Stations and Nets Crave Unexpected Video

Receiving, processing and airing viewer-provided news content.
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TORONTO
Viewer-shot video is rapidly becoming a mainstay of TV news. Captured using cell phone cameras or consumer camcorders, this video covers breaking news events as they happen, simply because the viewers themselves happen to be caught up in the event.

"User-submitted video is really important to us," said Ron Barryman, SVP/GM of Fox Television Stations Group and Fox Interactive Media. "They get video of unexpected events as they happen, giving our sites an extra edge in news coverage."

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Will this amateur shooter capture video that will be seen on evening news broadcasts? "Viewer-shot video is absolutely vital, as was proven yet again by the recent crane collapse in New York City," said Brian Kennedy, director of digital newsgathering at CBS News. "Using their cell phones and camcorders, people are providing us with a wider range of breaking news video than we could ever generate ourselves. And they are there when it happens, which we can't always be."

"It's like having extra camera crews," concluded David Johnston, director of technology for ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas-Forth Worth. "Viewer-shot video is definitely important, because the more sources you can get news content from, the better."

THEN AND NOW

The tradition of viewers capturing important news footage has a long history. A classic example is Abraham Zapruder's home movie of the 1963 Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

However, it wasn't until the advent of consumer camcorders, with their ability to play back footage instantly, that viewer-shot video started to play a major role in TV news; as was proven by the infamous "Rodney King" videotape. Even then, a member of the public had to have a camcorder available; not something most people carry with them. But they do carry camera-equipped cell phones, which is why viewer-shot video now seems to be everywhere.

THE CONTRIBUTION PROCESS

So how do news organizations get access to this video?

Historically, members of the public have provided their VHS tapes to the local TV station, usually for free. In the Internet age, they're now downloading footage directly to news organizations; again usually for free.

"We have a link on our website (www.khou.com) where viewers can download their videos directly to our server," said Jeff Laird, assistant director of technology at CBS affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston. "We receive a range of videos in this manner, typically formatted in QuickTime or Windows Media."

To presort incoming video, KHOU-TV's ingest site is divided into separate upload folders for news, sports, weather, travel, and "The Day in Video." Contributors must already have signed up as members of the station's Web site to upload, thus providing the station with the necessary records to track contributions as they come in. The contributor also has to provide a title, "video tags" (i.e. weather, football), and a brief description of the video contents. According to the station's Web site, "it may not contain nudity, sexually explicit content, violent or offensive material, or copyrighted images."

E-mail is also a preferred source for WFAA-TV, CBS, Fox, and other stations/networks nationwide. So is the practice of requiring contributors to register with their Web sites first, for legal reasons. But in those cases where the footage is too large for e-mail—perhaps it has been shot on MiniDV—FTP sites are used instead.

"We have various FTP sites where the public can send us larger video files," said CBS' Kennedy. "These download the videos to our server, for review and possible use by our news department."

FORMATS AND MORE FORMATS

Once the video has been received from viewers, the fun begins.

"Our biggest challenge is making viewer-shot video Avid-friendly," said Kennedy. "There are hundreds of consumer formats out there, and our editing system doesn't speak every language."

In many instances, this problem can be solved by playing the video through a NLE PC's video card, and then sending it in another format back to the server.

"You really don't need special hardware to do this; just the right software," said Mark Northeast, Quantel Canada's vice president of sales. "This is why Quantel decided to stick with the PC platform instead of moving to Mac, because the vast majority of consumer video formats are PC-based."

Fox has their own solution for accommodating such contributions.

"We have encoding systems that take the video in whatever format we receive it in, then reformat it in SD for TV or Flash for our Web site," Barryman said. "As a result, working with this video in our NLEs isn't a problem."

KHOU-TV is somewhat selective when it comes to viewer-contributed material.

"We review the video first and if it is appropriate for our newscast, we just play it out from a computer directly into our news server," said Laird. "This ensures there is not a queue that is congested with unwanted or 50 duplicate clips."

Chyron's WAPSTR application is worth noting, as it allows cell phone users to send videos (and pictures) directly into a news server for immediate production use. According to Chyron, WAPSTR handles any format and frame-rate conversions to make the video work with broadcast graphics and Chyron's Lyric system.

MANY POSSIBILITIES AND BENEFITS

Viewer-shot video has already expanded the immediacy of television news. To take it one step further, Fox is now experimenting with live streaming via cell phone.

"We are putting live phones out in the public domain that people can take with them to events and stream footage in real time," said Fox's Barryman.

"We are also testing this concept for weather.fox.com, again to get live footage of weather events online as they happen, via cell phone," Barryman said.

As cell phone and camcorder technology advances, broadcast TV news can only benefit.

But the advantages of using viewer-shot video do not end with receiving great content. Making viewers part of a station's team can build loyalty in an increasingly fragmented video universe, and motivate them to look to your station first when major news breaks.

"Viewer-shot news is an important tool in retaining and increasing your audience," Barryman said. "It also adds a sense of reach and excitement that TV news teams alone can't provide. It is a way to really reach the community, and to become hyper-local; to become the news source that people turn to and count on, more than ever before."