FINDING YOUR CUSTOMERS: The multichannel newsroom

With the right tools, broadcasters have an opportunity to make a wider range of content available to a wider audience
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With the right tools, broadcasters have an opportunity to make a wider range of content available to a wider audience

KUSA in Denver uses Avid Active ContentManager to distribute content and other forms of media to PDAs and handheld devices.

It's mid-afternoon and your viewing audience is at work. They've heard there is a bad storm coming but have no TV access. Will they be able to access your latest report from their work computers? At the same time, a busy executive is in line at the airport and wants to check last night's sports highlights. Can he do this with just a cell phone?

In both of these situations and in many more, viewers are looking for alternative sources for information. They can't wait for the scheduled nightly television broadcast. In most cases, they will look for familiar sources — the sources they trust — if they can find them.

In today's age of digital instant gratification, broadcasters need to have a vehicle to deliver late-breaking stories to their viewers — anywhere and at any time. Broadcasters have an opportunity to make a wider range of content available to a larger audience, provided they have the tools.

Eliminating the barriers between you and your audience

Not so long ago, the only way to get rich media content out to consumers was over the air or via cable. When Internet arrived, dial-up connections made it difficult to deliver compelling and competitive content. This has changed. With more than 60 percent of U.S. homes connected to high-speed Internet connections and even higher numbers in other countries, more people are experiencing the full potential of the Internet, with fast access to text, pictures, sound and video.

And we now see a push to cell phones and other personal wireless devices. The rollout of 3G phone networks such as EV-DO promises bandwidth that is comparable to what viewers can get at home. The bottlenecks are disappearing rapidly.

Anticipating the technical challenges is critical to implementing and managing multichannel distribution. When broadcasters design a newsroom, there are several factors to consider that can make the process simpler and more cost-effective.

One of the most important issues is workflow. Publishing in a multichannel newsroom requires many things to happen in parallel. As obvious as this seems, broadcasters need to take a hard look at what this means. Systems need to allow for all of the feeds and raw material to come in from the field in high resolution for efficient on-air broadcast management.

Systems also need to allow simultaneous transcoding of media for the Web and other delivery destinations. In fact, systems need to support multi-user access to media so that a Web producer can choose and edit content at the same time as the 6 p.m. news producer.

The foundation is a real-time shared storage solution and flexible, scalable bandwidth. Starting with an underpowered media network will quickly limit what you can do and potentially cost thousands of dollars to rectify.

Focusing on the Web is a good way to reach your audience. There are several different ways to push content to the Web. One way is to take an on-air broadcast and simply stream it out to the Web simultaneously. All this requires is to feed a copy of your on-air signal to a streaming server. While this is a good way to deal with breaking news, watching TV is a passive process whereas finding information on the Web is a proactive process.

Users on a station's Web site are more likely to look for stories that are of interest to them. If they have logged on to search for a particular piece of information, they will not want to sit around and wait for it in the middle of a half-hour broadcast.

An alternative to streaming continuous content is to chop it up, segment the stories and make all or some of them available as individual packages. This is a better approach, especially when accompanied with text to help users decide on the relevance of the story they are about to view.

The challenges and choices

Avid’s Active ContentManager lets broadcasters manage and publish video, audio, graphics and text to Web, wireless, ITV and other IP-based distribution points. It collects content from multiple sources to form a consistent online presence.

To decisively win the battle for viewers and get more hits on the Web, broadcasters need to put as much care into what content makes it to the Web as they do in working out their on-air product. The formatting of something shot and edited for SD or HD programming will likely be unusable by the devices consumers may be using in the future. Imagine a gorgeous panoramic vista edited and formatted for a 60in HD screen. Now imagine that same picture on a cell phone display — accompanied by mismatched audio capabilities.

But there is still an opportunity here. That executive in the airport is the perfect target for a preview or version of a story that he or she can watch as soon as they get home. You can lead them to follow the story either on the Web or on that big 60in screen.

The keys to success lie in repurposing the same story in several different ways: delivering short, targeted information to mobile devices; offering in-depth research and background information on the Web; and broadcasting graphically arresting images to the big TV screen.

But how do you do all of this without tripling your staff? The answer is in the centralized bandwidth your infrastructure can provide. At its core, your system should be designed to support multiple simultaneous workflows in order for you to manage multiple simultaneous channels of output. Today, new tools and technology are emerging that let broadcasters leverage the same content-gathering and content-creation efforts across Internet-based channels.

