Internet videoconferencing using Skype is quickly becoming a fast-and-cheap alternative for setting up live shots from breaking news scenes, or at times and places where arranging for a live shot using satellite or microwave truck might be too costly.
WGRZ-TV Channel 2, Buffalo’s NBC affiliate, recently used Skype as part of its coverage of a Continental Airlines commuter plane crash into a house near its city airport. The first reporters close enough to see the smoke and fire of the crash behind police barricades used a simple webcam and a laptop equipped with a cellular modem to send those images, said News Director Jeff Woodard.
Not everyone was impressed, however. Buffalo News columnist Alan Pergament initially reported that Channel 2 had broadcast “video from the Internet site, Skype," apparently thinking of Skype as being something akin to YouTube. After General Manager Jim Toellner called to set him straight, Pergament clarified in a subsequent column that the video had been shot by Channel 2 cameras but maintained that “in any event, the video looked amateurish."
Woodard said that although the picture may have been jittery, it allowed his station to get the first live images of the crash scene on the air, while competitors were carrying more polished shots from their live trucks – but from miles away.
Best known as a service for placing phone calls over the Internet, Skype began offering support for videoconferencing in 2006. The quality of image transmission depends on many factors, including the speed and congestion of Internet connections. However, one basic means of improving quality turns out to be very basic – plugging in a better camera, ideally using a high-bandwidth FireWire connection. Because Skype works with Universal Serial Bus (USB) cameras by default, third-party software such as Split Camera, or SplitCam, can be used to get Skype to recognize the FireWire input.
Eric Burks, news operations manager at WTSP 10, the Tampa Bay CBS affiliate, says a webcam is fine for setting up a videoconference with family across the country but for live TV he wants to make Skype video look as good as possible. “We use a broadcast quality Sony camera, in combination with FireWire out, and at that point there’s very little loss of quality," Burks said.
On the other hand, part of what WTSP is doing as part of its plans to expand Skype usage is to make sure every reporter has Skype and “a garden variety webcam" and knows how to use it, in a pinch, to broadcast live from a breaking news scene – at least until the station can get better equipment to that location. “We’re going to use it more broadly," Burks said.
Woodard says he prefers to use a better camera with FireWire when possible, but in the case of the Buffalo plane crash a webcam was what the reporters on the scene had available. Just the day before the crash, WGRS used Skype from the scene of another breaking news event, a major flood in the area, and in that case the shot made use of a professional camera and the FireWire connection.
Although both WGRS and WTSP are Gannett stations, Woodard says the use of Skype is less a corporate initiative than something a few stations have recently started experimenting with. Both Woodard and Burks said they started tinkering with it within the last couple of months.
Breaking news isn’t the only scenario where Skype makes sense. One of WTSP’s first uses of the technology was for a live shot from the other side of the state on the morning of the Florida versus Oklahoma BCS college football game in January. You can see the video on the station website, complete with a brief tutorial on Skype that reporter Janie Porter offered viewers to explain why the video quality might look a little different.
Actually, the video came through very well, Burks said, although that might have been partly because the Skype session was conducted at 5 a.m., when the mobile phone network and the Internet were relatively unclogged. The early hour was also part of the reason the station wanted to use Skype in the first place, to avoid sending a live truck out that early in the morning and have a whole crew running up overtime, he said. Porter is one of the station’s backpack journalists who both reports and writes, and she set up the lights, camera and laptop, and did the live shot solo, Burks said.
In another situation, where Porter was reporting on President Barack Obama’s visit to Ft. Meyers, WTSP again used Skype but paired Porter with a cameraman. “We sent her out with a photojournalist so she didn’t have to do everything herself," Burks said. “One thing we’ve found out about using Skype is that if you don’t take the time to light someone correctly, it can come out looking terrible."
WTSP also tried to use Skype for reporting from the Super Bowl, and couldn’t get it to work at all in that case, Burks said. Still, the station is gaining experience knowing when to use the technology and when not to, he said.
When Poynter blogger Al Tompkins wrote about WTSP’s use of Skype, feedback included comments from journalists around the country who have used the technology, some for election coverage, or for reporting on snowstorms.