News moves to three screens

Cell phones, mobile TV devices and the Internet may be creating a bit of an identity crisis these days for TV newsrooms.

Are the journalists who work there broadcasters first, or are they content providers? That seemingly simple question is packed with implications for how stations approach news, select technology and allocate resources.

“What we really have to start doing is understanding that the Web is no longer a necessary evil,” says Johnathon Howard, Avid Technology director, Broadcast and Media Publishing. “It's going to be part of survival going forward for traditional broadcasters. The competition is coming after the eyeballs that TV stations have previously owned.”

In other words, if stations don't look for ways to leverage the Web, they risk losing ground to newspapers and others that do.

With their long track record of covering their local markets and an ability to gather raw news footage and turn it into stories, local stations have a leg up in this competition for now.

“Broadcast television newsrooms have a great advantage,” says Ed Casaccia, director of product management & marketing for Thomson Grass Valley Digital News Production. “They already have the infrastructure in place to go out and acquire the actuality material. They've got the crews to do it, and they are beginning to think of themselves more as content producers and less as (being locked to) transmitters.”

Paul Slavin, ABC News senior VP newsgathering, agrees.

“We need to find ways to morph our businesses in that direction,” Slavin says, “and we need to find the value that we — particularly in broadcast and television — can bring to those mediums.”

Content approaches

For television stations with limited staffs, resources and time, creating content for the Web and cell phones can be challenging. Certainly, running the same exact story on a Web site or cell phone that aired is the easiest approach, but it probably also is the least helpful.

“One of the biggest things I've seen — and that I find frustrating — is that we hear broadcasters saying, ‘For more information, go to our Web site at www.whatever,’ and when you go to that Web site, it's the exact same content you saw on TV,” Howard says. “It's not unique content.”

Repurposing content offers a more appealing approach from an editorial point of view. If done properly, it can have minimal impact on newsroom workflow.

“Generally speaking, file-based workflows are innately suitable for repurposing,” Casaccia says. “At that level, the repurposing target is a non-issue because what's going to happen is somewhere in the process, you are going to customize the media for the delivery method — the old concept of COPE (create once, publish everywhere).”

According to Casaccia, the workflow in creating the prime media for the initial distribution doesn't need to change.

“What has to happen during that workflow is at the appropriate points when identified by the appropriate people, hooks or flags have to be put on the material to say, ‘From this point to this point — a mark in and mark out, if you will — this area of this media is going to be repurposed in the following one or more ways,’” he says. “Right from that point, you start creating associations.”

Those associations don't have to be confined to audio and video essence but can include graphics, titles and other pertinent production elements.

“What you wind up doing is tasking the metadata system more than the primary essence file delivery system,” he says. “You need to add descriptors that are durable. How they are used downstream is determined by the medium. To enable really facile, elegant, efficient repurposing is actually almost entirely a function of the metadata.”

Building original, new stories for distribution via the Web or cell phone may be the ultimate step in the broadcaster-to-content-producer makeover, but it's also the most involved.

“Generally, when you go out and shoot footage for a story, you might have a 30-minute tape that's full of great footage,” Howard says. “You probably used about 15 or 20 seconds of it during that 30-second story (on-air). So, there's a lot of content there that you're already paying someone for. What you need are the tools that really enable you to use that content when it's new and fresh and not as an afterthought.”

Cell phones and mobile TV

At the same time stations are tweaking their workflows and editorial choices to support a greater presence for their news content on the Internet, cell phones and mobile TV devices are entering the picture as viable news delivery platforms.

The potential for this market is significant. A report released in September from Juniper Research forecasted about 120 million mobile users in more than 40 countries will receive broadcast television content by 2012. While the figure stands at fewer than 12 million worldwide today, in five years that swelling number of users will spend more than $6.6 billion on mobile broadcast television services, the research organization says.

An alliance of U.S. commercial and public broadcasters, called the Open Mobile Video Coalition, is working to accelerate development of a mobile TV standard for broadcasters. The Advanced Television Systems Committee has shifted the standardization process into high gear, calling for and receiving multiple proposals for a mobile and handheld standard.

The urgent desire for a system that would allow local stations to use a piece of their 6MHz wide DTV channel to deliver mobile TV is so strong that two systems — MPH from Harris and LG Electronics, and A-VSB from Rohde & Schwarz and Samsung — may even compete in the free market before the ATSC standardization process has run its course.

Those responsible for charting the future path of broadcast and news operations are taking this market extremely seriously. For example, The E.W. Scripps Company is conducting engineering studies to determine whether it might be possible to enhance delivery of a mobile TV broadcast signal, says Bill Peterson, senior VP for the E.W. Scripps Company television station group. The studies seek to find out if “adding a vertical polarization to new antennas that we install” would allow “good home reception as well as good reception off a handheld device,” he says.

Neither Scripps nor other broadcasters are waiting for the ultimate direction a broadcast mobile TV standard takes to begin offering content to viewers on the go.

“We are introducing video to mobile devices in most of our properties in the near future — real near future,” Peterson says.

One approach is via cell phone, and a major avenue onto those handsets is News Over Wireless, a network of mobile solutions that provides coverage across 85 percent of the United States. The company, which belongs to Capitol Broadcasting Company's CBC New Media Group, offers a way for broadcasters to use wireless Web, Java, video and SMS services to distribute their content to cell phone subscribers. So far, the company has signed agreements with 25 station groups, including CBS Television Stations, Gannett Broadcasting, Lincoln Financial Media and Media General, to assist their stations in reaching mobile handsets.

On the other side of the coin, today's handheld devices can play an important role in news contribution. That's the thrust of the new ENPS Mobile Suite introduced at IBC2007. The system consists of three components: the ENPS Mobile application; a Web-browser version of the ENPS desktop known as ENPS Web; and SNAPfeed, a Pocket PC version of AP's store-and-forward video application.

“The SNAPfeed Mobile Client makes every staffer that you want to give a device to a newsgatherer,” says Joe Webster, manager, marketing technology for AP Global Broadcast. “For those situations where you need to turn your handheld device into a newsgathering tool, you can capture audio, video and stills and using the same kind of SNAPfeed workflow that's in place with the full SNAPfeed client, transfer content to your station's server.”

Be true to the medium

Broadband Internet service and cell phones have emerged as new media faster than many imagined and left television station news operations scrambling to figure out what's the best approach to take.

Certainly, the transition from linear tape-based news production to file-based workflows has positioned TV newsrooms to seamlessly create content for these new digital outlets. But that's the easy part.

Far more difficult is figuring out what kinds of news content will best serve the needs of the news consumer at the receiving end of these new delivery platforms. How long should a story be? How should it be told? What's the best way to use graphics and titles? How can news stories on these platforms best use their interactive element? Those and scores of other questions must and will be answered as the use of these new media for news consumption unfolds.

In this sea of uncertainty, one thing seems clear.

“The one lesson that has come out of all of this is whatever you do has to be true to the medium,” Peterson says. “Whatever you do has to be authentic for the medium.”