TV News in a Postmodern World

The Live Coverage Revolution

by Terry L. Heaton
Of all the technologies that have changed the presentation of television news, none have made a greater impact than those that bring a live signal from outside a TV studio to the viewers' homes. Moreover, live coverage has not only changed the way news is presented but also what's covered. For example, nobody would bother with a high-speed chase, if the helicopter couldn't beam a live picture back to the studio, and wall-to-wall coverage of major events is made possible by live pictures. Every day, producers build live shots into their newscasts, whether there's anything going on at the scene or not. Live, after all, brings a sense of urgency and drama to a newscast, which can make for compelling TV. Granted, it's gotten out of hand, but TV news will always have live elements, because human nature yearns to take part in history. We want to know how it's going to come out, and we want to know at the same time everybody else does.

In the days before microwave trucks, if we wanted to get a live signal from across town, we called the phone company. And back then, there was only one phone company, so we paid a premium for those hard lines, to say nothing of the waiting time it took to get one installed. I remember one election night in Milwaukee during the early 70's. We had two phone lines to cover the mayor's race, and we all thought we'd died and gone to heaven. Imagine that — a party over two live signals! Of course, the phone company was using microwave equipment to accomplish the task, and we eventually figured out it would be cheaper to have our own than to keep lining Ma Bell's pockets. But even when we got into the microwave business, it was hard to believe you could actually transmit a video signal "through the air."

There are two technologies in the pipeline today that will play significant, live-newsgathering roles for TV news in a Postmodern world. The first is that little device nearly everybody carries these days, the cellular phone. With a little engineering, the output of some new phones can produce a television picture.

The BBC is far ahead of its U.S. counterparts in applying New Media to television news. They were the first to adopt the VJ concept of newsgathering, whereby everybody in the newsroom is a video journalist. Now, they're experimenting with cell phones, specifically 3G (3rd Generation) video mobile phones as cameras. "It's almost like having a satellite truck in your pocket," says Dave Harvey of BBC Bristol. Well, not exactly. The phones produce a fuzzy and distorted picture when blown up from its original size, but Harvey says this is actually an advantage. "For younger viewers who are interested in new technologies and use them all the time, there's something edgy in seeing this sort of image on BBC television. It could make us seem less remote, make us more credible with that age group."

BBC Bristol is using the 3G phones in special reports on underage drinking, with teenage recruits reporting on how easy it is for them to buy liquor. The phones have generated considerable buzz among those who see possible applications, such as reporters "going live" from breaking news before the satellite or microwave truck gets there. There are also predictions of these opening up entirely new avenues of coverage, because their portability and reach allow for coverage from places where conventional technology isn't allowed or those it can't easily access.

These phones will have a place in the new world of television news, although picture quality may limit their use. The U.S. is also far behind other countries in the deployment of 3G, although Ted Friedrichs of Qualcomm's 3G Today says things are moving forward. "We're just waiting for the 3G operators (e.g. Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless) to accept compelling video-enabled devices from the Asian vendors (e.g. Samsung, LG, Pantech&Curitel, Sanyo, Toshiba, Hitachi etc.) and start hosting downloaded or streamed video content. He adds that Verizon Wireless already offers broadband wireless service in Washington DC and San Diego and is expected to roll out 20 of their top markets next year. What it means, he says, is that "high speed wireless streaming video is coming to a Verizon cell phone near you." Friedrichs predicts it'll be a reality within six to eight months.

Meanwhile, another technology that is showing dramatic results in the U.S. is Wi-Fi, and I think this may become the most dramatic breakthrough in the video news business since the invention of video tape. It also poses a significant threat to broadcasters, because it's just another one of the tools available to anybody who wants to make their own newscasts. That includes the local newspaper or anyone with a broadband Internet connection.

Wi-Fi is short for "wireless fidelity." It's the popular term for a high-frequency wireless local area network (WLAN). These networks are showing up all over the place, but it is the spreading public (free) Wi-Fi's that make this such a compelling opportunity.

