The Channel 5 Experiment

From: Stephen Press (cameragod)

In 1997 ITN was about to launch a new News program in the UK. The idea was to be different bold and do news in an exciting new way. There was a lot of talk and planning but ultimately the reality was very different to the dream.

First I have to say that many of the people I worked with a C5 were amongst the brightest and best in the world. If management's vision did not become a reality it wasn't through lack of effort by the staff. Morale was excellent to start with. We wanted to be at the cutting edge, we wanted to be the first to find a new way of doing News. If that meant using mini cameras then that's what we would do!

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The vision was to be modern and mainstream with a heavy bias on telling stories that the viewer would care about. C5 would have better produced stories that moved the story on passed what other networks showed. The idea was to use story producers instead of cameramen. The story producer would arrange the elements of the story then pick up one of the 6 pool mini DV handycams and go out with the reporter to shoot the story in a funky MTV style. Then they would edit and load it onto the server to play out.

One month in and it wasn't working. The flagship show looked like crap and half the stories were FTDing (Failing To Deliver.) Most of the producers weren't up to the shooting although some could edit. In a drastic move they got in some cameramen. This is when I came on board. With no budget to hire cameramen I was employed as a Producer, getting paid an extra $40 a day than my cameraman rate. :) We were still expected to arrange the stories, shoot on handycams and edit. This is where I believe C5 achieved something special. With the reporter responsible for the factual content of the story and the cameraman/producer in charge of the look/feel we were able to give the story a bit of extra polish. When it worked and it usually did the stories were just that bit better to watch than anything else on TV. The Flagship shows quality even with mini DV cameras, in the hands of real cameramen improved immediately and in 3 years there I never FTD But we had more problems.

The 6 pool handycams only had 3 radio mic sets with them to start with. In 2 months there was only one working set. Even then it was minus windshield, tie clip and XLR adapter. No one was responsible for the equipment so every problem became the next guys problem. None of the few batteries that were returned were ever left on charge and the nether was the silly top light had never worked for more than 5min before blowing a fuse anyway. The bulky and next to useless tripods seemed to last ok but I suspect that that was because they were so unwieldy I was the only one using them. The other big problem was time spent in the field. Shooting with mini DV handycams is like having a not very bright intern operating the camera for you. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don't but never are they faster than you could do it.

Shooting good quality funky MTV style stories with handycams was proving harder than we thought. Anyone can wave a camera around cut it quick and call it art, but the truth was we found there are some strict rules to getting the MTV style to look good and feel right. We wanted to involve the viewer, grab their attention, not make them seasick. To do it with the mind-of-their-own mini DV cameras meant taking even more time and shooting more safety shots to cover for when things didn't work.

Editing Mini DV was another disaster. Among other problems the decks didn't talk to the controllers so we ended dubbing everything to SP to edit. The time wasted doing that became stressful. Many stories that might have been saved in editing were rushed as there wasn't time to fix them. The Sony Server constantly crashed. It didn't help that it could only run in Japanese NT. Tape-less play out it was a nice idea but in 1997 it just wasn't ready.

Within six months all 6 of the original mini DV cameras were being fixed or stolen. Faced with no working mini DVcams We were forced to go back to an old pair of Sony 200SP's and amazingly life in the field got a whole lot easier. The old Sony 200sp was bad in low light, produced vertical smearing and was a pile of junk compared to my baby, the Sony 400a I had reluctantly left behind in New Zealand, but god it was light-years ahead of the handycams for news work! Suddenly the camera was working at my speed and I had a whole toolbox of tricks available to me fast in the field. The quality of the Flagship show again visibly improved with the move to SP. Everyone who worked on the show could see it. Cameramen could focus more on the producing side of things as using real cameras cut the time spent out on shoots. Things that were impossible to shoot on handycams were easily done with the big cameras. Shooting ratios came down significantly, as we could trust we had what we thought we had shot and with no dub time there was more time for editing. everything was working like it should. So much so reporters said they would refuse to have stories shot on the hamdycams. When 2 handycams came back we stayed SP and kept the handycams for ride-a-longs or special shots. Finally, the handycams were an asset in the field, spicing up stories even more.

C5 News was a success in many ways. We did bring a new style of news to the UK and a lot of other networks that sneered at us at the time have long since adopted some of our techniques. Giving the cameraman a more involved role in the producing of the story provided some of the best TV I have ever seen.

What didn't work was the miniDV handycams. No amount of pretending they did by management could change that. They just weren't good enough for what we wanted to do. They were too slow, time that could have been used to better affect in the field was spent forcing them into a roll they were never designed to do and then even more time was wasted trying to fix it in post. This made what was already a stressful environment too much like masochism and if the handycams had lasted another month I pretty sure I wouldn't have.

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