The Invisible Content Tracker

At NBC NewsChannel, unseen “watermarks” help determine what info it provides to affiliates
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The home-video business has been using “watermarking” for years to
nab video pirates, but TV content providers are now using the technology
proactively, to keep tabs on end-users.

Studios put watermarks—the video equivalent of the hidden mark in
paper documents—to help verify authenticity, so that they can prevent
bootlegging of Hollywood hits. But video-watermarking also gives content
providers in-depth feedback on where their product is being legitimately
used.

NBC NewsChannel, the network's news-feed service, among other content
providers, is using Teletrax's video-watermarking technology to track how
clips and stories it sends out are used by clients.

“It gives us an accurate picture of when our material is used, and we
can tell how it is used,” says NBC NewsChannel President Bob Horner. “If we
send out a full reporter package with narration that was 1:45 seconds long, we
can tell whether they used the entire report, just the sound bite, or took 15
seconds of video that an anchor voiced over.”

The electronic watermark is embedded in the content at NBC NewsChannel
headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., prior to transmission via satellite.
“Listening posts” placed in 110 markets by Teletrax can tell when content
with the watermark is played to air. A report including such information as
when a clip aired, what parts of it aired, and what station aired it is sent
back from a listening point via the Internet to a central server at NBC
NewsChannel. Another news-clip provider, Reuters, also uses Teletrax.

ABC uses Teletrax to monitor the use of on-air promos. Buena Vista, a
unit of The Walt Disney Co., uses it to track syndicated content. “They can
instantly gain important insight,” says Larry Muskowitz, president of CEO of
Media­link Worldwide, parent of New York-based Teletrax. “In something like
advertising, it could have a profound impact because advertising could be
approached in a much more methodical way.”

Other companies can create audio watermarks, but a clip that doesn't
have any audio—such as a news clip of a storm—can't be tracked. Teletrax
solves that problem with an encoder placed in the play-to-air chain, spreading
digital artifacts throughout a portion of each video frame: on a person's
eyebrow, on an edge of a car, or on a coffee table.

It sounds complicated, but “it's child-like simple,” says
Muskowitz: Simply pass the content through the encoder and sit back and
wait.

The watermark is virtually indestructible, according to Teletrax
Chairman Graeme McWhirter.

The only way it could be broken would be to render the video unusable.
“It's basically a piece of secret code that can tell what the video is,
when it's aired and what channel it aired on,” he says. When usage
information is sent back to the server, it is matched to a secret code in the
database.

That ability to track NBC video, says Horner, has provided work
efficiencies and the ability to offer a more-targeted service.

Because NBC NewsChannel provides just video feeds, “we obviously
don't have the benefit of Nielsen ratings to guide us,” he explains.
“While we've done surveys with our clients, we could never truly get data
that is precise enough to make certain [editorial] decisions.”

Watermarks could be used to see whether there are any unauthorized
distributors of NBC NewsChannel content, but Teletrax charges per market
monitored, and NBC doesn't check to see who might be ripping it off. “I
just ask them to monitor NBC stations,” says Horner. “We just want to know
how we can better shape our service to make our affiliates happy.”

The technology has a return on investment even if the cost is a
“noticeable item” on the NBC NewsChannel budget. “So far, I feel it's
money well spent,” says Horner. “It's the active ingredient in my budget
that lets me improve my content and, in some cases, control costs. If you just
look at the dollars, it's paying for itself.”

It's also a marketing tool. Horner says he can sit down with the
affiliate board and demonstrate minute to minute how important the NBC
NewsChannel service is to affiliates. “It takes a lot of the guesswork out of
it for the affiliate body and allows me to tell them what direction we should
be heading in. I don't think you can put a dollar value on that, but there is
value to having something, finally, that allows you to have an objective
conversation with your client base.”

Through the use of watermarks, NBC NewsChannel learned when to release
certain kinds of stories to get the best use, when to pull back and not overdo
the number of story packages a single event might have, and which kind of
stories need to be packaged with a reporter and which can get by with a
voiceover or sound bite.

“Ultimately,” he says, “that gives us a chance to turn that
efficiency into savings and shift our resources.”

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