New technology and tighter budgets mean TV news is downsizing from expensive satellite broadcasts to low-quality broadband clips. They say it helps make stories feel more immediate, but isn’t it really just an excuse to cut costs?
“The economics of news are pretty simple,” says Tim Lambon, deputy foreign editor of the UK’s Channel 4 News, on the new news economy. “It costs money to tell you what’s happening on the other side of the world and a phone bill scares an accountant a hell of a lot less than a satellite bill.”
A warzone news veteran from Afghan adventures with the Mujahideen to dodging Iraqi tanks on the Kuwaiti border, Lambon has seen it all and recorded much of it so that we can tune into the 10 o’clock news and see it all, too. He’s good on the technology but great on the stories. And talking about the new news economy shouldn’t so much be about balance sheets and binary but told through the medium of what news should surely be about – stories. Well, facts; true stories – but stories nonetheless. However, last time we looked, the news didn’t seem quite the same. The stories were still there but the films looked a bit low-budget, a bit more daytime than primetime, it felt a bit telenovella, squashed; cheap. Sure enough, the big bulletins shimmer with studio gloss and there’s still the live throw to a flak-jacket in Kabul, but turn onto your rolling service, your prole dispatch, and you’ll see the reality of most TV news: it’s a grainy old sea out there. The satellites, those dependable old birds circling the high skies, aren’t quite as popular as they used to be.
“For our big stories on the main Channel 4 News, we’ll still use satellites,” says Lambon, “but if we had to be broadcasting all the time, there’s no way we could do that – channels like BBC World have to take whatever they can get.” Lambon’s not being mean, either. On-screen reality has been changed by a sped-up news agenda. Most rolling news channels have come to boast that they’re “first” or “fastest” or an “eyewitness” to events, and the pressure to compete with the internet’s instantaneous updates, as well as news channels’ story-hungry nature, have messed with quality control.
“Ten years ago, almost everything from anywhere far away came on an analogue satellite”, says Louise Elliott a former satellite co-ordinator for aptV and bt, “analogue satellite was tried and trusted, but very expensive – then everyone went fibre-optic crazy and now it’s all digital, which is cheaper because they compress the images.” Digital means you can squish more onto a satellite, a news channel will get more bang for its buck but the bang’s not as clear. It’s cheaper, but it also looks cheaper. According to Elliott, however, satellite use is “definitely shrinking”.
What’s taking its place, then? What are we relying on for our images of fallout from the Haiti earthquake, from a Taliban bomb blast in Kabul, for military manoeuvres in Iran? The internet, obviously – and the abbreviation on every news producer’s lips – BGAN. This new technology, Broadband Global Area Network, is a blessing for instant images and a curse for clarity. A reporter can now jump on a plane with a camera, a laptop and a BGAN unit (just larger than a laptop), find some trouble and report back to his or her studio – live – with just these three pieces of equipment.
So we see more, we see it as it happens, but it doesn’t look as good. “Levels of acceptability have changed,” says Lyse Doucet, presenter and correspondent for BBC World News. “Viewers are even more used to footage shot by other viewers – the public will accept slightly grainy stuff if you’re in a dangerous place or if it’s a really breaking story.”
Doucet cites the BBC’s Tehran correspondent who had to file from his laptop webcam when Iran cut satellite links. “Of course it wasn’t ideal but I think it really caught viewers’ imaginations,” she says. “The low-quality footage said something very powerful about the story itself.” The medium becoming the message works wonders in these situations and news about the news can be fascinating and necessary, but it shouldn’t be confused with unmediated composites of viewers’ videos, which lower the bar of news reporting across the board.
All this brave new worldliness hasn’t stopped the big stories from getting the treatment they deserve, though. According to Doucet, “A massive story will still get a deployment; a satellite truck with a whole crew – sometimes two.” A summit, a humanitarian disaster (after the dust has settled) or a war deserves reporters, producers, camera operators, sound guys, assistants and a driver to follow the action while a satellite co-ordinator back in the studio will scan the skies for the best and most readily available bird for their crew to hitch a ride on.
There’s a hierarchy of stories that fit with this new hierarchy of technology, of telling the story. At the top there is broadcasting from your own network satellite truck with a full crew (Obama visits Downing Street). Then there is sharing someone else’s uplink, costing an average of $500 to $800 per 10 minutes of live satellite link (Sarkozy visits Côte d’Ivoire); next is a BGAN transaction – also live, but with a grainier, lower bandwidth (Aung San Suu Kyi is denied an appeal) which works out at a not-tiny average of $400 to $600 per 10 minutes (but often without the need for a crew); and then there’s a phone line back to the studio (perhaps a breaking story in an outpost without a major bureau), normally featuring a still of the reporter and recent footage. The worst case scenario would be a webcam video of a correspondent filing into a pinhole at the top of his laptop (if not a vital communication from a beleaguered correspondent in a stifled dictatorship, then the host of an amusing collection of other webcam clips featuring dogs falling into swimming pools).
