A Curious Pair: Skype & Traditional Broadcasters

As Skype has become more and more popular various other parties have tried to ride on their coat-tails, including old media companies like TV stations & broadcast networks. I know of at least one TV station that was clandestinely using Skype over broadband to “phone in” breaking news events. The station in question even went so far as to promote the fact that they were using Skype. They did so without prior permission from Skype, and were eventually asked to stop doing so by Skype’s lawyers.

TV stations have been doing “Live Remotes” for decades. Most often this involved using a vehicle equipped with microwave relay gear to send the video feed back to the station in real-time. Much effort goes into ensuring that the video signal looks good when it finally hits air. Larger TV stations or more important projects might merit the use of satellite transponder time to get the video feed back to the station via a satellite link, at considerable expense.

Other technologies have been used to bring home the pictures as well. “Videophones” were used during various recent global conflicts, allowing embedded reporters to send video back to the US. In many cases the quality of that video was poor, but the true value was in the sense of immediacy created by the psuedo-real-time feed. To a degree the fact that the video quality was not good heightened the viewers perception that the reporter must really be in harms way, which was usually not the case.

I think that whole situation with the broadcaster using Skype was more than a little strange. The TV station I mentioned earlier was using Skype to send video back to their studio over broadband….from a location relatively nearby. They were actually in a nearby hotel using the hotels broadband. That makes no sense at all when they already own the kind of microwave relay equipment that would bring back bone fide production quality video in real-time. They probably just left that equipment in the truck in the hotel parking lot.

No, they used Skype…and lived with the lower grade video…expressly because they wanted to be associated with something hip, cool and…ultimately…new media. So desperate is the old guard to find a glorious place in the new world order.

Not all local broadcasters are like this. I know of another TV station that was using newer technology, in this case EVDO Rev A wireless, to send high quality video back from a moving campaign bus. They had shot an interview with a candidate on his bus as he went from town to town. Using wireless internet access they were able to upload the edited story via FTP and have it on air even before the bus stopped. That’s innovative! Or at least it was at the time. Such things used to be beyond the scope of local broadcasters.

The project involved the non-real-time upload of a completed story segment from a moving vehicle. They used a single EVDO Rev A dongle, so they really were not making use of any custom hardware or software.

Enterprising broadcasters are eagerly experimenting with new technologies. As Zeeek pointing out on a recent VUC call devices like the LiveStream backpack are now commercially offered, where not long ago that such projects were only being done experimentally.

The LivePack is a commercial product that takes HDV video over a Firewire connection, encodes to H.264 then streams the video online…live. With eight 3G radios it can sustain a 1 Mb/s stream for up to three hours. The LivePack is not cheap, but it is less expensive that traditional live remote trucks. The fact that it can be rented on a monthly basis makes it an option for TV stations and non-broadcast businesses.

Imagine what will be possible when 4G networks are more commonplace! We’ll see better quality video and audio from live remotes that don’t use the traditional microwave or satellite links back to the broadcasters home base.

Rumor has it that Cisco’s UMI has displaced Skype as the means by which Oprah will do remote video interviews. That’s good thinking on the part of Cisco as it raises their consumer visibility, but Oprah’s in her last season, so the impact will be transient. I wonder if Logitech will go a similar route in promoting their Revue GoogleTV box?

The introduction of this new wave of consumer HD video calling gear is bound to create interesting times for broadcasters. Will there be pressure to ensure that they sustain the quality of their broadcast signal? Or will the new devices simply drive down the cost of doing business?

You’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen smaller TV stations using a hacked Tivo as a network delay device. The Tivo is cheap, supremely hackable, and replaces a digital video delay or video server costing many thousands of dollars. Sure the quality of the resulting video is compromised, but for some applications, like secondary and educational channels, image quality is not the paramount concern. The critical issue is being cost effective.

This past week saw the release of Skype 5.0 for Windows. While the emphasis in the early beta was multi-party video the current emphasis is integration with Facebook. Multi-party video is not broadly available, but only in SD. HD calls are only possible on a one-to-one basis.

It will be interesting to see how the rise of HD video calling from homes impacts the broadcasters approach to live remotes. Will they take on board that technology as a cost savings measure? Will they be in any way concerned about the quality of delivered video? Or just excited that they’re once again leveraging the Skype brand to their benefit?