When WDIV Detroit covered the Bayview-Mackinac yacht race last month, it didn’t rely on traditional microwave or satellite equipment to pull live video from the middle of Lake Huron.
Instead, the Post-Newsweek NBC affiliate used a combination of IP-based streaming technology and wireless EVDO and broadband satellite transmitters to provide live broadcast and Website coverage of the four-day race, which drew more than 250 competing yachts.
WDIV is one of a growing number of news organizations to use the Streambox from Seattle-based Streambox Inc., an IP-based streaming device designed with broadcasters in mind. Costing around $20,000, the system includes a laptop loaded with proprietary compression software that is used to encode and stream images and a rack-mounted receive device that features professional video connections and is designed to interface with conventional broadcast equipment.
The Streambox is already used by major networks, including CNN and Fox News Channel, to provide video streams from hard-to-reach international locales, and now call-letter stations like WDIV are experimenting with the system as a way to transmit live video when conventional transmission systems are either impractical or prohibitively expensive.
KING Seattle, for example, originally purchased Streambox as a backup transmission system for covering the Athens and Torino, Italy, Olympics, in case traditional satellite gear was unavailable in a crisis. The Belo NBC affiliate now uses several Streamboxes connected to beauty cameras around the Seattle area, which pump pictures back over T-1 lines.
“They’re nice units, and they keep us from occupying more microwave spectrum,” says Greg Thies, KING news technology/operations manager, who also serves as the Society of Broadcast Engineers’ microwave frequency coordinator for the Seattle market.
While a number of solutions are available for broadcasters looking to generate Web streams, ranging from the Slingbox consumer device to NewTek’s “truck-in-a-box” TriCaster, the Streambox is aimed upmarket and has found favor among international news organizations for the way it integrates with Inmarsat’s BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) IP-based satellite service.
BGAN, which runs on compact terminals made by Hughes and by Thrane & Thrane that sell for around $3,000, was created by Inmarsat as a way to send a live video feed from anywhere in the world (although it doesn’t yet provide coverage over the Pacific).
Streambox has tweaked its compression software to work well with the BGAN terminals, which pump out an upload speed of 256 kilobits per second (kbps) and can be “bonded” together to give half a megabit of throughput.
According to WDIV News Operations Manager Jeff Liebman, the station began looking last winter for a more affordable way to transmit video via satellite. Station personnel had made expensive trips to Germany and Hawaii over the past year to follow up on local stories and had to lease SNG trucks from local vendors at high (up to $2,500) daily rates.
LIVE ON THE FLY
WDIV had already purchased a BGAN unit to do some field testing when Liebman traveled to Virginia in April to cover the Virginia Tech massacre.
“A crew from Sky News just pulled up in a rental car, set up Streambox and BGAN, and they’re broadcasting live back to London,” he says. “I’m waiting in line for the NBC satellite truck, and you’ve got an overseas broadcaster that’s basically just driven down from the bureau in D.C. and is already on-air. You’ve got to scratch your head and say, 'How are they doing it?’”
So in early July, Liebman purchased a Streambox with on-the-water coverage of the July 20-23 Bayview-Mackinac race in mind. Last year, for the first time, WDIV provided live streaming coverage of the race, an annual Detroit event that dates back to 1925. The station rented two NERA F55 gyro-stabilized, marine-quality satellite dishes and mounted them on the deck of the 154-foot yacht Highlander Sea, where they were used to broadcast through a satellite videophone. Upload speeds for the signal ranged between 64 and 128 kbps, which provided a barely usable picture, and the set-up took up significant space on the afterdeck of the yacht. “The video pixilated like mad, but it got us what we needed,” says Liebman.
But this year, Liebman found a better solution in the Streambox, which he used in combination with the Hughes BGAN terminal and a Sprint EVDO wireless data card with an average upload speed of 400 kbps. Since the BGAN service cost WDIV about $15 per minute, the station relied as much as possible on the Sprint EVDO card, which costs $49 a month for unlimited use.
WDIV had several DV-format cameras on the Highlander Sea to provide live streaming coverage of the race. The gear also included a Focus Enhancements FireStore drive to record video and an Avid Xpress laptop to produce edited packages.
Liebman and a WDIV photographer also were able to hit the water in a spectator boat on Saturday and shoot some B-roll footage, which they took back to a traditional ENG van on shore and relayed via microwave to the yacht, which was close enough to receive it.
The video was incorporated into edited packages sent back to WDIV through the Streambox, which has the ability to store-and-forward video by saving it on the receiver unit’s hard drive.
In all, WDIV produced some 30 hours of live streaming coverage of the race on its Website and aired both live shots and edited packages in its newscasts throughout the weekend. Though conceding that the quality of Streambox doesn’t measure up to standard broadcast video, Liebman says it beats the alternative of not having a live shot, and he plans to expand its use.
“In the game of local TV news,” he says, “delivering the live shot that the competition can’t puts you above the competition.”
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