Hold the Videophone

Why the combat coverage from Iraq isn’t live.

Viewers of late ‘80s Saturday Night Live will recall Al Franken’s scrappy telejournalist, touted as “The One-Man Mobile Uplink.” Donning a helmet topped with a mammoth satellite dish, the character boasted that he was a reporter, cameraman, and engineer all rolled into one, the attainment of the media’s Holy Grail of unfettered, real-time coverage. The joke was that Franken was too weighed down with equipment to actually report anything beyond the facts that he couldn’t swivel his neck and that lightning was a constant threat.

Those skits now seem as quaint as SNL’s jabs at Michael Dukakis. With the miniaturization of news-gathering tech, digital images are being streamed from Basra to Boise via “video suitcases” such as 7E Communications’ Talking Head, an 11-pound unit just a smidgeon bigger than a laptop. Simply jack a 12-pound digital camera into the $10,000 box and real-time data is streamed skyward by two satellite phones. (The idea being that two phones are faster than one.) Networks are still wary of sending one-man gangs into combat, given the ostensible safety of the buddy system. But there’s no longer any real technological barrier to deploying solo TV journalists, or “sojos” as CNN correspondent Kevin Sites likes to call them. CNN alone has eight trained sojos on staff, all ready to drag their Talking Heads into battle at a moment’s notice.

Yet for all of its archaic technology, Franken’s gag remains spot-on. What made the One-Man Mobile Uplink so hilarious was the character’s utter uselessness. Despite his pricey toys, he couldn’t move even 6 inches to either side, much less cover a campaign stop. So it goes in Iraq, too. The gee-whiz joy of seeing through a sojo’s eyes wears off quickly, especially when all we’re stuck with are overly pixelated shots of rocks and dust. If something in the background moves, or the camera slips in the slightest, there goes the feed. The videophone has yet to reinvent war coverage as a live, real-time pursuit—at least until the networks ante up for the next generation of gizmos.

The Talking Head is aptly named since about all it’s really good for is streaming a sojo’s motionless head and shoulders. The systems can’t conjure up enough bandwidth for anything more complex. Transmissions over the setup average 128 kilobits per second (64 kbps per satellite phone), which makes for jittery streaming images that wink out whenever the camera shifts too much. That’s no great bother if a reporter merely wants to get his or her visage beamed back, but it presents serious problems for journalists aiming to capture actual movement—pretty much an unavoidable staple of armed conflict. So, for live coverage, we’re stuck with static images, such as a slow-moving tank as it rolls across the endless Iraqi desert.

The most memorable images of the war so far—a Javelin missile winging toward its target, relieved Iraqi conscripts waving soiled white flags, troops obliterating a giant painting of Saddam—weren’t aired live in real time using a videophone, but rather recorded and transmitted after the fact. (Transmitting a minute’s worth of the highest-quality recorded video over a Talking Head takes about an hour.) Think, for example, of the dramatic Royal Marines assault on a pocket of Iraqi irregulars holed up in an al-Faw government building. The haunting image is that of a British soldier ablaze, stumbling from the building’s entrance as his mates desperately try to stamp out the fire. The video was recorded and then sent via satellite, just like in dozens of past conflicts. Streamed live at 128 kbps, it would have looked like little more than few smudges of ink careening about.

If the networks’ ultimate goal is to pull off real-time combat coverage that’s actually watchable, they need to invest in more sophisticated equipment. Sweden’s Swe-Dish Satellite Systems has developed a 70-pound suitcase that can transmit real-time images at upwards of 2 megabits per second, about a quarter of the speed of that comically massive satellite dish that Al Franken toted on his head. TV bosses cite weight and cost as the limiting factors—not only would the sojos have to be on the muscular side, but the $80,000-$100,000 price tags are steep compared to a Talking Head. Still, a 2-megabit videophone would allow for the capture of decent-quality motion with few interruptions in the streaming. But until the networks are willing to fork over the dough, the budding sojos won’t be much more mobile than Franken’s 15-year-old parody.