Imagine you’re halfway up a glacier, you’re being drenched by rain of biblical proportions, your mobile phone has been reduced to a useless, dripping lump that’s simply taking up pocket space, and the sand fly hordes are regrouping for another vicious sortie on your puckered, pink flesh. And somehow, you’ve got to be able to deliver that day’s story in order to make that night’s programme.
The nearest feed point is a 4 hour drive away, internet access is non-existent, and while that app on your iPhone may be able to stream live vision, it’s pretty ropey quality and, let’s face it, without mobile coverage you’re kind of screwed.
Thankfully those clever bods in the TV technology industry have come up with a few ways around this issue, and sending stories from remote hotspots is now more common than complaints about Auckland’s crummy summer.
Whenever you’re producing stories outside of the studio, it’s called being “in the field.”
There are a number of ways of sending stories back to base, but the most common is Satellite News Gathering, otherwise known as SNG. It is also the best way of sending large amounts of footage from the field without compromising on quality and when you have no other way of getting those pictures back. It’s effectively a collapsible satellite dish that is small enough to fit in the back of a car, and portable enough to throw in the back of a plane or helicopter if access is too tough or too far away for regular vehicles.
When you’re in the field everything becomes rushed – the shooting, the writing, the editing – and everything therefore also becomes more difficult. Gone are the comfortable desks and computers, the quiet edit suites, the padded voice booth. When you’re in the field, you’re back to basics.
We’ll hurriedly select soundbites and review pictures straight out of the camera’s display, and scribble out our scripts on soggy, dog-eared notepads. Once the story is written, it has to be edited – a “field cut”. It may be in the back of a mud-spattered crew car, in someone’s kitchen, or totally out in the open. Here’s a picture of me doing a voiceover for the edit. In a field. In the middle of Mackenzie Country.
Once the story is edited, it’s saved onto the camera’s memory cards, and taken to the SNG. The camera gets plugged in, and as it plays the story back the SNG beams it to our Auckland studio where it is quickly loaded into the bulletin for that night’s broadcast.
If we’re also doing a live cross, the camera then gets hooked up to the SNG to beam a live shot back to the Auckland studio where the News Director is watching. We all have earpieces linked to a communications channel so the Director can tell us exactly when we’re on air, when the story is playing, and when we’re all done and free to finally go find a beer. It’s a complex process that our team has got operating near faultlessly, albeit one occasionally hijacked by opportunistic members of the public.
There are other ways of getting stories out. When Campbell Live cameraman Chris Jones and I were travelling through Japan after the 2011 tsunami we used a device called a BGAN. Small enough to fit in a backpack, this little box’s sole function is to search out the nearest satellite and, bit by bit, deliver a story back to a server on the other side of the world. In that bleak, Japanese winter, in areas where no infrastructure remained, it enabled us to send back cut stories and two-way crosses within hours of arriving on the devastated coast.
Of course, that’s the extreme side of things. Usually it’s much easier. If we’re in a provincial centre, the extensive MediaWorks family means there’s almost always an affiliated radio station we can fire our story back from – plugging our camera into a box in the wall and sending our pictures “up the line.”
Television News is a complicated business, and the effort that goes in behind the scenes is something our viewers rarely get a chance to see or hear about. It’s a hefty production that relies on a dedicated team of journalists, camera crews, editors, SNG operators, media exchange operators, producers and directors - everyone working together to come up with a few of minutes worth of TV.
The next time you’re watching a news story on events at some remote location, spare a moment to consider what may have taken place to get it to you. Chances are it’s been shot, written, edited, beamed into space and fired into your living room, all in the space of just a few hours.
News-gathering technology is constantly developing, and advances in recent years mean we can now bring news and events to our viewers quickly and reliably from pretty much anywhere on Earth. Regardless of whether it’s in Japan, Fiji, or Fiordland, we can operate hundreds of kilometres from civilisation, in any weather conditions, and when everything around us may have been ravaged by war, water or weather.
I think that’s pretty remarkable. Don’t you?