AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2002

Going Live   

The transition from film to videotape wasn't just about technology. It altered the style, pace and content of TV news.

By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

The shooting started just after 5 p.m. on May 17, 1974, when more than 100 officers of the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments closed in on a ramshackle house in Compton. Los Angeles television station KNXT went on the air, carrying the scene live on its "Big News."

The house, viewers were told, had been commandeered by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the self-styled revolutionary group that three months before had kidnapped 19-year-old Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of the legendary newspaper baron. The SLA's subsequent series of hit-and-run crimes had grown into a sensation, competing with President Nixon's growing political troubles for space and airtime. No one was sure whether Hearst was inside the house with the SLA desperados as the gunfight began. But as viewers watched, a full-scale street battle unfolded. Shots could be heard. And screams. Soon, smoke began to pour from the structure, then flames. The building collapsed.

For more than two hours, KNXT covered this amazing scene all by itself. No other station could get its cameras close enough. KNXT's rivals had no choice but to pick up its pictures, reporters and anchorman, Jerry Dunphy. The local scoop soon became a national one, as stations across the country picked up the same feed.

Few viewers realized it, but a revolution was in progress. What they were witnessing wasn't just a cinematic cops-and-criminals shootout; it was a seminal moment of a new era. First to the scene, KNXT was the only station equipped with semi-experimental portable cameras that used videotape instead of movie film to record sound and images. The technology, a crude forerunner of today's home video cameras, enabled KNXT's crew, Rey Hernandez and Rich Brito, to venture close to the action, then beam live pictures back to the station.

In short order, this technologuy--dubbed "electronic newsgathering" or ENG--would alter not just the face of TV news but the news itself. Much of the contemporary vocabulary of the modern newscast--the live shot, the remote shot, the sound bite--began to evolve that spring day. Because it was portable, ENG helped conquer the vicissitudes of terrain and access. Because it enabled stations to acquire pictures cheaply, quickly and in massive volume, it literally made more news possible. With ENG, stations could afford to expand from half-hour or one-hour newscasts to today's two- and three-hour extravaganzas. Had ENG and the satellite uplink not come along, CNN and its all-news offspring might never have happened.

"It made TV news into what we think of today," says Craig M. Allen, an Arizona State University professor who has studied the history of the local newscast. "Up to that time, TV news was someone reading copy into a camera. Afterwards, it was visual. I can't think of a technology that has been more important" in the past 25 years.

The transition from film to tape wasn't just a technological revolution. In many respects, it was a revolution in the style, pace and even perception of news. No longer would viewers accept the word of that godlike figure of 1950s and '60s newscasts, the anchorman (and, coincident with ENG's rise, the anchorwoman). Viewers wanted to, and could, see the story for themselves.

Network news was slower to make the transition during the decade, which may explain why viewers consistently rated their local newscasts as less biased than their network counterparts during this period. "Live TV is the most compelling and credible form of TV," says Al Primo, who pioneered the "Eyewitness News" format (which emphasized a variety of "personalities" presenting their stories directly to viewers). "With electronic newsgathering, you not only could go live to a lot more places, but you could do it a lot faster, right up against deadline. There's no question that made a huge difference with the audience."

Since ENG made it easier to shoot, edit and assemble information, the news could be presented faster, with more and shorter stories, and--arguably--less coherence and greater superficiality. The process of assembling film footage was a slow, collaborative exercise involving, at minimum, a half-dozen people, from sound and light technicians to film processors and editors. There were fewer newsroom cooks after ENG arrived, but fewer experienced craftsmen as well. There's no question that the news got faster. The question is, did it also become dumber?

Live television certainly was possible before the SLA showed up, but it wasn't easy. Covering an event live required moving cumbersome studio cameras to the scene, along with heavy cable transmission lines. That was fine for major events such as space shots, political conventions, parades and championship games, but not for ordinary news. Up until the mid-1970s, most day-to-day news was captured by three-man crews recording on film. The key problem: Film had to be shot, developed and edited, each step a time-consuming and expensive process.

