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CNN phones home with China scoop

Apr 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Much has been made of CNN’s controversial footage of the U.S. Navy air crew freed by China this month, specifically of the network’s unwillingness to share it with rivals and China’s confiscation of CNN’s video equipment. But one fact was indisputable: The network was the only news organization with footage.
“In the end it’s what reaches the consumer,” said Eason Jordan, the chief news executive and news-gathering president for the CNN News Group. “And what the consumer sees is that CNN was first, fast and live.”
Mr. Jordan attributes CNN’s latest competitive victory to the network’s “enterprise and initiative and ferocious competitive zeal.” As for any technological edge CNN might have had, he noted that the technology used was not proprietary-it was something on the market that any news organization could have bought .
“Technology is a tool in the process, but anybody can have the tool,” he said. “You have to have very hungry, aggressive news-gatherers who are prepared to kick some butt using this gear.”
The technology of note is the TH-1 videophone made by British company 7E Communications Ltd., which refers to the device as its “Talking Head” series video reporter unit. Trademarks are its ruggedness, portability, simplicity and flexibility.
“We’re going to set its U.S. price at under $7,000 at NAB,” said company President Peter Beardow, who noted that the equipment would be shown at the National Association of Broadcasters meeting. CNN, the BBC and London-based Independent Television News account for the bulk of sales to date.
According to Mr. Beardow, the less-than-10-pound, lunchbox-size TH-1 was paired with a laptop-size (when folded up) satellite communications unit of about 11 pounds for CNN’s China mission.
“Moving 2 tons of gear to the Hainan airport in China for a 7-in-the-morning departure on a few hours’ notice was totally unfeasible,” CNN’s Mr. Jordan pointed out. “But to have two boxes-a telephone and a videophone-that work together in tandem was [feasible]. You can fly with those, storing them in the overhead compartment of the plane-you don’t even have to check luggage.”
A phone call to Atlanta from CNN’s crew in China-which had never seen the equipment before-was enough to get the equipment up and running, powered by a car battery.
Although this particular tech niche is relatively new, 7E is not alone in offering this type of equipment. CNN Vice President of Satellites and Circuits Dick Tauber said Japan’s Toko, the United Kingdom’s Livewire Electronic Components Ltd. and Austria’s Scotty Tele-Transport Corp. are also contenders in the field.
But Mr. Tauber conceded that the TH-1 has advantages. “It’s smaller, lighter-weight and more compact,” he noted.“We really liked it for its size and weight-and we really wanted to use it for live coverage.”
About five or six years ago, he said, the equipment was of the store-and-forward variety: Video would be downloaded from a camera into a compiler and compression box. Independent mobile service providers would then send the feed out via the Inmarsat global satellite system used outside the United States.
But by 1997, Mr. Tauber said, the push to go live was strong. CNN began using a Toko box to cover events such as last year’s airliner hijacking in Afghanistan-the only video on air at the time. The network later chose 7E equipment to cover violence in East Timor and Somalia and this year’s earthquake in India.
One drawback to the videophone equipment is the video quality.
“It’s not broadcast-quality video,” Mr. Tauber said unequivocally. “It works if you’re in a place where you could not get pictures any other way.”
But CNN’s chief news executive thinks the video quality provides excitement.
“I actually think there’s a certain edginess and excitement that comes along with video that’s 15 frames a second instead of 30,” Mr. Jordan
insisted.