The Thrilling 54-Year Ride from Portapak to iPhone

RCA TK-76, 1976

Recently — using parts found on eBay — I assembled a vintage, first generation three-tube Sony Betacam, just like the one I bought back in 1983. When the project was finished, it was a real eye opener.

Sony Portapak, 1968

The Betacam I had remembered as lightweight relief from the drudgery of the 1970s-era RCA TK-76 I bought was — in fact — a huge, heavy monster itself. The first camcorder might have cut the cable between the equally heavy camera and recorder, but I can assure anyone now that it was not a lightweight! Portability is a relative term.

Those of us who grew up in the “portable” revolution of video sometimes wrap our memories in nostalgia. In the 1970s, when I was first on the road for the networks, traveling “light” meant transporting at least 20 huge, weighty Anvil cases from city to city. Usually, the camera itself flew first class, with its own seat, in order to keep the finicky tubes in registration.

As young men, we all fooled ourselves about the amount of weight we carried around. I remember getting certified as a Steadicam operator with the device’s inventor, Garrett Brown. He assured me that my supporting a huge video or film camera on a five-foot arm would never hurt my back. That promise went right along with doctor-recommended cigarettes. I’ve got the back problems today to prove it.

I reminisce because the past makes me better appreciate the video revolution we are in today. Cinema quality cameras can now be purchased at prices under $5,000. By comparison, my RCA TK-76 package cost about $100,000 in 1976. The quality difference in the image is astounding.

Network crew at airport in Egypt, 1979

Add improvements for audio quality. In the old days, broadcasters thought mono was good enough and some still do. Today, however, it is simple to record both stereo or multi-channel immersive sound with video. Many producers use double-system recorders and sync the sound to video. It gives added control and sounds better too.

Some videos are using ASMR (for autonomous sensory meridian response) sound. This is audio so realistic it causes a tingling sensation that usually begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli. A genre of videos intended to induce ASMR has emerged with over 15 million videos published on YouTube last year.

Some manufacturers have introduced unique immersive sound solutions. Sennheiser’s AMBEO delivers end-to-end 3D audio technologies to achieve immersive sound. 3D sound applications range from the home audio, music recording and video production.

Zoom H3-VR

Zoom makes the H3-VR recorder to record 360-degree sound for video. Rode makes the NT-SF1 Ambisonic microphone to capture surround sound for use in VR, sound design, immersive audio, and experimental recording applications. Immersive sound is now very simple to produce.

Video distribution has changed as well. In the 1980s, network crews had to feed video from telephone companies or over satellites. It was never simple and fraught with problems.

In December, 2009, I did something I couldn’t have dreamed of when I started. I broadcast a live, real-time video-audio feed directly from my iPhone to the Internet. The quality was good then, but today it is amazing. Apple’s iPhone is better than any professional video camera from the ENG era and the latest 5G transmission technology is remarkable.

Smartphone innovation has opened the door to hordes of untrained, unpaid “influencers” and “citizen journalists” using distribution like YouTube, TikTok, Vimeo and other services. Video of 4K definition is now commonplace. It makes the standard definition of a few years ago look soft and lower in resolution.

One fact I learned long ago is that quality advancements in television technology do not guarantee improved television viewing. Very often it means the very opposite — opening the door to novices who exploit the tools without skill simply because it is easy to use. The skill set once essential to making television (like good lighting and sound) is no longer necessary in the era of “auto” equipment in basement studios and Zoom interviews.

Some low-budget broadcasters — trying to save a buck — tap iPhone owners for free “content” and try to spin it as an innovation in news coverage. Too many viewers believe the content and the dumbed-down fare passes as “news” in an era when disinformation is everywhere. What this means to personal privacy is downright scary as well. The era of the trusted Walter Cronkite is long gone.

Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC shooting with a iPhone 13 Pro

Despite its negatives, the iPhone and other low cost still/video combo cameras are a remarkable advancement that can be used in new and marvelous ways in the right hands. They are even now used for shooting feature films and streaming television. Video quality continues to improve and it is left to human ingenuity to see what creative uses come from the technology.

I saw my first black and white Sony Portapak rig at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and salivated then over the possibilities of what portable video could bring. Fifty-four years later video and audio technology has reached new levels of excellence. Today it’s the human uses of it that need major improvement.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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