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The Road Revisited
NOTE: This story, written for MILLIMETER, a trade magazine, demonstrated to me the pettiness of some editors. I had written for Peter Caranicas, an excellent editor, at BACKSTAGE, SHOOT, VIEW, WORLD SCREEN NEWS, and WRAP – all trade publications, most defunct – for a number of years. When he moved to MILLIMETER, he asked me to write a story for him. I did. It worked out fine and I wrote another one for him. After he left, his assistant (a woman named Allison, though I can't remember her last name) took over and assigned me a piece on Chicago post-production. After that, she gave me a story on the 1988 Winter Olympics. After I turned it in, I gor a frenzied call from Allison telling me that the story was terrible; not what they wanted. I took notes on what she needed and told her I'd redo it. I only had 48 hours. She said she doubted I could fix it. Under incredible pressure, I contacted additional sources, then restructured and rewrote the piece. I turned it in on time. I didn't hear a word from Allison. A month or so later, the article appeared in MILLIMETER and found this notice in the "bio box": "Tom Soter is a New York-based free-lance writer. Portions of this feature were contributed by Dan Ochiva." I thought, "Gee, I guess they must have had to do a lot of rewriting." I examined the piece; there was one paragraph that I hadn't written; the restructuring and additional reporting were all as I had written them. Giving Ochiva a credit for such miniscule work was a big "Screw you" from Allison to me. Why? Perhaps she wasn't happy that I had proved her wrong? That would be weird, but whatever the reason, I never heard from her. No thanks for the rewrite, not a word. Pettiness. I never wrote for MILLIMETER again.
It can be as dramatic as Israeli athletes taken hostage by terrorists or as mundane as working with behind-the-scenes crews who Insist you speak their language. Whichever, the Olympics have always provided challenges for the mobile units that have reported them, and this year should be no different. "I'm really looking forward to it," says Thorn Kroon, sales and marketing manager at Seattle's Northwest Mobile Television, a division of King Broadcasting. "The Olympics are why we're in this business."
Certainly it's a test-one in which coverage has altered dramatically over the years. In 1947, when Harry Coyle, then with the Dumont Network and now coordinating producer of baseball with NBC Sports, covered his first sports events, his mobile unit was a station wagon that carried three film cameras specially adapted for TV transmission. There were no zoom lenses, no videotape, no slow-motion instant replay. It was just a monitor, a switcher, and those cameras fixed into three shots: medium, long, and dose-up.
Times have changed. The mobile business really took off at the 1984 Summer Olympics when, according to Barbara Seipt, unit manager at ABC, virtually every mobile unit in the country was on hand for ABC's international coverage. As the "host" network, ABC was not only responsible for its own cameras, it also had to supply feeds to every station in the world.
Like so much dew on a summer field, dozens of new mobile businesses sprung up in response. "There was a glut," recalls Kroon. "But the new companies didn't think much about what they'd do after the Olympics." Soon, the business began drying up; so did the mobiles.
"There's a lot of consolidation in the industry right now," continues Kroon, "and that's raising the entry-level stakes for mobile trucks. It costs $10 million to compete with the major mobile companies. That means the boutique-style companies-single-unit mobile operations-will have to operate differently. They have to be much more careful about mistakes since they're working closer to the line. My mistakes are spread over 13 trucks. They only have one."
Indeed, the minnows are being gobbled up by the ever-growing whales: Northwest absorbed Orange Coast Video, Sun Television, and Bay Area Mobile; Unitel took over Clearwater; and NEC bought TEP. Not only that: Congressional tax revisions have made a difference, too. Investment tax credits have changed severely for broadcast equipment, so investors are not as ready to put money into broadcast equipment. There are fewer write-offs.
"To prosper," says Susan Devlin, vice president at Unitel, "you have to run your mobile company like a business. It's very high cost: You have to maintain your equipment and keep it stateof-the-art. Many don't understand that."
Says Kroon: "How you support your equipment is crucial. We have set up field shops in our major markets. (Northwest Mobile, the largest mobile operation in the Ll.S; runs trucks out of Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Carlos, California, and Kent, Washington.) The biggest thing in developing a client base is keeping on top of things. If equipment is needed or something happens, you have to be able to meet demands. You can't always go to a rental house. We have more credibility in that market by having facilities there."
"It's cost plus what you think the clients want," observes Ken Degerness, vice president of mobile production at Calgary-based CFCN, which will be sending its truck to the Olympics for Canadian television. "If switcher 'A' is worth $100,000 and switcher 'B' is $150,000, you might say go with 'A.' But if 'B' is a recognizable name brand and more salable to the client, you go with that. It keeps you on top of the market."
State-of-the-art on wheels used to be the name of the game, but as Kroon points out, the arms race has slowed. "Although it's a cliche, the challenge until now has been to capture the 'leading edge of technology.' Well, the leading edge seems to be flattening out. The industry is going through a refinement period-digitaleffects devices are cleaner, camera lenses are sharper, and Chyron graphics are more sophisticated. MIl, CCD cameras, and HDTV are on the horizon but right now we're cleaning up lots of ideas that have been around for a while."