Seeking a better way, a CBS executive named Ray Beindorf began to tinker with videotape. In 1969, while general manager of CBS-owned KNXT, Beindorf gave reporter Clete Roberts a crude video recorder and asked him if it could be adapted for daily newsgathering. "I said, 'Clete, play with this thing,' " recalls Beindorf, now retired. "He played with it all right, but it wasn't quite right. It wasn't reliable enough."

Beindorf shelved the idea for a while, but came back to it in 1972 when he was promoted to head of the CBS station group. With the assent of CBS' top brass, Beindorf began a campaign to develop a workable news camera. Along with CBS' chief engineer, Joe Flaherty, and the company's vice president of newsgathering, Marshall "Casey" Davidson, Beindorf went to Japan and laid out the specs to Ikegami, a manufacturer of studio cameras. Ikegami began developing a model later dubbed, in incomparable Japanese phrasing, the "handy looky." Beindorf himself trademarked the name "Mini Cam" (he says he and Flaherty later coined the catchall phrase "electronic newsgathering"). Ikegami eventually delivered a superior system, but in the meantime Beindorf used cameras from Phillips and Akai.

The various systems were shipped out to CBS-owned stations in Philadelphia (WCAU) and St. Louis (KMOX) in 1972 and '73 with instructions to road test them. The transition wasn't smooth. As a young news producer at KMOX, Tom Wolzien recalls that the cameras, along with a bulky battery backpack, weighed more than 50 pounds. The tape machine added another 35. "You weren't going to be running down the street after cops," says Wolzien, who later became NBC News' White House producer and is now a Wall Street analyst. John Hillis, who later became one of the founding producers at CNN, remembers two cameramen going in for hernia operations a year after ENG units arrived at his station, WSB in Atlanta.

Just as bad, the early units performed poorly in low light, making night assignments a crapshoot. Wolzien remembers sending a crew to a five-alarm fire at a local racetrack. "The reporter kept referring to 'the fire behind me,' and gesturing to the background, but it was so dark you couldn't see [anything] back there," he says.

Nevertheless, the technology made going to the scene of breaking events considerably easier. KMOX was able to demonstrate the potential by covering a plane crash at Lambert Airport and a series of weather emergencies. WBBM in Chicago, another CBS station, showed viewers live pictures of a train crash and a dangerous chemical leak.

The problem, then as now, was that news events usually didn't break on schedule for a 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscast. Before Patty Hearst, KNXT offered Los Angeles viewers such riveting live spectacles as a Lakers practice session. Crime-scene reporters could now make a sensational, though often empty, new claim: Live! The new toy was ripe for manipulation, and media-savvy operators did just that. In Philadelphia, Mayor Frank Rizzo began calling news conferences at 6:05 p.m., which happened to be just in time for WCAU's top-rated evening broadcast. Rizzo even had special electronic connections installed in his office, to make it easy for ENG crews to get pictures back to stations.

The perception of ENG as a balky and expensive new technology was flipped on its head by KNXT's triumph in May 1974. Some weeks before, the station's morning assignment editor, Jeff Wald (now news director at L.A.'s KTLA) had persuaded management to let him hire a friend to monitor activity on local police scanners. When something seemed to be occurring in Compton, Wald dispatched his ENG crew, Brito and Hernandez, to check it out. They were joined by reporters Bill Deiz and Bob Simmons.

As Deiz et al. got into position, crews from other stations began arriving on the scene. KNBC showed up with a big live studio truck. When it fired up its transmitters to begin sending to a relay tower on Mt. Wilson, the surge temporarily knocked KNXT's signal (also relayed from Mt. Wilson) off the air. Back at the studio, the editor who was running the coverage, Bob Long, hastily concocted a compromise: If KNBC agreed to get out of the way, KNXT would pool its pictures.

