Small, Cheap Cameras Bring a Revolution To TV Journalism

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

TELEVISION, and especially television news, is set for a revolution.

Industry iconoclasts predict that nightly network news will soon be a thing of the past. Big networks will stick to magazine shows such as 60 Minutes and 20/20, they say.

Television news will be delivered by local stations. Instead of needing all the high-priced equipment of the past, local stations will be able to get the job done about as simply as a local newspaper does it: One reporter carrying a lightweight camera.

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Television stations will be able to be set up for a fraction of the cost through smaller, cheaper cameras, editing equipment, and a whole range of gear.

"The cost alone beats the old way of doing things by a factor of 100 to 1," says Desmond Smith, a Toronto television entrepreneur.

Some stations already operate in the Hi-8 format, the same one people use for home videos. This type of station deals only in news, not game shows or sitcoms. New York One, a Manhattan-based TV station, is built on the new miniature, low-cost technology.

"Survival is something that comes up every decade as the business reforms itself," Mr. Smith says. He has worked for CBS and ABC from Moscow to Vietnam. These days he is running Newsco, which is trying to get a license to run a 24-hour TV news service in Toronto. Smaller and cheaper

"Miniaturization of telecommunications equipment is what we're talking about," says Peter Herford, a Columbia University journalism professor. "Things are not just getting smaller, they're also getting less expensive."

"Until now if you wanted to work in television you had to associate yourself with a large organization, one of the big networks," says Michael Rosenblum who is a kind of guru of Hi-8 video. Mr. Rosenblum teaches "Video Journalism" at Columbia. He is also a television reporter who has produced dozens of pieces for the big networks, using a small Hi-8 camcorder.

Smith explains that TV news started with unwieldy 35mm cameras used in Hollywood movies. Programs such as "See It Now" with Edward R. Murrow were shot on 35mm. "It was what they used to call the `One Ton Pencil,' " he says.

Today the same program could be shot on an upscale version of the common camcorder. The equipment used by television networks - Betacam professional cameras - costs up to $70,000. Professional Hi-8 equipment costs as little as $3,000.

Messrs. Herford and Rosenblum were in Toronto recently to give a series of seminars on the Hi-8 revolution. In the audience were experienced reporters, producers, and camera crews from major television networks.

"Today for a relatively small investment you can buy a Hi-8 camera, and produce your own pieces independent of the networks," Rosenblum told them. Many didn't like what they heard. Some walked out. Shrinking work crews

Smith says that one reporter with a camera will replace the cameraman, soundman, producer, and reporter team that now shows up on the doorstep for a TV shoot. "Canadians and Americans have always got their news from local sources," Smith says. "Local news is going to break wide open with dozens of 24-hour news services such as New York One and Orange County's (Calif.) round-the-clock cable news."

The backers of the proposed Toronto station say it will be a moneymaker. "The new station can be set up for $10 million, roughly the cost of a radio station," says one of the people involved. He cannot be identified because he is at a major network.

The big change is that reporters do their own shooting. There are no expensive, unionized crews. New York One has 20 reporters, each with a camera. New talent is also paid a lot less than local and network TV stars.

"The salaries will be $25,000 to $40,000 instead of $80,000 and higher," predicts the backer of the Toronto station.

The new studios are very automated. Transmission doesn't involve huge towers; it is piped into the cable system. "It's the most exciting development since color TV or the invention of video tape," Smith says. "It's cheaper to create a city-sized television newsroom than to publish a city newspaper."

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