What is electronic news gathering?

Electronic news gathering changed the way we receive information from around the world.
Electronic news gathering changed the way we receive information from around the world.

Ever since the advent of television, news has been a vital part of programming. Like radio news, it allowed audiences to get news as it was breaking rather than having to wait for the newspaper. But TV also had the advantage over both radio and newspaper of being able to beam film footage of a newsworthy event into the audience's living rooms.

However, the problem with early TV news was that film footage wasn't available until hours after an event occurred. Thus watching news break on the television simply consisted of a talking head behind a desk in a studio reporting what was happening -- not much better than simply listening to the coverage on the radio. Live footage on television was a rare event indeed, reserved for huge, planned events, like the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Live feeds took planning, big equipment and circuits provided by the telephone company to transmit the feed.

It wasn't until electronic news gathering (ENG) developed in the 1970s and '80s that TV news crews could quickly set up live video signals to send back to the studio and into people's homes, drastically changing the face of television news. ENG refers to the electronic technologies that allow news crews to report from remote locations outside a studio. Before ENG came about, TV news footage shot outside of the studio was recorded on film, which had to be brought back to the studio for time-consuming processing and editing before it was ready to air. Editing for instance, involved manual cutting and spicing of the film by a trained employee. Often, an anchor reporting a late-breaking story on the 6 o'clock news would have to end a story by promising the audience "film at 11."

The BBC attempted to streamline this process as early as 1962 with the Mobile Film Processing Unit using three different vehicles -- a processing truck, an editing truck and a truck for converting film projection to television. The trucks would race to cover a story and then send the footage through microwave links to the studio. But it turned out that this so-called "three-ring circus" of trucks didn't work so well and was more trouble than it was worth, only lasting a few years [source: Higgins].

The real advancement that ushered in the age of ENG was videotape. We spoke with Jonathan Higgins, an expert in the field of ENG and author of two books on the subject, who helped explain how ENG changed news reporting.

How Electronic News Gathering Changed the News

Although it had been around since the 1950's, videotape technology improved throughout the 1970s and '80s. It originally used large 2-inch-wide tape and required bulky equipment. Then came the Sony U-matic in 1971, which used 3/4-inch tape, and then finally the Sony Beta in the 1980s that used 1/2-inch wide tape and became the industry standard. This also resulted in smaller video cameras.

Videotape did not have to undergo the cumbersome processing of film. Although at first, editing videotape was just as difficult as editing film, this too was solved by advances in tape decks throughout the 1970s and 80s, which allowed simpler electronic editing. And, as opposed to film, videotape was cheap and reusable. Videotape also resulted in more thorough news reporting because it meant crews needed less time to process and edit, giving reporters more time to cover a story.

By the time videotape technology advanced, the capability for microwave transmission was well established (and used in the 1960s by the BBC's ill-fated Mobile Film Processing Unit). But the convenience of videotape finally allowed crews to more easily use microwave links to quickly send their footage back to the studio. It even made live feeds more possible, as in the police shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. Also in 1974, KMOX, a station in St. Louis, Mo., was the first to abandon film and switch entirely to ENG. Stations all over the country made the switch over the next decade.

ENG technology also faced dramatic advancements during the digital age of 1990s and 2000s. Videotape was gradually abandoned in favor of digital video recording, which made editing even easier and even allowed journalists without special technology training to edit the footage on a laptop. TV crews also began using digital signals for their microwave transmission instead of analog. Perhaps most significantly, however, is how crews began using satellite links to transmit their feeds instead of land-based links. Because a view of the sky establishes a line of sight for the microwaves (see sidebar), this allowed video feeds to be instantly sent half-way around the world. For more on this aspect of ENG technology, read "What is digital satellite news gathering?"

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