WebFN SPINS multimedia virtual financial news network

A key element of WebFN's vision was the ability to trigger simultaneous and instantaneous graphics for both its webcast and its TV broadcast.

Without paper scripts, WebFN is more nimble at managing script changes—a major task when reporting volatile financial news.

Banner ads could change and new links appear—all dependent upon the content being streamed at the moment, all controlled by the rundown.

WebFN is well on its way to surmounting its vision of a virtual financial news network.

Based in Chicago, WebFN currently streams 12 hours of live financial news—including audio, video, graphics and ticker—every United States market day at WebFN.com, with archived video-on-demand available 24 hours a day. In the spirit of true convergence, the organization broadcasts on two low-power TV stations in Chicago and Milwaukee and is progressively adding affiliates to its roster. Most recently, they launched radio production for the E*TRADE Internet radio show. Surprisingly, WebFN has yet to celebrate its first birthday.

Since its launch in June 2000, WebFN's 35-member staff has produced a multimedia financial newscast by careful planning, judicious use of resources, customized hardware and software, and a phased approach to the construction of its technical facilities.

WebFN is a joint venture between Weigel Broadcasting of Chicago and New York-based Bridge Information Systems.

Weigel Broadcasting owns nine broadcast TV stations, including WFBT (Channel 23) in Chicago and WCIC (Channel 41) in Milwaukee, both of which air WebFN.

Bridge Information Systems is a fast-growing provider of a variety of financial information and related services, with a Trading and Technology Center located in St. Louis. WebFN's ability to deliver extensive market coverage leverages Bridge's more than 600 reporters in over 100 newsrooms worldwide.

WebFN's format is akin to the program wheel used for all-news radio. Mixed in with video of live anchors in the Chicago studio are reports from the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, key New York-based brokerage houses, the four Chicago-based financial trading centers, and Bridge News' St. Louis and New York offices. WebFN's programming also integrates taped segments such as WebFN University and CEO interviews.

Viewers log on the site to watch live coverage and commentary streaming from the WebFN ViewCaster window. A box directly below this displays graphics that correspond to the stream and change as it does. Additionally, viewers can catch WebFN on the websites of licensed companies that host WebFN's content. Such contracted companies have WebFN's ViewCaster window showcased on their sites.

WebFN technical facility

WebFN houses its broadcasting and administrative operations within Weigel's West-loop Chicago building, a space that was formerly occupied by the long-running Weigel-produced Stock Market Observer. Although a small control room from the former program remains, the remainder of the floor was gutted to allow WebFN to build wholly new facilities geared toward its specific convergence newscasting needs.

The technical facility includes a computer center, a newsroom/studio, another smaller studio, two control rooms, a video-on-demand (VOD) edit station, and an audio control room and studio for radio production of programming for WebFN affiliate E*TRADE.

The 3500-square-foot newsroom/studio is actually one large room where the newsroom area flows into an area containing two sets. The newsroom section is laid out to accommodate four production teams, each with its own NRCS workstation. Next to the newsroom/studio is another small studio used for taping segments for the telecast or for spots airing outside of WebFN's live online programming hours.

In the main control room, WebFN uses an Image Video switcher, a Pinnacle DVE, a Virtual Recorder video server, Sony Beta SP VTRs for playback and three Inscriber character generators (for television graphics, streaming ticker and backup production). Other equipment used in the facility includes a Ramsa audio board, a QTV Windows-based teleprompter system, and an Odetics system for the commercial and segment playout. The control room computers run the iNEWS NRCS from iNEWS(which was recently aquired by Avid Technology and is now part of the Avid Media Solutions division), Bridge News and other special applications.

The computer center contains redundant servers for iNEWS and Bridge. Two Unisys servers support iNEWS, and an IBM AS400 handles Weigel traffic and billing. Other auxiliary equipment supports the WebFN network.

WebFN uses Weigel's master control as well as their edit and graphics suites. The WebFN full-bandwidth video and audio feed is sent to Weigel's master control for commercial integration of the two TV stations.

