In Depth

Stations Stick to Web Protocol

By Hillary Atkin

As every news director and assignment desk editor knows, ENG and even satellite trucks have their limitations, whether they are distance, terrain or safety concerns. That’s why many news organizations across the country are embracing IP (Internet Protocol) video transmission, especially when it comes to situations like broadcasting live from a rolling bus, or from the middle of a lake — or using a live link from a 20th floor office when the mayor decides to hold a news conference.

For some station groups, the efforts are part of a next-generation newsroom initiative, which calls for deploying whatever new technologies can get breaking news up the fastest, both online and on air — whether it’s a reporter taking a still picture on a BlackBerry that goes up on the Web or using a laptop’s air card to transmit a clip at a Starbucks.

Streambox is one of the platforms making inroads into the insular newsgathering world, offering news organizations the ability to feed back high-quality video and go live via broadband and Wi-Fi in situations where it would be difficult or impossible for a microwave truck to maneuver.

Skype, a free IP service that is primarily targeted toward consumers for telephone and video calls, was an early solution for some stations like WBRC-TV in Birmingham, Ala.

“We immediately recognized the value of delivering live video, and stations were quick to put [Skype] on in situations like storm chasing, early on before these other professional solutions were developed,” said Mike McClain, VP and news director of Fox-owned WTVT-TV in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. “Skype’s picture is what it is. I have used it in the past at other stations. There are situations in which it's very handy.”

On the other hand, Streambox, an IP program designed especially for professional use, comes at a cost, but offers “a much higher-quality picture,” McClain said.

“Our primary clientele is TV stations and networks, but also government, military, relief organizations, anybody that has video as a mission-critical part of what they do. The film industry and post houses are big customers of ours,” said Tim Heiner, director of sales for Streambox. “The big advantage is very efficient but high reliability over IP networks. The quality and reliability of low-cost networks — that’s our claim to fame.”

WTVT experimented with various applications and went with Streambox in July 2009, installing the application on three field laptops and getting two decoders at the station. The setup allows for two live streams on air at the same time, or going back to back from one to the other.

“We use whatever we need, however we can get it. It makes our job more exciting. We are not bound by traditional notions anymore. It’s whatever fits,” said Brian Bracco, vice president of news at Hearst television stations, who oversees news operations at nearly 30 stations. “You wouldn’t want to use ENG trucks in the height of an electrical storm, but you could transmit outside a house with a good wireless connection and be as safe as you can be.”

Using IP transmission does present some challenges, and the biggest is latency. Often a field crew will transmit video via IP but have its reporter on the phone for a live talkback with anchors.

“The Streambox has several settings, and the higher the bandwidth the lower the latency. With a robust connection, delay could be as little as 2 seconds. That’s really acceptable,” McClain said, adding that transmitting through an air card on current 3G networks creates a 10-second to 15-second latency and requires about 20 minutes to feed about 1 minute of video — making it a less desirable choice.

Telco executives say it’s just a matter of time before 4G coverage and Wi-MAX are widely deployed throughout the country at speeds 10 times faster than 3G, alleviating the time lag and delay problems.

But with news departments working overtime to be ever more nimble and competitive, the current technology is a boon to newsgathering.

“It’s now a daily occurrence. People used to think deadlines were 5, 6 and 11 p.m.,” Bracco said. “The deadline is now. As soon as you get it, you get it to the Web. We’re using all the tools. There are a lot of efficiencies here. We’re publishing, posting and broadcasting more things than we were before and remaining relevant.”

The recent East Coast storms and severe weather provided many situations in which to use IP transmission to augment ENG and satellite.

“Once we set up with a microwave and satellite truck, it’s hard to move around with a big truck and there are safety concerns,” said Kingsley Smith, VP and news director of Fox’s WTXF-TV in Philadelphia, which broadcast 12 continuous hours of coverage during the Dec. 19, 2009, record snowfall.

“We put a Streambox inside a snowplow, with a live camera inside the cab, talking to the driver, and called it the ‘plowcam.’ Stations in the upper Midwest had done this, so it’s not breaking entirely new ground, but it’s not something we had done,” Smith said. “It also gave us the ability to be live at a lot of other locations throughout the day from small towns, so it greatly expanded our footprint.”

Streambox was also deployed during the 2009 World Series to go live on a train heading from Philadelphia to New York with Phillies fans. “As a producer, to have an element like that, that’s got to get you jazzed up,” said Smith.

The station also uses Skype video connections to do a weekly morning show talkback segment with disc jockeys at a local radio station, and from the offices of its medical correspondent. “It puts us inside a studio or office without having to string cable — and with a good solid high-speed connection with a good-quality camera, you can go live,” Smith said.