Tapeless Television: not as easy as all that

Aug 19, 2002  •  Post A Comment

As TV stations continue to transition to digital and slowly jettison tapes from their repertoire, they are learning that going tapeless has its own set of challenges.
Being completely tapeless is a bit of a misnomer, since tapes are still used in the field for shooting and will be until cameras can accommodate disks.
ABC affiliate KGO-TV in San Francisco helped to pioneer the trail to tapeless TV in 1998.
When reporters return to the station, stories are edited from tape to disk, and the file is then sent to the server for playback. In addition, most news feeds are received directly on servers, eliminating tape from that process. Archiving is, however, still done on tape, though the station plans to upgrade its servers next year so they are robust enough to handle the rigors of backup.
Being tapeless has made the work of writers much easier, said Kevin Keeshan, news director with KGO. “If you are writing from the feed, you can go through the video, pick the sound bites and edit right here,” he said. “As opposed to when you went to transmission, got a copy of the feed tape, viewed the video, wrote the time codes, found someone to edit and had them cut the piece. Efficiency is there in helping writers.”
The disadvantage is being subject to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of computers. In mid-June a computer virus brought the station to “its knees” for a few weeks, he said. Journalists could not edit or search on the servers because the virus had corrupted the database. The staff needed to revert to tape-to-tape edit rooms or in-truck edit bays. “I think it was a wake-up call for all of us in tapeless environments depending on computers to run our shows that virus protection and vigilance is a serious concern,” he said. “We need to take safeguards.”
KGO has closed its network to outside e-mail sources by not allowing staffers to log on to Yahoo!, Hotmail or other Web-based e-mail accounts from work computers.
Jeffrey Polikoff, director of engineering and operations at NY1 News in New York, agreed that the biggest drawback of going tapeless is computer problems. “One minute it’s there, and one minute it’s not. It’s not tangible or in your hand,” he said.
Still, the benefits outweigh the negatives, he said. NY1 News shoots and backs up on tape, but the rest of the process is tapeless. When reporters return to the newsroom, the tape is ingested into servers. Once the material is on the server, it can be accessed by multiple people at the same time instead of waiting for a dub, he said.
Northwest Cable News, which launched in 1995, has relied on digital tools since its inception, using tapes only for archiving, shooting and airing repeat material. That means the station can go to air while feeds are still being received, for instance, since all the feeds go directly to servers. “You can record breaking news and edit as it is fed into the server instead of waiting for the tape,” said Todd Barkes, operations manager for NWCN in Seattle. “Tapes are expensive, so having stuff living on the server [makes sense]. You’re not wearing down tape heads and equipment.”
He offers this piece of advice to stations beginning a tapeless transition. “Whatever systems you buy today there is a better system that comes out tomorrow. Realize it, accept [it] and try to get on a system that has a reputation for being a solid system with ease of upgrade that can grow as technology grows.”
ABC affiliate WLS-TV in Chicago began renovating its newsroom in March and will move into the new server-based one in August. The digital system will afford much more flexibility, but it won’t happen with the flip of a switch. Such a transition requires changes in work flow and employee adjustments, said Jennifer Graves, WLS news director. A team of managers is designing the folder structure within the computer system for stories, such as who has access to which folders and how to catalog the archives. The station is establishing a protocol for naming stories with video ID numbers, since digital files are played to air based on those numbers.
Tim Thorsteinson, president and chief operating officer of the Grass Valley business unit of Thomson Broadcast Solutions, a division of Thomson multimedia, doesn’t think TV stations will necessarily ever become completely tapeless. “There are a few applications that suit themselves well to pulling a cassette out of the tape machine and carrying it across the room or taking a tape home,” he said.