One such idea: Centro Corp. came up with a system in which tape decks were attached to racks on casters. Servicing the tape machines became easier, removing the need for service door on the sides of the truck, and duplication of equipment was eliminated. "You can roll them in or roll them out of a fixed facility," explains C. Stanley Ellington, the Centro design consultant who came up with the plan. NBC, in fact, moved two VTRs from one of its trucks designed with the system to a Brooklyn studio for use on The Cosby Show.
The idea of "containerization" has been spreading. Toronto EFP, based in its namesake city, used the cargo shippers' approach by creating removable racks in its "Promo" truck for all stationary equipment. "We did a lot of research before we built Promo," says company president George Dyke. "It was designed to complement multicamera production shoots like rock concerts or sporting events. Producers preferred to shoot these in Betacam, but also needed a control room to package the show more effectively for postproduction later." Working with an empty custom Ford-van chassis, Toronto EFP employees designed and built lightweight steel racks. When the time comes to move or ship the equipment, a thin brushed aluminum shell
ticipating companies are taking special precautions. "We're putting heaters in all our lenses to keep the function in," says Dick Horan, vice president of Challenger and two-time Emmy-winner for his work as ABC's technical manager at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. "We're also placing hot boxes in the mobile units to keep the motor from setting. We have reengineered the heating system in the truck."
Then again, the weather may not play up to expectations. Horan notes at Lake Placid, in 1980, "it was not as cold as usual. It was not disappointing. Just a bit above disappointing." But that wasn't as bad as Innsbruck, in 1976: The Austrian army had to combat mild weather by trucking in snow from northern Europe.
This year, there could also be difficulties linking up with foreign broadcast technicians. "There are minor nuances about how things are done in setting up and running the equipment," explains Kroon. Adds Horan: "In 1976, the Canadian crews at the Summer Olympics in Montreal made us talk to them in French. Everyone was running around with their French-English dictionaries."
Technical innovations should help simplify matters. In 1976, when Dick Horan handled ski-jumping coverage for ABC, existing cable wires could not stretch the 8,000 feet today's cable can. Events had to be shot with (at the time) less dependable microwave cameras. No longer.
Technicians were also limited by space. "Trucks have gotten bigger," remarks Horan. "Back then, the consideration was equipment, not people. In the 1980s, creature comforts improved. Trucks in the 1970s were 40-feet long. Now, most are 48. It doesn't sound like much, but eight feet is a lot of space."
Adds Devlin: "Technology is getting smaller, but there's more of it. Ten years ago, a camera control unit would take up a whole rack. Now you can put: , three in a rack. But in those days, you weren't concerned with digital effects. The equipment is getting smaller, but more pieces are expected on board."
Small equipment will probably make for more -exciting coverage, as well. Flying Tiger, a New York-based company has created custom mounts to fit motorcycles and trucks of its own design for better .coverage of marathons, bike races, and rowing. Flying Tiger co-owrier Tony Foresta first reconstructed a Honda Goldwing motorcycle five years ago to cover a marathon for A'BC Sports. "We've tried to develop new devices while thinking
about the athlete's requirements," says Foresta. Among the recent additions to Flying Tiger's fleet is a low-slung camera car built on a Volkswagen chassis. Designed to be low enough that runners could still look over its roof to see the timing car's numerals, the vehicle also serves as a platform for the recently acquired and declassified Wescam gyro camera mount. Made by Westinghouse Aerospace for a secret defense project in the 1970s, the stabilized mount (now sold by Alan Gordon Enterprises) shields and stabilizes the entire camera, enclosing it within a plexiglas sphere. "We use it with an Ampex CCD (Betacam) camera, controlling its movement with a joystick," Foresta says. "You can use a 250mm lens while driving down the road at 30 mph, and the image is extremely stable."
ESPN has also used in-car CCD, microwave cameras at races, and has even placed one on an umpire at a baseball game. "Cameras are becoming smaller and more durable," says Steve Ulman, manager of production services at ESPN. "The microwave cameras give you a great deal of versatility. Being tied up by a wire to a truck is inconvenient."
Other companies are experimenting with the more durable CCD cameras (which many insist are not yet up .to par on picture quality) and KU uplinks on trucks. Wesley Gordon, a sales engineer with Centro, sees satellite dishes on most mobile units eventually. "It started as a joke at NBC," he remarks, ' "but they took the ball, ran with it, and now they're getting good use out of it." Gordon feels with so many broadcasters wanting to use KU bands, having portable uplinks will offer truck owners more control.
But Kulchar, for one, is skeptical. "It's the 'me-too' syndrome.' I can remember when helicopters were the rage. If you didn't have one, you were a non-TV station. Now, if you can't uplink with Peoria, Illinois, it's the same thing. For Uriitel, KU is really a different area. It's our choice not to get into it. Maybe 10 percent of our jobs need to be uplinked on the site. It's more of a transmitting task than a video chore, and there are a lot of companies that provide that service."
It's also very unlikely the big trucks will disappear. They're a necessity at events like the Olympics where miniature studios have to be set up on location. If anything, they will become more elaborate as they attempt to stay ahead of the market.
"Mobile units usually have the latest technology long before local stations," says Kroon. "That's where technical equipment is field-tested. You've got some real hot-dog producers and directors out there who like to try things and take more risks. Equipment gets refined at the station level, of course, but a lot of times, the birth of ideas begins here in the field."