News Editing: Cut … and Paste?

News Editing: Cut … and Paste?

I often have wondered what percentage of all editing done for television, broadcast and non-broadcast, is done for news purposes. Many of our broadcast clients report putting 75 to 100 cut stories on the shelf on any one day. Multiply that by the number of stations that do news. Then add to that the prodigious output of the 24-hour news channels, and you arrive at some pretty staggering numbers, well into the millions per year.

A typical story might have a dozen edits. If the worldwide output is what I think it is, approximately half a billion edits are done per year. That is enough to perk up the interest of anyone who sells equipment to that market.

Even more staggering, if you could make that output just 10 percent more time-efficient, then think of the labor saved or, in economic times like this, put out of work. There are huge issues at stake for users and manufacturers. It ends up all being about workflow. How can you get pictures from a camera and sound from location and voice-over cut together coherently and prepped for air with both appropriate technical quality and an editorial approach that makes the media more compelling?

At one time, broadcasters looked at news as part of what the Communications Act of 1933 required, use of the public airwaves “in the public interest, convenience and necessity.” Today, the high motives have been joined by big money, and with big savings come profits that can be compelling. Margins are squeezed every day, so savings generated by workflow are highly valuable.

The bulk of edits in news stories are cuts, and few graphics are added in many stories. When breaking news is considered, it is almost always cuts only. When electronic editing was invented and news film was replaced by Umatic tape, broadcasters and networks found huge savings in both the cost of shooting crews and the cost of operation for news. Coupled with the immediacy of being able to air a story minutes after it was recorded to tape, the revolution that electronic editing created is quite incredible.

Now we are on the verge of a second revolution. Computers are ideally suited for cut-and-paste editing of any kind of media object. We all discovered drag-and-drop editing for word processing years ago. Now inexpensive hardware and fast processors are making the same simple process out of editing video. My home computer came with editing software and an IEEE 1394 interface for DV files, and it cost (US) $900. In a standalone configuration, it could easily replace one of two VTRs in a news editing suite and do so with nearly the workflow speed of the ubiquitous Betacam or DVC PRO editing suite that populates broadcast news by the thousands.

So why hasn’t it taken hold? There are two reasons: complexity and speed. Only recently have news (nonlinear) editing systems become networked. True, there have been some attempts in the past to create systems, but they used expensive computers, high-cost high-bandwidth network hardware and closed proprietary interfaces. They also used an operator interface that was optimized for making editing decisions that you might want to change your mind about. They were not optimized for rapid news editing. Just the ingest process (capturing the content to the hard disk) was a drag on efficiency.

Now many systems can edit directly to the time line. The VTR is controlled just like it would be in a VTR-to-VTR editing environment. At least one manufacturer permits the standalone VTR to control the computer! A “guest” editor who might be competent, indeed fast, can sit down at such a system and use the “user interface” on the front of a VTR to edit with video stored on the hard disk of the edit system. While this is not the most efficient way to work, it allows for a more orderly transition for operators.

Some VTRs support high-speed transfer of media for these applications. Doing so can cut the time to load material into the editing environment by a factor of four. In the future, we may see the VTR acting as an FTP device to the editing system.

Recently, the availability of low-cost networks to operate at sufficient bandwidth for such dense media as video have transformed the economics of networked news environments completely. The only items of video hardware that impinge on the process are the inputs and outputs of the system, including the optional VTR. The playout goes straight to the production switcher just like the output from a playout VTR would, and remote control panels that would be applicable to a VTR work just fine.

Among the savings is the maintenance of VTRs for ingest and edit. This can be a large cost to a station, and one that requires everyone today to have excess machines or be willing to shut down an editing booth when a VTR dies. The computer certainly can fail, but as the MTBF of the computer hardware is likely much higher and the maintenance cost much lower, the net operating cost can be a substantial savings.

One thing such a network can provide that is not available to closets with VTRs is a desktop browse system. This allows producers, assignment editors, copywriters, reporters and others involved in the workflow to view material as it is ingested to plan the final story before they begin the editorial process. This is the same revolution that newsroom automation software has done for the copy side of news, and these systems will be considered in a future article in this column.

But beyond the simple review of low bit-rate copies of the media, some of these systems allow editorial decisions to be made on the “skinny media” and automatically conformed on the “fat media.” When the producer moves to the edit suite, he already has rough cut the material he wants in the story, allowing the editor to do the polishing he is best at, including mixing audio and packaging the final story for playout. By spreading the production process across more individuals, the workflow can be greatly improved.

It is possible with some systems to complete final versions ready for air without ever resorting to editing on special purpose systems. For simple stories, the crew might be only the reporter. One 24-hour news network has equipped its reporters with laptops that have editing software and hardware. By the time they return from the field, the story may well be ready for air. Of course, the danger is that production values will decline without the skills of the professional editor. But these advancements allow the field kit to be a camcorder, fishpole and mic, and laptop. One could even see the transfer of cut stories via FTP directly to the media library, complete with metadata containing the script, graphics requirements, length and other pertinent information, over modest bandwidths when time is not critical. (Cell phone transfers? Maybe so!)

John Luff is vice president business development for AZCAR.

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