Presenting the Perfect Analogy: From “Film at 11” to Software-Defined Networking

Posted on September 14, 2012


Anyone with a smartphone today is likely to be so fluent with video that he rarely thinks about how news is captured for broadcast or streaming. It’s just “there.” But until the mid-1970s, local TV stations shot all their news stories on movie film. The teaser “Film at 11” became a cliché, and pre-Internet viewers actually had to wait until 11 to see it. Something happened around 1974, however, that changed newsgathering and multimedia forever—and that provides a valuable analogy for the capabilities of today’s technology.

The folks who launched TV news adopted film from the movies, where newsreels were a mainstay. But while film may be a great medium for producers who have the luxury of editing a motion picture for months, it was a pain in the wrist for TV newsrooms. Crews could only shoot a few minutes of film at a time before reloading a fresh reel in a dark changing bag. When they returned to the station, the film was promptly run through the “soup”—a chemical bath—to process it.  To edit film, it needed to be physically cut and spliced (with glue), a time-consuming and sometimes heart-stopping operation as the news reel was rushed up to the control room while the news show’s opening titles ran live.

The principal limitation of film, however, was the fact that the audio was attached directly to the image, in the form of, first, an optical soundtrack that was chemically processed right along with the image, and later a magnetic stripe along the border of the film. No way existed of separating the video from the audio—the image that was attached to a particular sound bite stayed there.

As a result, editing together several audio pieces, or shortening a sound bite, meant that the image also would need to be cut up right along with the sound. When observed, the nicely edited sound was accompanied by a film image that jumped in an often nonsensical way. Editors got around this problem by putting the film with the sound on the “A reel” and compiling a second reel—the “B reel”—of cutaway shots and general scenes that ran in sync with the A reel.  When an edit was about to show up on the screen, the director—in real time—pushed a button to show the B reel scene until the “jump cut” passed and then returned to the A reel. (This was the origin of the term “B roll” to refer to general footage of a facility or scene.)

Needless to say, news-film reports were pretty straightforward. Trying to introduce special effects or additional visual images over the existing soundtrack during editing would have been a struggle. From the 1960s into the 1980s, however, the TV industry was making great advances with videotape, and by 1974 tape machines had become sufficiently portable that videotape gear could be carried by a news videographer. The first devices used reel-to-reel tape, like a conventional audio tape recorder, but soon the industry switched to tape cassettes with self-contained reels.

In 1974, CBS affiliate KMOX-TV in St. Louis launched an all-electronic newsgathering operation, and newsrooms began replacing film with video, at first cautiously and then, once video’s benefits became apparent, eagerly. Videotape could be replayed immediately, so “breaking news” was invented. Of primary importance, the audio and video could be electronically separated, so different scenes could be “dubbed” over the original video, or video scenes could be copied to a new tape and combined with special effects, new audio and scenes from other tapes to create something a lot closer to what we are used to seeing today.

The evolution from film to video was one of the early examples of how high-tech could bring flexibility to conventional business processes and communications. Later on, the graphical user interface added flexibility to once rigid operating systems, composites and other new materials brought flexibility to the design of vehicles, while smartphones (where we began this discussion) and laptops made it possible for people to work flexibly from any remote location.

Most recently, computer networking is going through a similar flexibility evolution as IT innovators plan for software-defined networking, which will use software to replace networking hardware like switches and routers, separating out various levels of network controllers and dataflow to provide much more flexibility in designing and rapidly expanding networks to meet changing conditions.

For communicators, the film-to-video story can serve as a solid analogy in explaining these and other products that create new flexibility and capability for traditional processes.