There’s a certain glamour, a gung-ho dash of Flashman-with-a-microphone, to Tim Lambon’s tales of Mujahideen pack animals trudging heavy cases of cameras and film stock through Afghanistan, the animals bolting during a Soviet firestorm and the news man being reunited with his camera – and a hungry mule – a fortnight later. There’s romance in the old routes plied by planes commissioned to carry weeks’ worth of footage from Vietnam theatres to developing labs in Tokyo and Hong Kong, of old-fashioned names such as Kays of London where British footage often ended up. But Lambon’s work has been enabled more than ever by new technology, “in the aftermath of 9/11, I was in New York with Alex Thomson [Channel 4 News, chief correspondent], I could cut a package and send it to London, then have Alex live into the studio through a phone line while looking at the running order on the same laptop,” he says, “the trouble with a truckload of stuff is that you’ve got no accessibility.”
There’s credibility in a crew and a reporter in a suit (a sharp one is no longer de rigueur, crumpled can tell a story, too) with two cameras, a lighting rig, a sound man with a fuzzy mic and a clipboard-wielding, clock-watching producer. There’s solidity in this structure, but it’s becoming rarer. It means business, but it can’t run through the rubble with the survivors. So what’s the nature of news to be? Set-piece interviews or shooting from the hip? Does it matter that the footage isn’t great, if it’s the footage of what’s actually happening? Both of course, same as it ever was.
Lyse Doucet knows the power of the immediate; “compelling footage is the key – being able to bring the audience with you – into what is happening now – is the incomparable moment in journalism.” It won’t last forever – but the old rule still applies; a big enough story, there will be a satellite. The new news economy is smaller and it’s squeezed, but the gold standard is still the satellite.
If you want to get your correspondent’s Baghdad dispatch on TV screens crisp and clear at 22.00 – or run a whole satellite channel – you will need to make friends with: Luxembourg-based SES-Astra and Intelsat, Canada’s Telesat, or JSat of Japan.
We wouldn’t necessarily be able to choose our preferred satellite launch site, but we’d have fun thinking of what a holiday there would be like – they’re mostly on the equator; the most popular of which are French Guiana (European Space Agency), Kazakhstan (the Russians), while the Sea Launch used to provide a floating platform for blast-offs is now defunct.
Before building a new “bird”, a typical satellite operator will estimate future demand a good three years in advance – the time it takes to conceptualise, assemble and launch the thing. Orbital positions and frequencies are auctioned off by the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and are a prized and fought-over possession.
Launching a truck-sized satellite can cost north of €300m. A satellite lives for about 15 years or until they run out of gas; the life-span of satellites is dependent on the amount of fuel they can carry, fuel used to run the small boosters that push them around their orbital positions.
Large news organisations will negotiate five- or even 10-year contracts with the major operators. And broadcasters will help the operators determine the best orbital positions for satellites, so they become long-lasting business partners. Smaller players can always act through a broker to purchase their time in a more piecemeal way, even buying hourly slices of time.
“Our role as operators is to plan for specific satellites, have them built, specify the launcher and put them in orbit,” explains Nick Daly, UK & Ireland director of Eutelsat.
The likes of Eutelsat are keen to stress that the quality of what actually appears on our television screens is not just down to them. Signals are increasingly “crammed” – the temptation for cash-careful terrestial channels is to save money and try to use a narrower band to broadcast, so they compress their signals and compromise picture quality.
Hojun Song’s art is difficult to categorise. In which box would “launching a satellite” belong? Based in Seoul, where he gained an engineering degree, Song (below) is planning to launch and operate a small satellite. If he succeeds, he’ll be the first individual to do it. “But that’s not the point,” he says. “Unlike governments and military space programmes, private ventures will create diversity.”
Song’s also quick to point out that, despite being the frontman of OSSI, the Open Source Satellite Initiative, this is a collective effort. He is assembling his satellite using, where possible, open source components (whose blueprints are available to the public, at no cost). OSSI is taking a collaborative approach to fundraising too; “I came up with an idea of combining a space programme and street art,” Song says, explaining how artists from all over the world are designing fundraising T-shirts. “If we can wear and use space in our daily lives this will change the thought that only a few white-gowned scientists can do space science”. He aims, in other words, to “bring coolness back into space culture”.
The project will cost about $100,000, the majority of which will be used to pay for the launch. The satellite weighs just 1kg and Song will use a private space company called NovaNano to put it into orbit towards the end of the year.
Song’s equipped his Cubesat with two peculiar features: a Big Bang random number generator and a Shooting Star module. The first feature will detect cosmic microwave background (the “echo” of the Big Bang) and will generate a random set of numbers that will be published on a website: “Maybe we’ll run a space lottery tied with the t-shirts.”
The second feature is a 100W LED light that will be used to pulse Morse-coded messages, chosen by the public, visible from Earth, when the satellite is orbiting overhead. “From a practical point of view, my project might be meaningless,” he admits, “but pure science, too, when it seeks for truth, is just fantasy to most people.”