For Debates, Online Video Is Second Screen but Not Second Fiddle

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The first live debate between presidential contenders Barack Obama and Mitt Romney took place on Oct. 3 at the University of Denver, and will be followed by two more events throughout the month, in Hempstead, New York, and Boca Raton, Florida, as well as one in Danville, Kentucky, that will pit vice-presidential nominees Joe Biden and Paul Ryan against each other. As usual for these national match-ups, the debates are covered live by the four major broadcast networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, as well as cable outlets like CNN and Fox News, all of which rely to one degree or another on their online presences, as well. But what sets the 2012 contest apart, and what will perhaps make it a key turning point in the evolution of streaming media, is how Google, Yahoo and AOL suspended their usual competition for online eyeballs and instead collaborated on streaming the event, becoming a parallel universe of shared media distribution. It foreshadows what these internet giants seem to hope might become the primary mass-media platform for news in a social media future, one in which the CBS eye, NBC peacock, ABC circle, and Fox searchlight may become the second screens, instead.

During the first debate, which took place in the Magness Arena ice hockey rink at Denver, a raw audio and video stream was ported from the network-pool broadcast truck parked outside the venue first to C-SPAN, which converted the broadcast signals to a data stream and shepherded it, under the aegis of the White House's media department, to Heroku, which hosted the stream and the website constructed for it by interactive production company HAUS. Los Angeles-based HAUS, in turn, coded contextual content created by New York City-based advertising and marketing agency BBH, which had pulled the three internet companies together on the project. Using a combination of JavaScript and HMTL5, HAUS's coders used editorial developed by BBH -- which is also the long-time agency for the Commission on Presidential Debates, the sponsoring body for the events since 1988, which developed this year's "The Voice Of..." campaign for the online project -- as threads to connect blocks of interactive pages across each internet brands' respective portals for the debate events -- thevoiceof.aol.com, news.yahoo.com/thevoiceof, and youtube.com/thevoiceof. Whichever landing page viewers used, it took them to pages that take input from visitors who can answer questions on issues central to the political debate, input data that is used to dynamically drive the graphical objects so that each new input changes the picture slightly. Each debate will also be archived on Heroku's servers and made available through all three portals, allowing visitors to revisit the events on demand.

"Polls reported in newspapers and on television are static -- they've already taken place and you read about the results but you're not able to be part of them unless you were lucky enough to get called by the pollster." That's Rasmus Blaesbjerg, creative director at HAUS, who watched the Denver debate from the steep bleachers above the main seating area on the temporarily red-carpeted rink floor. HAUS's work creating the interactive dynamic analytical graphics would kick in as soon as the debate ended, hoping to turn what had been a linear after-the-fact proposition into one that changed by the second, in the process more deeply engaging the electorate itself. Instead of set questions, the data can take on forms that are relevant to specific cohorts.

"The data can be combined with demographics and analyzed graphically so that, for instance, a single mother of a certain age group can see how her feelings compare to others in her group," says Blaesbjerg. "It's an educational experience and it's an interactive social one, as well. And each participant can decide individually the extent to which they want to participate -- you can answer one question or none or all." It's not meant to be scientific; it's meant to be immersive and engaging. "And compelling," adds Blaesbjerg. "It's meant to make you want to be there."

The Technical Side of Debate Streaming

The Google, AOL, and Yahoo portals benefit from the high-quality broadcast signals that comprise the raw stream. From inside the Magness Arena, video comes through at 720p and is combined with 1080p graphics on Google's "The Voice Of..." portal. Audio comes in through the Audio-Technica dual-element ES991 podium microphones attached to each of the candidates' lecterns and the moderator's desk, as well as A-T AT898cW subminiature cardioid condenser lavaliere microphones connected to 5000 Series wireless systems. These passed through a Yamaha DM 2000 digital console and CEDAR DNS 3000 dynamic noise processor en route to the Game Creek remote broadcast truck supplied by ABC. Live sound mixer Michael Abbott, who also mixes entertainment awards shows including the Academy Awards and supervises the sound for the Grammy Awards, says, "The sound coming out of the auditorium was pristine. It can survive a lot of processing that the [broadcast] networks might apply to it. I imagine the same goes for the streaming environment."

Blaesbjerg says the joint effort is backed and distributed by marquee Silicon Valley names but while the raw signals are of high quality, the overall experience hasn't been adapted fully for mobile platforms yet. "We're really still limited by the bandwidth offered by the carriers for mobile," he laments. "But that's going to change. Not this election cycle but maybe by the next one."

That next one -- the 2016 presidential elections -- will almost certainly be as controversial as this year's contest has been, but the four intervening years will have been the equivalent of eons in technological chronology. The second-screen status that mobile platforms aspire to now may well have been relegated to terrestrial broadcast and cable television by then. Daniel Sieberg, a spokesperson for Google Politics, said at Google's outdoor display on the Denver campus that the internet giant isn't looking beyond the immediate horizon, but has awarded the concept parity, at least for the moment. "For now we see it more as a ‘dual screen' than a second screen," he says. "What we want is to provide political content tools in a nonpartisan way and see what people are searching for as they watch the debates."

But Blaesbjerg says one major milestone has already been accomplished in the form of the three-way collaboration between AOL, Google, and Yahoo. "It's the first time they've ever worked together on anything -- even Google had to play nice," he chuckles. "Having these three massive players come together says something." And that something is that television's second screen doesn't plan to be second fiddle for much longer.

Vote image via Shutterstock.

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