Good news from Dundee 

24 June 2024 tbs.pm/81255

 

Cover of the TVTimes

From the TVTimes for 26 January – 1 February 1980

In a warm anorak, cameraman Henry McCubbin perched a blue box-like machine on his shoulder as reporter Alan Saunders chatted into the lens on a chilly rooftop overlooking the beautiful Tay Estuary just outside Dundee, Scotland. At his side, recordist Neil McMillan crouched beside a box and adjusted the controls.

They don’t look a lot different from the familiar film crews who have brought TV to our screens for more than 20 years. But the equipment McCubbin and Saunders were using is new to Britain.

Electronic News Gathering (ENG for short) has arrived. And as the unions inside BBC and ITV negotiate individual agreements it’s a system which, combined with new studios opening in smaller towns and and cities, will be able to bring more stories more quickly to your screen at home.

Although ITN has been using ENG on a limited scale for some months, Grampian Television, the ITV company serving the north-east of Scotland, is one of the first to have a full union agreement to operate the new equipment.

So how does ENG differ? Normally a film crew covering a news story would have to rush film back to the main studio centre to be processed and cut up before being put together to make up the final news story. When the event they are filming takes place, say, 60 miles from the studio, this could mean at least a two-and-a-half hour delay.

ENG, a system already used by TV companies in many parts of the world, short-circuits all that. The lightweight ENG camera records a news story in sound and colour on magnetic tape. If an interview isn’t up to scratch, the tape can be rewound and used again — and the cameraman can check his results by replaying the tape and looking through the viewfinder, itself a mini-TV screen.

As long as the terrain between the news crew and the nearest studio centre is reasonably hat, the story can be relayed “live” by aerial and transmitted live on screen.

Or, for an edited news story, the video cassette can be driven to the nearest studio and “played down the line” to the main studio. There, the bother of cutting and processing film is by-passed using a new editing suite: the original tape can be played back and edited as it is viewed.

 

A diagram showing the differences between live, down-the-line and film news gathering

 

Grampian Television’s setup — a model which other ITV companies already have plans to follow — involves adding a new studio in Dundee to cover local news stories in an area which has, until now, been covered mostly from distant Aberdeen. The new centre in Dundee, built inside a lovely, turn-of-the-century country house overlooking the River Tay, has a roving ENG camera crew and a small studio which boasts a permanent ENG camera to record or transmit live interviews with local newsmakers without using a camera operator. The camera is worked by remote control in Aberdeen, nearly 70 miles away: a touch of a switch will swivel the camera to a required position or zoom in on a subject’s face.

One of the most heartening aspects of Grampian’s new union deal is that the technician’s union A.C.T.T. has made a local agreement which gives any one of its members the right to use ENG equipment. “It’s a breakthrough,” says cameraman Alistair Watt, who is training other technicians to use ENG. “Other companies divide people into film and TV cameramen: with our ENG agreement anybody can operate a conventional studio-based TV camera or an ENG camera in the field.”

Grampian technicians have nothing but praise for the equipment itself. “Maybe the recorder is a bit heavy,” says Tony Langton, Senior ENG engineer, “but the camera is comfortable to use and the quality of pictures is breathtaking.” And Senior Reporter Ron Thompson gives the system his thumbs-up from the journalists’ point of view.

There are still a few murmurs about film having its advantages. “But,” says Tony Langton, “ENG is here to stay. It’s definitely the stuff of the Eighties.”

 

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