If you ask your staff to just “get it done” without giving them the right tools to do the job, they will fail. A single Web producer can focus on his or her audience, select appropriate material, reuse what is produced for air, edit out what doesn't fit, send off transcoding jobs to the proper systems, and publish all of this to the Web and other devices extremely efficiently — as long as he or she has access to all of the right media all of the time.

The minute he or she has to wait for tapes, re-digitize them at Web resolutions and wait before being able to view them, there's going to be a problem with getting the news to viewers on time. If the Web producer doesn't have real-time access to the material, you will likely need to hire several more people to manage peripheral tasks. And in the end, you will never get the flexibility to repurpose content to fit alternative channels and deliver added value to consumers. The system you build for your newsroom will determine how effectively you can leverage other methods of distribution.

Everyone can help

Another key to getting the job done well with few people is getting everyone to help — even if they don't know that they are helping. If the copy from the newsroom computer system can make it to the Web seamlessly, then your writers will have helped the process. If the shot selections that your editors, journalists and photographers make as they cull material for your top story are also available to your Web producer, then they have all helped that Web producer focus on the best material. The result: When the Web producer quickly needs alternate shots or more background material to publish, it will be at the ready.

You can also focus on training people to work in ways that allow others to leverage what they are doing. For example, teaching your teams to select and identify additional good shots, alternate sound bites and background information will also help differentiate Web and on-air material.

Additionally, using tools that make sharing and reuse easy will make the process less intimidating. If the tools offer integrated functionality and are easy to use, you can rely on a wider group of people to do the job — as opposed to a workflow that requires your news producer to be an expert in Web publishing tools, sophisticated NLE systems, asset management systems and more.

While we all know the Web is here to stay and we can see the interest in delivering media to cell phones and other devices, we can't predict what the future will bring. We can, however, predict that it will require us to leverage the same core content, brand and effort to every new opportunity.

We need to make sure that our systems are agile, allowing us to change direction in the future. Technologies may come and go, but the cost of experimentation should be low. A recent example is podcasting. Will viewers develop regular habits like downloading podcasts of their favorite content? CBS is betting that they will and has started offering podcasts of the evening news.

Bandwidth and business models

No one is better prepared to leverage all of today's available bandwidth than the broadcaster. The real expense is in gathering, sorting and disseminating the news and other content. Once these costs have been assumed, there are cost-effective ways to add new distribution channels.

Today, the business models are shaping up in two ways. The first is to resell content on other channels. Sprint and other companies are launching pay-to-view services for TV programming on their mobile devices. Many manufacturers are producing handheld video devices. Time will tell whether this is a fad or market-driven trend. It is difficult to see how consumers will shift to paying for content that they are getting for free over the air or as part of their cable package.

The second way to benefit from making your content available in multiple places is not only to sell more advertising based on increased viewers, but to drive those viewers where you want them to increase the value of your brand. If, by delivering content to cell phones, you drive viewers to your newscast, then you will win in both places. But if the content on the phone means that the viewer no longer needs to tune in to the television broadcast, then you will need to extract the same revenue from that viewer on the phone as you do over the air. Broadcasters have to think about how to deliver bandwidth-appropriate content and promotions in order to offer a richer, more complete product.

Desire, demand and delivery

Broadcasters are in a powerful position because their brand adds tremendous value. Viewers are more likely to trust a familiar station, logo, personality and identity. All of these components have value regardless of how the content is delivered.

As the Internet becomes a viable alternative to on-air sources, broadcasters are seeing a growing shift of focus as viewers are moving from the TV set to the computer throughout the day and relying less on scheduled newscasts. Broadcasters need the desire to deliver their content to a broader audience — a desire that is often driven by the need to make up for a loss of viewership.

If broadcasters shy away from new distribution channels, they will find that others will quickly take their place, offering content and eventually building brand identity and awareness with customers. Cable is a good example of this, with new names and entities created to fill a void, mainly because there was a demand for content that was not being filled. CNN and Nickelodeon are examples of programming streams that were created when the traditional networks and Disney were limiting their involvement with cable when it was taking hold. The bottom line: If you don't do it, someone else will!

David Schleifer is vice president of broadcast and workgroups for Avid Technology. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Avid Technology.