Broadcast in the Fast Lane

technology
Shutterstock / Vikks / Golden Sikorka / tele52

Yesterday’s broadcast journalism students might not recognize the mobile and high-data streaming world of today’s college (and high school) TV studios. While a decade ago, schools needed a full set for taping newscasts, screens with meteorology maps and heavy equipment, all are largely transformed or eliminated now. Today, green screens, mobile phones and apps allow students to shoot news as it happens, anywhere, and stream it directly online. At the studio, the amount of data being received and managed is greater than ever before.

That means faster and more versatile news and weather coverage, while it also enables more school districts to get into broadcasting. Schools affiliated with local news networks are especially forging a transition into more data and greater mobility, with a reduced need for editors, camera operators and people to lug heavy equipment.

With technology changes comes a greater demand for structured cable, data center infrastructure and related equipment, along with wireless access points for data networks and antennas.

At Penn State in State College, Pa., students in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science’s Weather World create and present daily programming that is shared throughout the state. Weather World producer and meteorologist Rob Lydick has seen significant changes since he graduated from the broadcasting program at Penn State in 2011.

“The equipment we use here, from the weather side of things, matches and mirrors the technology used in TV stations,” Lydick said.

The school uses the Max weather software system, a product of the Weather Company and IBM, that is deployed by many stations across the United States. Penn State partners with the local PBS affiliate to offer the program shown on WPSU and PCNTV every weekday.

Back in 2011, the school employed a Linux system that captured weather data, but the current Windows-based data has better effects. Students use it to make dynamic graphs in ways that reflect their television market. In fact, the current system, Lydick said, is constantly streaming and ingesting data that students can use to then tell their own weather story.

Part of the change comes courtesy of new satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known as the GOES-16 and GOES-17, that bring high-resolution data with infrared imagery and lightning observations to the studio.

“It has fantastic resolution. Keeping up with that takes a huge amount of computing power,” Lydick said.

More data coming into the system requires a robust low-voltage infrastructure to enable it.

The school studio also has the latest software tools to manage that additional data. Tricaster, a video production system, provides switching and compositing for multicamera switching, mix effects, video re-entry, custom animation and a full-motion composition engine. In that way, the program can create virtual sets with nearly no physical set pieces.

Penn State students have access to IBM Watson to parse out the data with graphics and other images that are generated by the Max graphic system. This enables them to track and share trends in the weather, temperatures and precipitation.

“We don’t necessarily manage the data stream, but do make use of it,” Lydick said.

Having the latest technology also creates other challenges, he said, adding that “my job every day is 60% teaching and 40% working with the technical things.”

For students, presenting weather news and producing their ownprograms on TV is only part of what they do. The students also use the studio space for social media updates, for instance.

Much of student coverage takes place outside the studio. Part of the students’ learning experience comes from shooting where the weather is happening.

With Tricaster, students have the ability to dial in live shots through their smartphones to ensure they never miss a chance to cover a fast-changing story, such as a storm. Journalists are expected to need more skills related to broadcasting “on the scene” as time goes on. Lydick pointed out that professional TV stations also are pushing their reporters and even anchors out of the studio, and with today’s technology, they simply don’t need to be on site.

Because students are already using the latest data and software systems, when they graduate they will have knowledge about the technology in use at professional TV stations.

“That’s huge; not every school even has such a program,” Lydick said, adding that students “hit the ground running” once hired.

Mizzou news coverage

Whether in or out of the studio, the transition to digital news is the biggest difference that’s taken place over the past decade or so, said Randy Reeves, associate professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, school of journalism. Reeves, who is news director at KOMU-TV, has worked in radio for nine years and was a TV
news producer.

“When I came in [to the industry], we were still shooting on ¾-inch tape. Now we shoot on an SD card the size of your thumbnail” he said.

Leveraging digital systems, the University of Missouri (Mizzou) students provide news programming for the community around them five hours a day. The school partners with the local NBC affiliate.

“We were the first station on the air 65 years ago,” he said.

Until recently, going on air required a news director, technology director, audio engineers, multiple camera people and anchors to present the news. Today, the school uses an automated system called Ignite, and the only people necessary are a director, producer and reporter or anchor.

“Everything is simpler now,” Reeves said, adding that robotic cameras and the ability to switch and control microphones and graphics assists the efforts. “Every tech purchase I make is based on what is simpler and easier and will make us a little more adept. If you don’t really have to think much on the technical side, you can focus more on storytelling.”

And like those at Penn State, Mizzou students are used to going into the field to collect, and air, the news. That process has become easier, too.

“We still have microwave trucks, but we haven’t used them in months. For the most part, we use a cell backpack unit, and we can go live anywhere we want to go,” Reeves said.

Students can deliver HD quality images from anywhere near a cell tower.

“You just walk in with a unit the size of a toaster, turn it on and go live with quality signal good enough for air,” Reeves said.

To track weather events, students can employ an iPad Mini mounted on the weather truck’s windshield and broadcast live. A Dejero LivePlus app with a hot spot makes that possible.

“It’s not the quality of cameras designed for that purpose, but in a weather event, it can be good enough,” Reeves said.

The studio, however, is still king when it comes to news broadcasting, and the infrastructure needs to support the vast amount of data streaming in and out.

School districts that can support the data flow are offering journalism programs for their students. One example is the daily news program at the Cornell School District in Coraopolis, Pa. By enabling students to get on the air from school studios and live on location, the district reports that the next generation of journalists are getting more training, earlier, with the benefit of the latest technology.

For electrical contractors providing low-voltage installations and maintenance, that means more nontraditional cable installs and a greater focus on access to data and digital services, bringing students into the 2020s and beyond.

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