"I was in big trouble until Beindorf [by then at CBS headquarters] could watch Jerry Dunphy on five channels in New York City," chuckles Long, now news director of NBC-owned WRC in Washington, D.C.

The shootout resulted in the deaths of six SLA "soldiers," but Hearst wasn't among them. By happenstance, she was 30 miles from the scene, watching it unfold on TV like millions of others. "Hand-held cameras jerked every which way while the news reporters described in simplistic detail what we could see on the screen," she wrote in her 1982 memoir, "Every Secret Thing." "It was barbaric, overwhelming, unbelievable."

Inspired by what they saw in Compton, stations across America raced to embrace the new newsgathering technology. Five stations were ENG-capable in 1973; by 1979, the number had soared to 550, or 86 percent of the U.S. total. "No technology in the history of television had caught on so suddenly," wrote Craig Allen in "News Is People," his history of local news, published last year. The conversion from film to ENG was initially costly. Stations needed cameras (at roughly $40,000 to $50,000 per), special trucks, microwave transmitters and receivers, tape-editing bays--an investment that easily surpassed several million dollars per station.

ENG's journalistic advantages were obvious, but Allen and others believe station managers rushed to make the change for other reasons. One was simple competitive pressure; viewers clearly perceived a difference between stations with the new technology and those without it, and stations like KNXT had a "first mover" advantage. The second was ENP, or "electronic news promotion." The new technology was the object of self-generated hype about a station's shiny new "action cam" or "electric cam" or "instant eye."

Even more important was the cost-efficiency of videotape. Stations found that they could quickly lower their costs of producing the evening news (and soon, their midday and early-morning news). Reusable tape was cheaper than expensive film stock that couldn't be recycled. Tape also made obsolete the fixed-cost infrastructure of film, from film processing machines to film editors.

"With film you needed a cameraman, a sound man and a lighting man," says Reese Schonfeld, CNN's founding president and CEO. "With tape, all you needed was a cameraman and a tech who did the lighting. And you didn't need the same skill level to operate a tape camera, so you could hire people at much lower pay. You saved more [in salaries] in one year than you spent on the camera."

Local stations made the transition to ENG well before the networks got there. The networks did use some tape equipment to cover the 1976 political conventions. But there were fears, says Wolzien, that the change would be too disruptive; a complete conversion wasn't realized until about 1980. Along the way, the big boys learned some hard lessons. When a would-be assassin, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, pointed a gun at President Ford in 1975, CBS and ABC were able to get taped footage of the incident on the air 20 minutes before NBC's film was ready. "John Chancellor missed it," says Schonfeld. "That helped convince everyone that this was serious stuff."

Any technology that brings more pictures to viewers faster and cheaper will invariably win out. But is faster necessarily better for news? Allen's thesis is that ENG transformed TV news from a relatively contemplative medium--one that required the slow and painstaking assembling of pieces of film to tell stories--into one that venerated speed but often at the expense of substance or accuracy.

He argues that greater speed translated into greater sensationalism, especially a bigger emphasis on crime, because crime stories are easy for viewers to understand, immediately accessible and inexpensive to cover. It's true that in the tape era, sound bites became shorter and shorter for a simple reason: They could be. It was technically difficult to edit and replay snippets of sound on film. As for accuracy, think back to that watershed moment in Compton, the SLA shootout. Millions of viewers heard reporters Bill Deiz and Bob Simmons suggest that Patty Hearst was inside that Compton house and thus incinerated by the fire that engulfed it. It was days before the world learned otherwise.

But ENG brought people closer to the news. They could hear it. They could see it--live!--with their own eyes. It seemed so...real. Maybe that's all that really matters. Bob Long still has a souvenir from that day in May 1974, presented to him by the LAPD. It's a block of Lucite that encases a spent shotgun shell. The inscription reads, "By your presence the truth was known."