Home > Uncategorized > New Six Gun for the Video Cowboy?

New Six Gun for the Video Cowboy?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on August 11, 2009

If you’re not watching the news/sports parody web series from ESPN called “Mayne Street,” then you need to start now.  The show follows real-life ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne as he encounters a number of fictional characters and situations that lampoon our business head on.  One of my favorite sidekicks is the photographer know only as “Video Cowboy” (or “Mr. Cowboy” to those who don’t know him well).  Since my first job was as a photographer, I relate to the Cowboy’s consternation with the situations in which he finds himself.  He’s an artist with the camera and is often held back in that artistic expression by the bumblers with whom he must work.

But Cowboy’s latest travail is one on which he and I must differ.  In an episode entitled “Cutbacks,” he’s angry that ESPN has invested in 300 mini HD cameras that cost just $100 a piece.  A young tech tells Cowboy, “We can buy three hundred of these for the price of one of your big cameras.”  Cowboy takes the camera from him, asking, “You have three hundred of these?”  The tech says yes, leaving the Cowboy to hurl the mini camera across the cavernous ESPN newsroom, saying, “Now you got 299.”

Cowboy’s reaction is the same as many photographers and reporters are having with the introduction of pocket-sized cameras to the newsroom gear arsenals.  But they (and the writer of the Mayne Street episode) are missing the point.  The cameras can never replace gear with good lenses, top-notch microphones, and superior image processing capabilities.  But they can supplement the shooting pros on the street by putting more cameras across the market 24 hours a day.

I’m practicing what I preach here, planning to buy about a dozen of the Kodak Zi6 HD cameras.  The camera is about the size of a Blackberry, shoots 720p video in H.264 Quicktime movie format, can import directly to Avid, and runs on two AA batteries.  Now, being an old photographer myself, I am picky about lenses and microphones.  The fixed focus lens in this camera (with a macro filter) is pretty decent and the mic can pick up natural sound or interviews quite well.  It shoots onto an SDHC memory card that’s available just about anywhere.  Camera and card together will run under $150.

There are other cameras on the market and there are always new models coming our way—even Kodak has just released a 1080p version of the camera for about $50 more.  The point is not so much to sell you on a specific make or model of camera, but to sell you on the idea of having your people with a broadcast-quality video camera in their hands wherever they go.

The concept goes back to my college days.  As a broadcast journalism student, I was always envious of the photojournalism students and their ability to have their cameras with them all day and every day.  My friend Ron Nichols had his SLR slung over his shoulder when he went to class, when we went to eat, and—I imagine—when he went to sleep.  The guy was never without it.  He argued that he would catch breaking news long before I could get to the station, get a camera, recorder, tape, and batteries, and return to the scene.  And he was right—until now.  The new mini cameras give all of us the ability to capture breaking news without making a break for the station.  And when I say “all of us,” I really do mean all of us.  The ease of use of these cameras means they are just point and shoot.  So I’m looking to equip news people, but also to have them in the hands of anyone else in the building who wants one.

Will we use these cameras to shoot our main franchises?  No.  Will we use them to shoot news conferences with the governor?  No.  Chances are video from the Zi6s won’t hit the air very often.  But it will if we catch breaking news with it.  And perhaps more importantly, it will if we invent new ways of using the new cameras to form a new definition of what sorts of video we want on the air.  One of our meteorologists already wants to use hers to shoot video of kids when she does a classroom visit.  She’ll also have the kids ask questions on camera we can answer on the air later.

It’s that sort of reinvention that holds at least as much promise as the breaking news coverage.  Without the commitment of time and energy to use a full-sized set of gear for everything that needs to go into the newscast, we multiply the possibility of getting more local people and more local information on the air.

So I hope the Video Cowboy understands why I’ve made this case for the mini camera having a place in our newsrooms.  In the hands of an artist, the full-sized camera can still take a viewer’s breath away.  But so can the sight of seeing her son on the air asking a weather question.  With this teaming of big and little cameras, I think we can get that outcome much more often than we used to.

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