Digital video gives government tinseltown tools without blockbuster budgets.

by / July 17, 2001
Its often grainy and choppy, and the screen is about the size of your hand. The on-air talent will never win any Academy Awards, and, depending on your tastes, the subject matter can be beyond boring. Its not MTV; its GTV -- Government Television. And thanks to advancements in digital video, it may soon be playing on a PC near you.

Only a few years ago, digital video was like Bigfoot: people talked about it, but it was rarely seen. The picture quality was poor, the equipment for making the videos was expensive and, once made, the applications for the videos were few and far between. But then the Internet changed everything.

Today, digital videos can be found on the Web sites of large and small municipalities, and though the format and technical aspects vary from site to site, the goal of each presentation is always the same: Helping the public stay informed.

Streaming Meetings

Torrance, Calif., is a good example of a municipality that makes full use of video on its Web site. For years, Torrance has been broadcasting city council meetings on their government access channel. But in 1998, they also began streaming city council meetings live every Tuesday on their Web site. Each meeting is then replayed eight times throughout the week. Michael Smith, the cable administrator of Torrance, said the premise of the streaming video is to allow people who cannot attend the council meetings the opportunity to stay informed on city business.

"We set out to make city council meetings more accessible to people who did not live in the city," Smith said. "Because cable TV is jurisdictional by franchise boundaries, people who may be doing business with the city did not have access to the meetings. If you were a vendor in San Francisco and you were waiting to find out if a bid got acted on at a council meeting, you would have to wait until the next day to find out. With the streaming, anybody can log on and find out whats happening at any particular meeting."

Besides the city council meetings, Smith oversees a full slate of programming on the government access channel that also streams to the citys Web site from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. "We discovered that it was too cumbersome to keep switching back and forth between the live meetings and running the whole channel," Smith said. "So, we went ahead and just let it stream."

Each month, an average of 250 people log on to the citys Web site and view a video.

Torrance chose to stream their site for one reason: money. With the government access channel already up and running, the city had to work out an agreement and commitment between the cable-television department and the citys IT department to make the streaming video a reality. Besides some staff time, the total cost for labor was negligible.

Because the city already had a T1 line installed and an operational Web site, the only remaining costs were to purchase a computer to run the show and some Real Network software to handle the video technology. Total cost: $5,000.

Today, the output of the access channel is plugged directly into the PC and the video streams unattended 16 hours a day. Besides updating the network software once a year, Smith said there are virtually no costs for the entire site.

"A lot of people are studying the idea, and they [cant] believe that it only cost us $5,000," Smith said. "My advice -- because it is such a simple step with a big payoff -- is to just take the $5,000 and stream their channel full time."

San Carlos Interactive

San Carlos, Calif., like Torrance, makes good use of digital video on its Web site. It features video libraries where interested parties can download and watch what they want when they want. But theres a twist: Many of the videos on the San Carlos site are interactive.

When attending a speech by the mayor of San Carlos, those in the audience not only hear and see the mayor live, they also follow along via a PowerPoint presentation. With the assistance of Presenter Inc., San Carlos downloadable videos include the PowerPoint presentation as well, and, similar to using a remote control on a VCR, allow viewers to skip ahead or back by clicking on the corresponding bullet point in the PowerPoint presentation.

Brian Moura, assistant city manager and webmaster of San Carlos, believes the interactive videos on the site are well worth the additional cost and time they take to create. "Viewers can have either PowerPoint slides, PowerPoint slides plus audio or PowerPoint slides plus audio and video depending on the speed of their connection," he said. "That to me is a lot more compelling than just putting the text of a speech on the Web site or even just showing the video."

Tools of the Trade

Adding video to a Web site can be a daunting and expensive task, or it can be a simple and inexpensive affair. It all depends on the level of quality desired.

Digital video cameras are available for as little as $100 all the way up to several thousand dollars. The inexpensive models are mostly stationary cameras that are best suited for permanent mounting and shooting of a subject that doesnt require any zooming or focusing, like a city council meeting.

Digital cameras over $500 feature zoom lenses and focus apparatuses and can be mounted on a tripod or handheld. Higher-end cameras have advanced features, such as light meters, color bars and remote microphones.

San Carlos digitally converted a few videos that had been previously shot on tape and then added them to their Web site. The costs for having an outside company convert tape or film to digital can be expensive if there is a lot of video to convert. Another alternative is to purchase a video-capture card and do the conversion in-house.

According to Rob Enderle, a senior fellow with Giga Information Group, a great solution for any organization starting from scratch may be to purchase an Apple G4 PC.

"The current generation Apple boxes come with video editing software on them that is pretty simple to use," Enderle said. "They actually have the video ports on them to take the video into the box. As long as you dont have any networking to do, an Apple box is a quick way to get an entire bundle that allows you to do video editing on the fly and on the cheap."

Another cost-effective way to handle the editing and downloading chores inherent in digital video is to purchase an aftermarket software package. Two good packages on the market are Adobes Premiere 6.0 and Ulead Systems Media Studio Pro.

Adobe wrote the book when it comes to digital-video editing, and many video professionals would never consider using anything else due to the wide range of functions and high-quality output that can be achieved with it. Unfortunately, according to Enderle, the learning curve is steep, and new users will have to devote considerable time to learning the program.

Although it doesnt quite have the capabilities of the Adobe product, Ulead Systems MediaStudio Pro 6.0 is a fine selection for anyone short on budget and time. "For people who are just getting used to the technology, the learning curve with MediaStudio Pro is much shorter and you can actually get something done in a reasonable amount of time."

MGI and Pinnacle also produce top-shelf video editing software.

Because most Web surfers do not have a cable modem or DSL, most webmasters configure their videos, whether they be archived or streaming, at 56K modem speeds. Although users who have less than a 56K modem will most likely experience some difficulties with both streaming and archived videos, archived videos are preferable if budgets and bandwidth are not an issue.

"Its probably best in almost all cases to make them download and play so theyre archived as opposed to streaming," said Enderle. "That way at least you wait for it to download, you play it and you get full frame rates."

However, in most cases, any video is better than no video. If visitors to a Web site are truly interested, they will take the time to watch. The best advice is to start small, and as time, technology and budgets allow, convert the site to an award-winning, interactive showpiece.