The Evolution of Live News Coverage
For decades, live coverage has required some sort of huge and expensive truck. Over the years, the trucks and related gear have gotten smaller. Today, many live reports require no truck at all. Here's a look at the evolution of live news coverage.
1950s-1960s: Large Trucks with Studio Cameras
At the dawn of the television era, many stations were able to give viewers live coverage from planned events, such as parades through the downtown streets.
But because of the limitations of the equipment, these live shots had to be scheduled far in advance.
Many stations used full-sized buses to haul their cameras and gear. The cameras weren't the kind that would sit on a cameraman's shoulder. Instead, they were often the large studio cameras that might be put on the roof of the bus in order to get shots of the parade down below.
1970s: Microwave ENG Trucks
A big breakthrough came in the 1970s. Stations would buy specially-rigged vans to allow them to beam signals over microwaves. The vans had tall masts, more than 40 feet into the air, which were used to transmit the signal. These trucks were used with newly-designed ENG (electronic news gathering) cameras, which were portable and allowed photographers to shoot video from their shoulder or tripod.
These trucks could be set up at the scene of breaking news, like a fire or hostage situation. The drawback was the microwave signal, which required a clear aerial path back to the station's tower.
So they had a range of 30-80 miles, but much less if trees, hills or tall buildings blocked that signal path. These trucks are still commonly used today, though they can be built on to an SUV platform and not just full-sized passenger vans.
1980s: Satellite Trucks
Beginning in the 1980s, TV stations started buying a satellite truck to add to their fleet of microwave trucks.
These trucks cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which meant a station could usually only afford one.
These trucks were much larger than microwave trucks and had a large satellite dish mounted on to the roof. The benefit was that because of SNG (satellite news gathering) technology, they could get the signal back to the station from anywhere the truck could be driven. Suddenly local stations were willing to go hundreds of miles to the coast in order to provide live coverage of a hurricane. The drawbacks were the cost of the truck and the fact that a station had to purchase a slot of time on a satellite in order to beam back the signal. These trucks are still being used and are now smaller. Some can transmit via microwave or satellite, depending on the situation.
Today: Backpack Live Units
Now stations have the most portable option ever imagined for live news, a backpack unit that a videographer can wear while shooting live video. These units use cellular telephone signals as a way to transmit video. A typical unit costs around $20,000, far less than an ordinary news car.
They offer many advantages besides low cost. If a station were using a truck to broadcast from a football game, the truck would have to be in the parking lot.
Several hundred feet of cable would usually be run in order to connect the truck to the camera inside the stadium. With a backpack, the entire unit can be on the sideline. The drawback is the live shot signal will only be as good as the cell phone signal. If you're in an area without cell coverage, you can't be live. Also, if you're in a crowded area, the signal strength may be diminished, making your shot look smeared or blurry.
Most stations have a variety of ways to "go live." The big trucks will never completely go away. Think about how a broadcast network provides coverage of the Super Bowl. In that situation, trucks the size of an 18-wheeler are brought to the stadium. That's because there are so many cameras involved, plus graphics operators and audio engineers. It's like an entire TV control room on wheels.
But outside of those large-scale productions, equipment is getting smaller and cheaper all the time, making it easier for stations to be live from scene every night.