FEATURE: Broadcast news

TV producers have better and faster access to VNRs than ever before.

TV producers have better and faster access to VNRs than ever before.

From product launches to trend stories, and even in crisis situations, VNRs are a favorite PR tool and a powerful method of taking compelling stories to important audiences. Although general industry figures are hard to come by, experts say that in any given week, there are between 20 and 40 VNRs released in the US. And as budgets and staff continue to shrink in newsrooms, often making it hard to produce independent packages, VNRs are an increasingly used and vital part of the broadcast news business. For the most part, the VNR is a stable product that hasn't evolved much in recent years when it comes to the way the final product looks. Rather, many of the changes have mirrored the advances in news production. Scripts have become more sophisticated and productions more polished as viewers have become savvier. One of the biggest developments is that VNRs are seldom used in their entirety by news stations anymore, and the term has morphed to include a package of produced segments, b-roll, sound, and scripts that stations use to create their personalized stories. Most newsrooms may at best take 10 or 20 seconds of the edited VNR visuals - without voice-over - if it happens to work for the angle they are using. But far more commonly, reporters will use the raw b-roll along with extra video and voice-over they create themselves to piece together a unique story. "In our experience, stations prefer to have a video highlights package," says On The Scene Productions' Sally Jewett. "It gives more flexibility. With a VNR, it's harder to take that apart and put it back together in a way they want to put it back together." Jack Trammell of Texas-based VNR-1 says that trend has caused some clients to question whether they need the traditional "news package" VNR at all. But he points to another new trend - the desire to create multiple end products from a single VNR shoot - as proof that the traditional VNR is still a vital piece of the puzzle. "It has to have a news package or it won't make any sense," he says, explaining that a polished news piece can be used in sales materials, trade-show exhibition materials, internal employee communications, and web streaming, among other uses. And because production costs can run up to a third of the budget, clients save a considerable sum by shooting and editing a complete, multi-use package in a single session. "Its good for our business," says Trammell. "It gives the client, and our industry, added value." Developments in distribution The tech behind getting video to broadcast outlets has changed a lot over recent years. Like every other part of the TV business, new advances in technology are reshaping the way VNRs find their audience, and the way PR companies locate receptive broadcast stations. These innovations have made life easier for many in the business, but also highlight that the industry is in flux and will face many more changes in the coming years as the best new technologies rise to the top and others fall by the wayside. "One of the biggest changes is the expanding of the distribution methodologies that are available," says Doug Simon of production company DS Simon Productions. "Twenty years ago, it was tape. Then it became tape and satellite. Now it's moving to digital." VNRs were originally distributed by mail - sending hard copies of broadcast-quality tapes to stations. Currently, satellite news feeds are the most common method of distribution, although many stations still use hard copies. VNR producers have their products "uplinked" to a satellite feed. That feed is available to stations at a certain time for a set number of days - or even just a single day. The VNR producers then fax, e-mail, or call contacts at broadcast stations to pitch the story and let reporters or news directors know exactly when the video is available. If the station is interested, they download the footage. While this system is the most prevalent, it does have drawbacks. Because the footage is only available in a limited time window, the station has to have a technician present to grab it at the designated time, points out Michael Hill, president of News Broadcast Network. "They've got to make a special effort to get it down," he says, adding that a busy news day or technical problems could cause a station to miss the satellite feed and, therefore, cause the client to lose the VNR airing in that market. A more recent entry into VNR distribution is digital methods. The most notable is the Pathfire system, a proprietary digital delivery system from Atlanta-based Pathfire. CNN is a minority stakeholder in the company, and most CNN affiliates across the country have Pathfire capabilities. The company also has distribution deals with ABC, WB, and CBS syndicate affiliates, giving access to 1,100 stations in the US and Canada, says Pathfire's Stacey Hurter. Pathfire is a "store and forward" delivery system, explains MultiVu president Tim Bahr. As opposed to satellite feeds, Pathfire gives constant access to footage. It is automatically downloaded onto a station's Pathfire system and can be accessed 24/7 for a number of days by reporters and editors whenever they need it. It's particularly useful in helping major networks to more efficiently distribute their affiliate feed material, says Medialink CEO Larry Moskowitz. "These are news stories that may not make the national newscasts," he says, "but are delivered to the local stations for their own newscasts." Pathfire also recently reorganized the way content is found on the system so that VNRs are cordoned off in their own section, making it easier for newsrooms to differentiate news feeds from VNRs. Previously, they were mixed in with CNN news packages grouped by subjects like "technology." After the recent Health and Human Services VNR incident, Pathfire changed the system to isolate them. However, some feel that this change is detrimental. "We have noticed since then a decline in usage [of VNRs]," says Trammell. "Following this policy, what is going to happen is CNN is going to lose a lot of business, certainly from us, if they can't prove this change doesn't dramatically affect the airings." However, champions of Pathfire say the flexibility of being able to access content anytime makes it easier for journalists to pull the footage and makes the system valuable. But Pathfire requires that newsrooms invest in its equipment, and also requires reporters and news directors to adapt to a new technology - which sometimes can be a slow process. Although most experts in the VNR industry think digital delivery soon will be the gold standard, Pathfire has not changed the industry overnight. One main concern is its limited scope. "I think there were very high hopes for it, but one of the real disadvantages with Pathfire is that not every station has Pathfire," says Jewett. "So in order to reach a full group of stations, you still need to send it by hard copy." Hill thinks that it's too early to be able to measure Pathfire's impact in the long term, but the model holds promise. "I'm not positive Pathfire will be the only one," he says. "But something like that will become the standard for the delivery of most forms of video." Internet-based options Another way that digital delivery is impacting VNRs is through internet applications and websites that host downloadable video. It's no secret that many reporters prefer to be pitched by e-mail these days. VNR distributors are capitalizing on that trend to reach more reporters in each newsroom with more information. The goal, says Bahr, is to "give a TV reporter everything they possibly need" in an e-mail to create an entire story. That includes links to scripts, additional information, press releases, high-resolution photos, and video. Eventually, he sees e-mails including links to broadcast-quality video that could be downloaded directly to a desktop or media server for editing. This type of e-mail delivery holds a great deal of promise for producers. It allows them to reach beyond the news director or assignment desk and communicate colorful and compelling information directly to reporters. However, says Moskowitz, "e-mail, like Pathfire, is only an additional pathway to advise journalists of upcoming video; it's not a replacement for AP Express, direct phone calls and, perhaps most of all, solid personal relationships." Indeed, the experts agree that the multitude of options for delivery, along with the constant innovation, mean that VNR producers and distributors need to be especially diligent about the basics. "The emphasis we have all put on delivery methods will change to emphasis on contact and placement, and making sure you have good contacts at TV stations," says Hill. "You may have 15 or 20 people who have interest in that video, and now you can leave them a voice mail or send them an e-mail. From that standpoint, it is a great opportunity, but it does mean that we have to go a little bit further about making sure you have accurate lists of people at stations." Hill says that the old-fashioned art of pitching is again taking center stage. The need to have experienced media-relations pros managing the increased number of contacts and the complexity of projects is more apparent than ever.

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