TV Search Engine Monitors Mentions of Local Government Agencies

Governments monitor TV coverage of their agencies from their desktops using a TV search engine called the SnapStream Server.

by / December 24, 2010

Tracking news coverage on the Web of a state, city or county is relatively easy for public information officers. A good keyword search can usually extract anything needed. Monitoring TV coverage, however, hasn’t been so convenient. Governments use TV clips to support messaging strategies, media training for government officials, law enforcement investigations and numerous other activities. But the process of finding the right snippets has historically been cumbersome.

For years, agencies have set up banks of TVs and VCRs to retain hours of coverage that officials later searched with a fast-forward button. But a handful of local governments have circumvented this time-consuming process with a technology that combines Web search engine functionality with a digital video recorder (DVR). Using this TV search engine, public information officers can pull up relevant TV coverage on their desktops, eliminating the hassle of recording on several VCRs and managing stacks of VHS tapes.

How It Works

The SnapStream server is one solution local government agencies are using to save staff time and money. The simple hardware unit, similar in appearance to a consumer DVR, sits in the agency’s data center. The system’s end-users retrieve video by accessing via the desktop, a Web application that resembles a DVR screen and menu. After keywords are entered, the program searches the closed captioning of all channels included in the SnapStream package the government selected. The program pulls up all shows mentioning the keywords within the time span the user entered, and the system begins a clip within a few frames of when the keywords are said. Staffers can isolate the clips and record them to DVDs or e-mail them to others. E-mail recipients of video clips don’t need SnapStream downloaded to their computers to view the clips. Agencies can program the servers to record certain channels 24 hours a day or specific shows. For example, Round Rock, Texas, programs SnapStream to send the city government e-mail alerts whenever TV coverage mentions keywords.

Dinosaur Days

In the past, governments like Greensboro, N.C., Houston and others kept banks of TVs and VHS recorders, programmed them to record shows, and rotated out the VHS tapes.

The setup often left Greensboro waiting passively. Citizens who saw news coverage about the city would call in to the government, and officials wouldn’t know about the TV coverage in advance, said city spokesman David Brown. City officials were stuck fast-forwarding through hours of analog footage to find the coverage, which wasn’t easy since each local station broadcast roughly five hours of news daily.

“That was a daunting task, given that the tapes would record [many] hours each day,” Brown said, “and you’re looking for a one-minute story.” Greensboro wasn’t the only government with this challenge. Before 2008, the Anaheim, Calif., Police Department ran six VCRs to record 10 channels. Sgt. Rick Martinez, the department’s public information officer, often spent three hours a day filtering through video during high-profile cases involving his department.

“It was so time-consuming that we had to get a volunteer who would help me out if I was really busy,” Martinez said. 

To this day, Martinez has a closet of video tapes spanning nearly all news coverage of the Anaheim police from 1997 to 2008 before the city switched to SnapStream. Now he spends 10 minutes each day searching video. Before the SnapStream transition, Martinez had to go into the office on Saturday and Sunday mornings to change the tapes so the department would have clips from the weekend news shows.

In Greensboro’s case, the city simply didn’t record everything on the weekends. Officials inserted fresh tapes on Fridays to record the Saturday and Sunday evening and 11 p.m. newscasts.

Police representatives’ remarks to the media can be used as evidence in court, so the Anaheim police didn’t want to miss any weekend coverage. In 2000, Martinez helped secure a conviction in a double murder case by using video recordings of news coverage. The defendant claimed that Martinez had improperly released evidence about the case to the media, which would’ve helped the defendant escape conviction — if it was true. Having recorded all news coverage during the span of the case, Martinez proved the defendant wrong. He said being able to find such video digitally would have made his life much easier and less stressful. 

In Round Rock, officers didn’t even use VCRs for recording news coverage before buying SnapStream. If a report appeared that the city wanted to use, officials purchased the clip from a service selling them. The clips came in the mail on DVDs and were expensive, according to Brooks Bennett, a technology specialist for Round Rock.

SnapStream’s upfront cost varies among four pricing packages. The first records four channels for a one-time fee of $12,000, with a $1,200 annual maintenance support fee. The second records six channels for $18,000 and a $1,800 annual fee. The third handles eight channels for $24,000 and charges $2,400 yearly. The fourth records 10 channels for $30,000 with a $3,000 annual fee. Each package comes with different user/end-user licenses, and the amount of video storage depends on video quality and the SnapStream package an agency buys. For example, Round Rock gives user licenses to several agencies so they can track coverage relevant to their operations.

Elsewhere in Operations

Agencies use SnapStream for a range of purposes. The Anaheim Police Department, for example, uses news footage of high-speed car chases to write internal reports on the pursuits and to train officers. 

“They have [the footage] at their fingertips right after the pursuit instead of having to try to figure out, ‘Where can we get a copy of this?’” Martinez said. “We already have a copy.”

The department also searches TV for citizens who have made comments to the media and might make good witnesses in police cases. Additionally the department records news magazine shows like CBS’ 48 Hours, which often cover crime-related stories that can serve as training aids for officers.

Round Rock has found the TV search engine to be a convenient public relations tool. Whenever a report that’s favorable to the city appears on TV, staff e-mail the clip to department heads and elected officials so they can send it to their constituents. 

Set It and Forget It

Installing SnapStream took Greensboro’s IT department only about half an hour, Brown said. Using the server requires either a subscription TV connection, like cable or satellite, or an over-the-air digital TV antenna. Departments can program recordings for any channels offered by the TV service they use.

“It’s as easy as setting up a desktop computer,” Round Rock’s Bennett said. “Plug in the Ethernet cable and the co-ax cable for the TV signal, and off it goes.”

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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