One of the most tech-savvy ENG helicopters in the news business today flies over the streets of Philadelphia.
NBC’s O&O WCAU recently ended an agreement it had to share a helicopter with the local Fox O&O in the market, deciding they needed their own helicopter that they solely controlled.
“We believe that journalists should act independently of each other and at the end of the day, this is a competitive business,” Anzio Williams, WCAU VP of news, told me in an interview that’s part of a story on the news chopper industry over at TVNewsCheck today.
WCAU is leasing its helicopter from Helicopters, Inc., the market leader that competes against about five other vendors today.
The Bell 206 Long Ranger L4 helicopter, dubbed SkyForce 10, is the biggest model for ENG helicopters used today, which was important for WCAU, in order to have a pilot, photographer and a journalist report the traffic and breaking news on a daily basis.
WCAU produced a promotional piece for its news helicopter earlier this year, showing off the technology inside:
WCAU is part of about a quarter of the market that broadcasts from the chopper in high definition, according to Tom Wagner, VP of Helicopters, Inc. A majority of stations opt to broadcast live shots from a helicopter in SD 16:9, he says, because the cost is just too high to go HD. Not only is the backhaul expensive for an HD shot, but the types of camera systems being used on news choppers today are essentially military-grade, he told me this week. The equipment needs to be strong enough to withstand the conditions of flying high above the skyscrapers of a major city.
Located on the nose of SkyForce 10 is a FLIR UltraMedia II imaging gyrostabilizer that houses a Sony 1500 camera system capable of a 1040mm zoom. The photographer controls the camera from a computer inside the chopper.
There are also cameras installed on the tail of the helicopter and two more point-of-view cameras installed inside that can show the station’s helicopter journalist Christine Maddela reporting from the chopper as events unfold.
“With those additional cameras, we do a lot of picture-in-picture shots, giving yet another perspective,” says Jaime Simmons, WCAU manager of technical and news operations.
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the aircraft are the two telestrators inside, located in the front and back of the aircraft. It allows Maddela to draw on the screen, much like a sports broadcaster does when breaking down a play, to highlight a particular part of the scene that the aerial shot is capturing.
“We like to make the analogy that Christine Maddela is our John Madden in the sky,” says Williams.
There’s also an iPad on board that the journalist uses to pull up map information about the area, in addition to controlling certain features inside the helicopter.
Williams says the technology allows the helicopter to be completely independent from the station. For example, the journalist or a photographer can shoot and record video and playback that video during a live shot.
“They roll it straight from the chopper,” says Williams. “They’re completely self-contained up there.”