in and establishes a solid two-way, real-time link with a communications satellite some 22,300 miles above the earth.
The camera and microphone plug into the suitcase SNG unit and can immediately be transmitting live broadcast quality sound and images up to the satellite, which relays them back to the network's control room on the other side of the world.
But that's not all. In addition to the high quality broadcast capabilities, the unit also provides a high-speed Internet connection, allowing scripts to be e-mailed back and forth, and an Internet-enabled telephone to be simultaneously used so the journalists can talk to the control room off-air or track down other sources just as if they were back in the office.
That's why it's called the IPT Suitcase -- for Internet Protocol Terminal.
The whole unit disassembles just as quickly, enabling journalists to leapfrog across the dessert, following the action or quickly getting out of dangerous situations. Most of the SNG systems are mounted on luggage racks on rented SUVs or military-style Hummers, just waiting for the action to begin.
"I'm looking out the window of my hotel here in Kuwait City," says Sanders "and there must be six or seven of them parked out front right now. And that's just here. They're all over the region. I've never seen so much technology in 20 years of chasing big stories all over the world."
CBS's Pitts says the front of the Sheraton Hotel in Kuwait City looks like "an auto repair shop" with broadcast engineers crawling under and around the four wheel drive Hummers. "They look like souped-up dune buggies with satellite dishes," says Pitts.
Already, there are some glitches. Satellite traffic jams have been a frequent frustration. The other day it took Sanders almost two hours to get a high-speed connection to send his report. "Every crew from every network is often trying to get on the same bird at the same time," he said.
Hampus Delin, Marketing Director of Stockholm-based SWE-DISH Satellite Systems, says several of its SNG systems are being used by the various networks for covering the war with Iraq, at prices ranging from $200,000 to $1.4 million. The U.S. military is also a customer, he noted, and will use the same units to send live satellite images of the war to the U.S. Central Command control center in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.
Sanders: "If this works like we think it will, this means the world has shrunk so much that there is no place too remote to be seen."A competing 75-pound SNG system, developed by Raytheon Corp. and Norway's Tandberg Television for NBC News, costs about $130,000. Eric Cooney, chief operating officer of Tandberg Television, said NBC has several of the units ready for use in covering the war with Iraq, allowing TV crews to "document news from across the globe with a speed-to-air and transportability that we've never seen before."
In all, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC combined will probably spend close to $100 million to cover the war, say broadcast industry analysts.
The question is, will all this technology work?
"It's like a giant field test over here," concedes Sanders. "All the equipment is still pristine. It's so new it really hasn't been tried under real war conditions. What happens after 150 miles of bumpy roads and the first dust storm? There's a lot of finger crossing going on. But if this works like we think it will, this means the world has shrunk so much that there is no place too remote to be seen."
Mike Wendland is a Poynter Fellow and frequent guest faculty instructor at Poynter. He is the technology columnist for The Detroit Free Press and the Internet correspondent for all 215 NBC-TV News Channel affiliates. He can be reached through his Weblog, www.mikesejournal.com.