Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mini-Cam!

It is not unusual to see television field reporters doing a stand up report alone in front of a small camera at an event these days. But back in the day it took a crew to deliver images from the field. In the beginning it was done with 35 MM film cameras, so TV stations sent their field reporters out with a film cameraman, we called them “shooters” to cover stories. But that all changed back in 1974 with the introduction of Electronic News Gathering (ENG); we called the technology “mini-cam!”

Left: Typical 35 MM film camera used by TV News departments in the '60s and early '70s. WIS-TV was in a race with WFBC-TV (now WYFF-TV) to be the first in the state to use the mini-cam live in a scheduled newscast. The mini-cam packages along with the microwave systems to get the signal back to the station were delivered to both stations the same week, but they were able to schedule a tower crew in earlier than we were to install the omni-directional receiver on their downtown tower. But we were not to be denied. Our management decided to lash up our RCA microwave relay link with our Ikegami HL-35 mini-cam to beat them to the air. As an aside, did you know that HL stood for “Handy Look-ee” how funny is that?

Left: Ikegami HL 35 camera without lens. Back to our story; the news department, headed at that time by Joe Petty arranged with Sherriff Frank Powell to do an interview live from his office during our Seven O’clock Report, one Monday evening. So I was assigned to set up the technology. This turned out to be an exercise in heavy lifting. The HL-35 shoulder mount camera weighed 35 pounds and the associated backpack weighed another 40 pounds. Not to mention the transmitter for the RCA TVM-6 microwave relay weighed 75 pounds. To help manage all this, they assigned Cathy Malone, another of our staff to assist.

The difficulty we had to overcome was that the sheriff’s office at that time was located on Huger Street, north of Gervais, which was down in the Vista near the river. This meant that in order to get a line-of-sight signal path to the station we had to mount the transmitter on top of the jail building and that meant that Cathy could not help me carry the gear to the roof. We got the set up done just before air time and successfully beat WFBC to be the first station in the state to use ENG technology in a live newscast.

Left: US Weather Bureau Building at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. That started a week of live “remotes” for us. Tuesday was much easier, the broadcast was set for the Chamber of Commerce Annual Conference in the old Columbia Hotel and we were able to get a microwave shot from a closed window in the corner of the hotel right through the glass. We were starting to get the hang of this. Wednesday, we did the “live shot” from the offices of the US Weather Bureau at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Although this was the longest shot we did with this mash up of equipment, it was a clear path with no obstructions. Joe Pinner did the weather from the weather bureau and everyone loved seeing all the people and equipment that created the weather forecast. He of course interviewed John C. Purvis, the long time chief of the Columbia Weather Bureau right at his desk.

Left: John C. Purvis at his desk. By Thursday, we had firmly established that we were the first to use mini-cam technology in the state, so we had no remote and I was able to enjoy the Seven O’clock Report from the relative comfort of the master control room. Friday night it was the sports department’s turn so Cathy and I headed out to Harry Parone stadium at Spring Valley high school. This path was almost as long as the one from the airport but like the airport, you could clearly see the downtown tower and the microwave receiver’s dish from the press box. So that was a piece of cake.

What happened next just goes to show you the power of television. The next day, Saturday was the date of the biggest football game in the state, the annual Carolina – Clemson rivalry game. That year it was to be held at Carolina Stadium on Bluff Road. So we decided to do a live cut in at the end of the game with the final score. Chuck Drier, the news department assignments editor was to meet me at the station the morning of the game with my press credentials. But Chuck was unavoidably delayed and I became worried about getting everything set up before the game began, so I decided to go to the stadium and talk my way in. I drove up to the guard at the stadium in the van we rented to move the gear around that week. I told him that I had the mini-cam and that we were going to cover the game. Without credentials, I was expecting to have a problem getting him to agree to let me use the press box elevator to carry the gear to the press box level and I was hoping that I could find a cart to lug the gear to the south end of the press box area to get the best path back to the station for the microwave. To my surprise, he said, “Really, that is the mini-cam! How cool!” and told me that I could drive the van up the ramp to the press box and could leave it in one of the two parking spaces normally reserved for the catering crew that provided the meals to the press corps. That turned out to be the easiest remote we did all week.

I got everything set up and was even treated to a meal before the game started. The signal was being fed live back to the station so I decided to fool around with the camera during the game and shoot every play as it occurred and let the master control crew enjoy the game. During the first quarter, I received a call over the two way radio to keep it up, that the sports department was recording the feed. That night, they used the video instead of the film and that was the first time the Carolina – Clemson Game was video-graphed. And that, my friends is how WIS-TV beat WFBC-TV with live mini-cam coverage. Those were exciting times. Oh MY!

2 comments:

  1. I remember it well. Now we're doing live shots without microwave or satellite technology using cell phone signals.

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    1. LOL, yes Steve and it is HD too not NTSC!

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