Cool, but is it a game-changer?
Online player: key tool for a shared video future
Techies at Frontline and the NewsHour have developed a new public-affairs video player and content management system that is the first to seamlessly serve up multiple strands of PBS national programming and stations’ local video offerings, all in a single online tool.
The new player is already in use on the roughly 30 station sites that offered Frontline’s previous player, and three stations tried contributing local video as part of the player’s pilot phase, says Sam Bailey, a freelancer who serves as Frontline’s director of new media and technology. Bailey’s Entropy Media designed and built the player and back end.
Stations have said they want a common player, Bailey says. “This is really a significant step — not the final step — in the road toward a larger PBS video strategy,” he says.
The network plans to outline that strategy May 13 at its Showcase Conference in Palm Desert, Calif.
PBS plans to create “a handful” of customizable players and a back-end database system that will handle asset and rights management. All of PBS’s players and others, including players that stations build themselves or the Frontline-NewsHour tool, could plug into the back end, Jason Seiken, PBS’s senior v.p. for interactive, told Current via e-mail.
PBS’s operation will “power video on PBS.org and Kids Go! broadband, and will provide a comprehensive local/national video solution for stations,” Seiken wrote. The strategy “builds on the work of Frontline, the NewsHour, WNET and others,” Seiken said.
It’s not clear when PBS’s video package will be available. At the Integrated Media Association conference in February, PBS.org reps said things would get going in September; Seiken said last week that the launch will come “later this year.” PBS is withholding further details until Showcase.
The team behind the Frontline/NewsHour tool will spend lots of time talking up its own unified module at the conference, says Lee Banville, editor of the Online NewsHour. The player, which will ultimately integrate with PBS’s package, also offers segments from Now, Frontline/World and The Tavis Smiley Show, and there are plans to soon include Washington Week and expand collaboration with local stations.
The Flash-based module, designed by Frontline’s techies, loads a video speedily, uses scrolling navigation that users can grasp intuitively and displays links to related episodes of other public TV series, transcripts, web-only packages and other pertinent material.
Its architects and PBS say the embeddable, soon-to-be searchable module represents an important milestone for public TV as it moves toward a long-awaited online video system that smoothly integrates local and national video streams on stations’ websites.
The producers of national program strands have been working with North Carolina’s UNC-TV, Chicago’s WTTW and Oregon Public Broadcasting as they test the player’s video sharing capabilities. For example, recent NewsHour segments about the presidential campaign included links to UNC features about the North Carolina primary.
The team plans to broaden the testing to about 10 stations for more tryouts before making the module widely available this summer. “I’d like to see dozens of stations in this thing over the next couple months,” Banville says.
The tool is designed to offer news and public affairs programming, so Frontline and NewsHour will work primarily with stations that offer such content. There are also plans to incorporate “newsy” episodes of series such as Nova as well as arts-related features and other content that goes beyond the basic politics/war/economy hard-news formula, Banville says.
Also soon to come: search capability for users. Developers also want to make the player embeddable on third-party sites such as blogs, as is NPR’s Get My Vote module (Current, April 7), but rights and other policy issues complicate that plan, Banville says.
“To say this thing is evolving is an understatement,” he says.
Eventually, “when you watch a Now or NewsHour online you’ll also get the best related information or story for the clip from whatever public television source is out there,” he says. “That’s a pretty powerful idea.”
“There really is an unmet demand for a more unified end-users experience,” says Dan Goldman, director of Thirteen.org at New York’s WNET. Goldman’s team recently relaunched the station’s website to prominently feature online video clips and is spending its resources on digitizing content rather than replicating infrastructure. “We’re preparing to adopt wholesale the infrastructure that PBS is building for us,” he says.
Shared tech specs + editorial judgment
The new player replaces the QuickTime tool Frontline launched in 2006 (Current, Dec. 12, 2006). Bailey and Megan Wilson, project manager, built the back end in Perl and used Ajax technology in developing the content management system.
The new version offers smoother navigation and the option of expanding the image to full screen. The key difference, of course, is the added links and content that appear in the right-hand column, which add context to the video segments and bring new viewers to older program segments.
Anyone who pulls up Frontline’s 2006 report “Return of the Taliban,” for example, will also get links to newer NewsHour segments on the December 2007 assassination of Pakistani political leader Benazir Bhutto and recent related clips from Frontline/World.
Unlike YouTube and other video-sharing sites that automatically offer related videos based on tags, the linked content in the public-affairs player will be curated by editorial staffers.
Metadata tagging and metadata nevertheless play a crucial role, helping coordinate national content on PBS’s web servers with local content that resides on stations’ servers. Station personnel will enter the metadata for their material into the player’s administration system. Producers describe their content with terms from public broadcasting’s PBCore metadata dictionary (Current, Dec. 17), and the show’s editorial teams use the search feature in the player’s video administration system to find related content to display, Bailey says.
Participating stations will do the same thing on their end to pair local content with rights-cleared national shows. Local teams can make links with the same drag-and-drop interface, Bailey says.
“From a user standpoint, it’s a seamless presentation,” says Steve Volstad, director of communications at UNC-TV. “It creates an online presence for us that more closely resembles the content on our air.”
“For us it’s a huge win,” Banville says of the potential increased exposure for NewsHour segments. The show’s daily output creates “a lot of video that you could relate in many different ways.”
The public-affairs player was developed separately from what PBS is developing, but they will be integrated into a compatible system. “Everything we’re doing is eventually going to move over to PBS,” Bailey says.
PBS consulted on the new player’s development throughout the process and weighed in on the technical standards for accepting videos. While the videos can reside on hard drives in different states, they all must have the same specs to simplify collaboration.
The videos are 512 x 288 pixels in the 16:9 ratio or 480 x 360 pixels in 4:3, with a bitrate of 350 kbps. The planners recommend that stations also create high-quality versions for archiving, Bailey says.
The key to giving public TV a strong content platform, not just a mirror of its broadcast output, is the ability to suggest related content such as pubcasting’s online election map, Banville says. He hopes PBS takes such considerations under advisement as it moves forward with its own online video strategy.
“It would strike me as short-sighted to just make a video player,” he says. This year’s high-profile election will serve as a test bed for player partnerships, Banville says.
“We’re finally at the point where the technology doesn’t inhibit what we do naturally but enables us to make online as good or a better experience than people get from turning on the TV,” he says.
“Is it a game-changer? I don’t know,” he adds. “But it’s certainly one of the coolest things we’ve been able to do in the 13 years I’ve been here.”
Web page posted May 12, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC