News Articles

Who owns it?

Digital distribution raises thorny copyright issues in a tough, changing business climate 8/25/2002 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The news director at KXXX liked the video she got from her network's affiliate news service so much that she wants to feed it to the station's Web site; show it on KYYY, the local independent for which she's producing a newscast; give the audio to KXXX radio; and stick a copy in her station's archive.

Even if she tries to, she may not be able to do any of that legally.

Although this news director is fictional, the problem isn't. With the profusion of material being fed daily by services like ABC NewsOne, CBS Newspath, NBC News Channel, Fox NewsEdge, CONUS, APTN, Reuters and CNN Newsource, it's sometimes hard to tell who owns the rights to what.

"Licensing rights are going to be a huge thing going forward," said Jim Williams, vice president of broadcast services for Associated Press. APTN, the news cooperative's global video unit, generates the vast majority of the news it feeds to member stations and networks. "That empowers us to license our customers to use that video however they need to and to pursue new business opportunities." He opines that most of what the network news services offer is grabbed from other sources and redistributed.

Hold the videophone, counters CNN News Group Executive Vice President Jack Womack, who oversees CNN Newsource. He asserts that about half of what Newsource sends out on a given day is original CNN material and most of the rest is aggregated from 675 affiliated stations.

CNN has set up a separate company, ImageSource, to handle requests for video to which a station holds the copyright. If the station strikes a deal, CNN gets a cut.

Fights over intellectual property rights in a multimedia, digital world are only one of several issues that are changing the way news services do business.

One example of those changes—and the contentious issues they raise—can be found at the Network News Service, the CNN-like cooperative of ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates. Unlike CNN, which could snag video from two or more partners in a market, broadcast affiliates were typically stuck with one source. NNS solved that, to a point. Problems arose when a local station sent some juicy footage to NNS, and it later wound up on a competitor's air. (NNS now embargoes feeds to competing stations in the originating market.)

"Winning does not mean that the same piece of video on my air is also on somebody else's air," said Steven Schwaid, vice president of news programming for the NBC owned-and-operated stations. NBC—which benefits from the newsgathering operations at co-owned MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo—does not participate in NNS.

Nor do some big groups like Hearst-Argyle, Post-Newsweek, Gannett and Belo. "They have to make the decisions that they feel are right for them," said NNS General Manager Alan Suhonen, "but negotiations between the group owners and the networks continue to take place."

NNS fans say the co-op is at its best on breaking-news coverage. "NNS really comes through in those situations," said Lee Polowczuk, news director at Fox affiliate WHNS(TV) in Greenville, S.C. His station has relied more on NNS material, fed through Fox NewsEdge, since it built a branded "America Strikes Back" segment in each nightly newscast. "We would have no other way to get that national and international news without the service."

Said Brian Trauring, news director at ABC O&O WTVG-TV Toledo, Ohio, "They supplement our local and regional coverage. We have already stopped using some syndicated material."

In the past year, the events of Sept. 11, the war on terrorism and escalating competition all increased the pressure on producers trying to weed through hours of tape to get just the right video at the right time. But that's all about to change.

Most news services either have converted or will convert to a server-based distribution system in which material is delivered to stations almost continually. Stories wind up at the producer's desktop, where he or she can view, edit, script and transmit them much more quickly.

"It's made it much easier for them in terms of not having to roll on 16 hours of tape a day and not having to wait for the feed to come to them," said Don Dunphy, vice president, news services, ABC News.

ABC NewsOne launched the Digital Media Gateway, developed by Atlanta-based Pathfire Inc., in June. NBC News Channel has had the system in place for several months, and CNN plans to roll it out to its Newsource affiliates by the end of the year. CBS Newspath employs a similar system designed by BitCentral Inc. of Irvine, Calif.

Converting to server-based distribution will not be an inexpensive process. CNN, for example, plans to spring for servers and additional equipment for each Newsource client at a cost that could exceed $20,000 for larger news operations.

Such costs come at a time when stations are struggling to make ends meet and looking for budget items to cut. A news service presents an easy target.

Although stations in major markets can pay $100,000 a year or more for the service, CNN Newsource has added about 35 affiliates since 9/11 and claims more than 80% of local TV news operations as its clients.

Newsource has stepped up its affiliate-relations staff and redoubled its customer-service efforts, Womack said. "We are out there talking to the stations every day."

As the economics of broadcasting continue to fluctuate, though, some observers wonder how long it will be before one of the domestic news services blinks.

"They are all losing money. So the question is," said AP's Williams, "if most of what they do is aggregate third-party content, why do you need six of them?"

ABC's Dunphy is confident its service will be around. "The affiliates are extremely important to our domestic news coverage, and the stronger the affiliates are, the stronger the network is."

Still, he takes nothing for granted: "In these economic times, I'm sure a lot of people are taking a good look at their contracts."

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