Fox uses Treo to break N.Y. plane crash news
By Paul J. Gough Fri Oct 13, 3:27 AM ET
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - When a single-engine plane crashed into an Upper East Side apartment building on Wednesday, Fox News Channel delivered early live video to its viewers from the crash site using a hand-held mobile phone souped up with streaming video.
Scott Wilder, a cameraman for the network, had been about 20 blocks away on another assignment when the crash occurred. Wilder ran uptown and reported live from the scene using a hand-held Palm Treo smartphone that uses the existing mobile network to transmit video to the Fox News control room. From there, Fox News sent it out live on TV to supplement other video being shot by local traffic helicopters.
Wilder's work represents one of the first instances of a network using video captured via mobile phone camera live on the air. Fox News has experimented with the practice several times in recent weeks with CometVision, software designed by Ohio-based Comet Video Technologies.
"We've been waiting for the opportunity to get live pictures on the air from inside a cellular network, and we wanted to take it to the next level, make it easy for people and make it portable," said Ben Ramos, director of field operations for Fox News.
TV journalism already has deployed a digital-video camera attached to a mobile phone to transmit a live picture. In addition, most if not all of the networks have used mobile phone video, but not live. Ordinary citizens have made use of them at incidents including the London transit bombings and the South Asia tsunami, capturing footage for later use before any news cameras arrive.
The live picture quality from the crash site wasn't spectacular, with scattered shots of the scene and little movement. Wilder talked to "Studio B" anchor Shepard Smith as he held the camera; the control room fed live pictures over the network to accompany Wilder's commentary.
But Wednesday's phone-borne report provided a different perspective in the early moments after the crash, when satellite trucks hadn't reached the scene and the coverage was dominated by overhead shots. The video quality provides illustration for phone interviews that didn't exist before without much more equipment.
CometVision runs on a Palm Treo 700-series PDA via the Windows Mobile operating system. The technology is able to transmit video over non-3G networks, using much less bandwidth than would normally be needed, Comet CEO Howard Becker said.
"We have it set up so you can push one button" and then it starts to work, Becker said. That includes automatically connecting to a computer at the Fox News studio, and sending an e-mail to a producer or anyone else at the network who has a link to the live stream.
No one at Fox News is suggesting that CometVision will ever replace video cameras; the technology is just another choice and it might, at some point, be used more often.
"The best use of it is still playing out, and that's the beauty of 24-hour cable news," Fox News vp newsgathering John Stack said. "You're playing without a net, so to speak. Ideally, you'd like to have a state-of-the-art live shot, but you don't always have that luxury."
Fox News stumbled upon CometVision when a Los Angeles-based engineer stopped by Comet's booth at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Comet wasn't marketing the application for TV news, but Ramos said that Comet and Fox News began working together toward that goal.
Now every Fox News bureau has at least one or two of the Treos for photographers and other staff members to bring with them in breaking news or where it isn't possible to bring a full-fledged camera for live coverage.
The first usage of CometVision was October 2, when correspondent Rick Leventhal drove from New York to Nickel Mines, Pa., to cover the Amish school shooting. "Studio B" anchor Smith introduced the video, shot out of the front window of Leventhal's vehicle.
A Fox News staffer also used it recently in covering a story from an Atlanta courthouse. Both videos looked better than what was shot at the site of the plane crash, in part because cell phone network congestion seems to affect the picture quality, Becker said.
It was perfect for use in Wednesday's early coverage because, even in media-heavy Manhattan, it's not always possible to televise live pictures immediately from the scene of a breaking news event. That usually takes satellite trucks, which are slower to get into position than a reporter or photographer carrying a Treo.
There are still drawbacks, which should be eliminated as cell phone networks move to third-generation platforms and as a WiFi backup is developed.
"It'll be used more when the picture itself is of higher quality," Stack said. "It's OK now but it could get better. It depends on the nature of the story. If it's an important enough story, we are more forgiving of picture quality and hopefully the audience is more forgiving."