The WebFN feed is also sent to Bridge in St. Louis for streaming. There it is encoded and sent to Savvis, a large fiber optic carrier, and then to Enron, the stream distributor.

WebFN operates one VOD station in Chicago and two in St. Louis. In these stations, Web programming is cut into segments for recall via the website. The St. Louis stations are responsible for repurposing all video. The Chicago station handles a variety of tasks for third parties that license WebFN content (i.e. pulling audio-on-demand segments for the E*TRADE site). Contributing correspondents file two-minute audio packages that are rolled into the WebFN-produced E*TRADE Internet radio show and are available as discrete two-minute audio-on-demand clips.

The VOD station in Chicago uses one Inscriber, two Sony Beta SP decks, a Sony DAT machine and a computer running Cool Edit Pro software for audio-on-demand editing.

The two VOD stations in Bridge St. Louis use ReplayTV to capture the incoming video/audio feed. The ReplayTV then outputs to a computer running software that clips segments into separate files and embeds flags that will call up new metadata for current prices when an on-demand clip is played out.

Almost everything that appears on the WebFN website is archived and retrievable through a searchable database.

WebFN's convergence newscast

WebFN uses three different custom computer programs that run automation assist applications. The total effect is an unprecedented level of integration that marries multiple technologies from the likes of iNEWS, Bridge News, Inscriber and Windows NT networking.

At the core of WebFN's operation is the iNEWS Newsroom Computer System (NRCS). Currently, WebFN owns approximately 25 workstations located among the pods and in the executive producer and news director offices, the WebFN control room, radio studio, and IT office, as well as on the sets.

iNEWS was chosen for its functionality, which was a significant requirement of the majority of the management team and staff for WebFN's convergence newscast. Without the luxury of being able to visit a similar operation, WebFN was truly testing both itself and the capacity of the iNEWS system to manage a multifaceted financial news network. It was a complex target for both companies, but their shared confidence and passion to realize an unmatched vision has proven successful.

A key element of WebFN's vision was the ability to trigger simultaneous and instantaneous graphics for both its webcast and TV broadcast. Codes located in the production notes column in the NRCS rundown indicate which type of graphic—a chart, earnings report or stock quote—is needed. WebFN designed an automation program that, in conjunction with the iNEWS interface, reads the codes and sends out commands.

When a command for a graphic is triggered from the iNEWS rundown, a request is sent to Bridge in St. Louis. Serving as the single source of data used to fill both the website and the TV full-screen graphic templates, Bridge News responds by returning data that calls up the graphics for the website and the TV full screen.

The Inscriber CGs provide full-screen graphics for the TV feed. Both sets of graphics are created from templates designed by WebFN.

This intricate automation provides WebFN with the most up-to-the-minute information. For example, when the graphic displays a stock quote, WebFN shows the price of the stock right at that moment.

Another key component of the WebFN system is the marriage of Bridge News with iNEWS. All workstations, except those located on the set, are outfitted with two monitors. A typical setup displays Bridge News on one monitor and iNEWS on the other. Journalists have the flexibility to set personal preferences because both run on a Windows platform.

The integration between the systems allows the user to cut and paste from Bridge News into the iNEWS script, which can then be edited or used as is. Then the script is automatically sent from iNEWS to the teleprompter.

This setup provides several advantages for WebFN. First, WebFN was able to create a paperless newsroom. Without paper scripts, WebFN is more nimble at managing script changes—a major task when reporting volatile financial news. The editorial nature of financial news is driven by frequent market ebbs and flows. What the market is focusing on is what WebFN is focusing on. It is like election night coverage, where the reporters are waiting for the numbers to come in. As a result, the style of WebFN's reporting is more conversational and ad-libbed. The anchors provide play-by-play coverage and analysis of the numbers and report on how the day's events unfold. Of course, a paperless newsroom offers monetary and environmental benefits as well.