In New York, Drazen Pantic is quietly conducting experiments that are resulting in near broadcast-quality, 320x240-pixel live pictures using a combination of consumer cameras, laptops with open-source software, and public wireless networks. Earlier this year, Pantic produced a one-hour call-in show from the roof of an apartment building using hardware and software that anybody can easily and cheaply acquire. The program was carried on a local cable access channel. The video was transmitted at 15 frames-per-second (FPS), which is about all the human eye needs to recognize fluid motion. In further tests, his team has transmitted video at the rate 20-25 FPS, very close to the standard videotape broadcast rate of 30 (in my old news film days, the rate was 24 FPS).

Pantic is an interesting fellow with a background in accomplishing great tasks from the bottom up. He was born in Belgrade in 1956 and has a Ph.D. in mathematics and a specialty in probability and random processes. He is the founder of OpenNet, the Internet department of the pioneering independent media organization Radio B92 in Belgrade and the first Internet service provider in Serbia. Some believe he almost single-handedly undermined the Milosevic regime. For his work with New Media technologies as a force to counter political repression in Yugoslavia, he was granted the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1999. He is driven to help the little guy everywhere, and right now he's at the forefront in furthering the Internet as a medium of many voices. Along the way, Pantic is putting pieces of the future puzzle together.

He's stayed with open-source software, because he wants anybody to be able to do this. Among other things, he wants to make impromptu news anchors out of anyone on the street by giving them a 1-2-3 solution, probably in the form of a CD. Boot the computer. Plug in the CD. Click on the broadcast button. Presto, you're on the air. "We just have to make it pain-free," he said.

"My vision is that very soon (within a year or two) we will see more and more hybrid systems, sitting in the intersection of Internet broadcasting, ITV and conventional cable networks. The key factor will be the ability to transmit and broadcast unmediated hi-quality material from any place towards TV distribution channels that will then filter and select interesting material and package it into sellable units (shows) or offer unmediated access to the raw material. So, to a large extent the production side will be translocated towards the direct actants in the events."

This is pure Postmodernism and ever so close to the OhmyNews concept of "Every citizen is a reporter."

"By 'unmediated'," Pantic says, "I mean 'free of spin', not necessarily unfiltered. What we see now with mainstream media is constant spin, changing focus and relativizing the facts according to some undefined rule of how news sells.

"Audiences have been cultivated and irreversibly changed by the vast amount of information available on the Internet. Many people have seen (especially after 9/11 and the Iraq war) that they can find so much more unmediated information on the Internet than on TV news channels.

"But, on the other side, the majority cannot afford to invest that much energy and time in searching for relevant information. So I think that 'consumers' will demand more and more direct and unmediated reporting from credible sources or direct participants in the events. The role of journalists will be to certify authenticity of the material and make a selection that will maintain a certain level of quality."

While TV news departments doing conventional news can certainly benefit from the technology that Pantic and his colleagues are developing, the energy that's driving it is intended to undermine the status quo. Pantic wants anybody to be able to do TV. That won't sit well with those who already do so, and it doesn't make him very popular with those in charge. I can tell you this. He doesn't care. He's already lived with (and beaten) armed totalitarianism. The truly smart news organizations of today will grasp the significance of all of this and work to position themselves as credible translators of all this "unmediated" information. That's very different than standing on the crumbling pedestal of objectivity and asserting that only those already onboard are permitted to play the game for real.

Postmodernism is the Age of Participation. The need to learn has been replaced by the need to apply, and that means all of the rules of our culture are being rewritten, including those for television news. Postmoderns (Pomos) trust their experiences, and if they've not experienced it, they want to hear it from somebody who has. This means information that is up close and personal and that includes many perspectives, not that which is provided by arms-length experts or delivered in some hyped manner that's a mile wide and an inch deep. Pomos also don't want their information sanitized, because they don't trust the sanitation workers. Part of that distrust is based on Postmodernism's rejection of hierarchy and elitism and a desire for control over their own lives.

Pomos also want to talk to each other and share the "news" that's relevant to them, and this is already occurring on the Internet through blogs and social networking. In the expanding circles of what's important to me, that which is closest and those who are closest are most relevant. The Net facilitates that need like nothing since the telephone. Who would argue that the news of my loved ones is more important to me than the news of my nation?

In the end, we'll see that the whole top-down media culture, whereby information is trickled down to the masses through institutional channels, is replaced by one that is much more user-centric and connected. Involvement in all of life at the local level will increase, including participation in the political process.

These are, indeed, exciting times.