Helicopters have returned in force to local news and newsgathering equipment is better, and more expensive, than ever before. Gyroscopic cameras with state-of-the-art zoom lenses generate video that is so sharp it's like watching a movie. An infrared component turns darkness into daylight without using intrusive lights. But the question once again is whether helicopters too often are used more for show than substance.
There's no denying that aerial scenes have always been a worthwhile staple of TV news, and helicopters have been utilized since the early days of black and white silent film.
But at some stations the helicopters are seen more frequently in the slick commercials promoting their usage in newsgathering than they are in the newscasts themselves. Promotional events such as landings at malls and arrivals of Santa Claus often get as much station hype as the news covered by the helicopters.
"For most stations it's a tool to help cover breaking news, which is its true value," says Tom Petner, news director at WTAE in Pittsburgh. "But it's very expensive and sometimes to justify that expense some stations use it as much, if not more, for marketing."
Until the late '70s, helicopters were often used for transporting news crews or to shuttle film and tape back from distant story locations. Stations were able to expand their coverage range further than ever, beaming back live video from the outermost reaches of their markets. Helos were leased on a permanent or on-call basis, and every station in town felt the need to have one.
The development of satellite technology seemed to make helicopters obsolete, and they were phased out in most markets. By the late 1980s they had been replaced as the prime newsgathering tool by the equally expensive satellite newsgathering (SNG) trucks, which were more useful in day-to-day operations.
ýThen came the gulf war and the Bronco chase," says Eric Braun, a vice president who specializes in technology for Frank N. Magid Associates, a TV news consulting firm. "The low-speed chase of O.J. Simpson spurred renewed interest in helicopters. A lot of news directors around the country watched that very steady live video and were impressed.
"The next big eye-catcher was the video by KGW in Portland during the floods in the spring of '96 and KGW's use of infrared video for night vision. [See "Free Press," December 1996.] All that video is a result of ultra-steady gyroscopic technology used in the war that had been declassified by the military. Even some of the technology used in the O.J. chase is now obsolete. Now you would not only see the white Bronco, but you could see the expression on Al Cowling's face."
Braun says research shows helicopters help viewers understand a story better, and anyone who saw the police shootout with bank robbers in L.A. last February would agree. "Viewers tell us they really have a better sense of the perspective of a story when they see the chopper shots," he says. "And if every station in a market has one, that neutralizes whatever advantage your competition has."
Many news executives believe marketing the helicopter is appropriate as long as the station doesn't stray from the basic newsgathering purpose.
"Yes, it's an incredible promotional tool," admits Terry Cole, general manager at WOWK in the Huntington-Charleston, West Virginia, market. "But in this mountainous region a helicopter is vital. We can get to a story in 10 minutes rather than an hour and get a feed that would be impossible for an SNG truck. When that fireworks store blew up and killed nine people last July 3 in one of our more remote areas, our helicopter was there for one-and-a-half hours feeding live."
In Cedar Rapids, another general manager has made his station's helicopter into a personality, complete with a speechmaking pilot.
" 'Newscopter 9' and 'Captain Bobby' [Ratliff] are as important to the PR of this station as the newsgathering," says Bob Allen, vice president and general manager at KCRG-TV. "Bobby is big with kids and young adults, and he makes hundreds of appearances on behalf of our station."
Ratliff is one of a rare breed of TV chopper pilots who do it all – fly, report and guide the cameras from a remote button. Allen says this gives the station a big edge in getting to a story quickly. "We cover most of eastern Iowa, and 'Newscopter 9' can be in the air and on the way, if not already there, feeding long before our competition," says Allen. "There was one story, a huge fire in Ottumwa, about 90 miles from here, and the roads are not very good, and Bobby was there reporting live and feeding tape within 45 minutes."
Still, there are some TV news executives who admit privately that newsgathering isn't always the first priority. "They can be great for news if used properly," says a broadcast executive who did not want to be identified. "Too many stations are using smoke and mirrors to sell them to the public." l