Virtual network and commercial integration

WebFN currently handles six different commercial loads for its site, TV and affiliate feeds, including WebFN.com, WebFN TV, Fidelity, E*TRADE and Microsoft. Additionally, WebFN also furnishes a commercial load that is free of any financial commercial advertisements. Fidelity, for example, requested a constant flow of financial news during market hours. In this particular case, the in-stream commercials playing on WebFN.com are replaced with segments such as WebFN University on the Fidelity site. Also, the two TV stations break away from the webcast at 40 minutes after the hour for an eight-minute TV-only segment produced from WebFN's small studio.

The commercial loading is split between WebFN and Weigel. Weigel receives the TV channels, while WebFN's hard-disc based Odetics system handles the commercials and short segments for the affiliates' websites. The Odetics system is programmed by the traffic department and allows the TD to initiate multiple breaks with different material at the push of a button.

WebFN envisions a time when, not too far down the road, the WebFN licensees (affiliates) will receive private-label content for their individual sites. When that happens, WebFN will build more sets and control rooms and will truly become a virtual network with customized and branded feeds for each affiliate.

As part of its program, WebFN receives feeds from reporters in several external locations worldwide. Many of these locations will soon have automated camera positions under the control of WebFN's own privately managed network. WebFN plans to install London-, Washington- and San Francisco-based cameras online by early February 2001.

Currently, feeds from the Chicago Board Options Exchange top the list with approximately 30 to 40 per day. WebFN has set up a small studio there, with a line dedicated to Weigel Broadcasting that is manned throughout the broadcast day. The Chicago Board Options Exchange studio can also serve as a backup studio for WebFN should the regular studios experience an emergency requiring the entire program to take place in a remote location.

WebFN has remote-controlled camera positions in the three other Chicago trading centers: Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Stock Exchange.

WebFN also has cameras in Bridge in New York and St. Louis (where it also takes reporter feeds). Bridge New York is connected to Waterfront, a large fiber optic provider in the New York area, which enables WebFN access to the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and several New York brokerage firms.

These New York locations have their own cameras and provide media spokespeople whom do reports for WebFN. IFB to Bridge locations is done through WebFN's own network. Other remote locations are supplied by a dial-up telephone accessed through Waterfront. Not surprisingly, setting up the remote audio and IFB was the hardest part of all.

Eventually, WebFN envisions installing hundreds of cameras around the world in banks, Fortune 500 companies and universities. When that happens, they would like to see the iNEWS rundown send commands to remote camera systems, IFB and audio systems to automatically switch the technical setups for the remotes. Other automation systems on the same network can be slaved to the rundown.

WebFN has taken a very calculated, step-by-step approach to its facilities' design — installing the most essential elements first and building from there.

WebFN plans to add more affiliates in 2001 and to eventually increase its live coverage to 24 hours a day as content partners in Asia and Europe are signed.

WebFN is in discussions with both iNEWS and Odetics about interactively programming its website. Presently, the site has dozens of discrete elements that could automatically be changed by a rundown. For example, banner ads could change and new links appear — all dependent upon the content being streamed at the moment, all controlled by the rundown. Most recently, WebFN has developed a clickable stream, where a click on a streaming commercial opens that advertiser's website.

Websites are becoming extremely sophisticated and complicated as the demand for deeper content and a greater degree of interactivity evolves. In the spirit of true entrepreneurialism, WebFN has plans to create interactive choices for its audience that are beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Blessed with a work environment that is filled with camaraderie and a spirit of discovery, WebFN is well poised to continue its unparalleled success.

WebFN Project Team

  • Bob Reichblum, Chief Executive Officer, WebFN
  • Greg Stephan, Executive Producer, WebFN
  • Mark Luciano, Director of Development, WebFN
  • Norman Shapiro, President, Weigel Broadcasting
  • Bob Berry, Technical Developer, Bridge Information Systems
  • Sophia Rossato, Website Design and Development, Wall Street on Demand

WebFN Major Equipment

  • iNEWS NRCS newsroom computer system
  • Panasonic and Sony cameras
  • Image Video video switcher
  • Pinnacle DVE
  • Ramsa audio mixer
  • QTV teleprompter
  • Sony Beta SP VTRs
  • Virtual Recorder video server
  • Inscriber Technology character generator
  • Odetics commercial insertion