It’s a video news release stupid!

This is a blog that could have been summed up in just one line: journalists are free to take whatever material is given to them from the “Machiavellian” communications professionals and present it in whatever fashion they choose. Enough said.

But after reading a front page, anchor spread story in the ‘Economic Times’ last Friday on the practise of taking video material from political parties for airing, I feel compelled to explain a little about the genesis of video news releases in India.

The headline of the article titled: ‘If You Think TV Isn’t an Idiot Box Read This...News channels carry BJP, Cong-produced footage of Modi and Rahul events’, is unnecessarily alarmist.

With the age of 24x7 newscasts in the mid-2000s’ in India, came the hunger for large amounts of content. You had to feed the monster or risk empty airtime, a terrifying thought for anyone who has worked in TV news.

Many of these channels simply could not afford to send their reporters to every event. If you didn’t fit the hard news troika of politics, cricket and entertainment; the simplest way to get your point of view across was to provide channels with a Video News Release (VNR), with footage and bytes. This has been common practise for the last ten years. These were video versions of press releases and no PR company expected that journalists would carry them verbatim. Most redid the story with their own voiceover. Many channels including CNBC India, CNN-IBN, NDTV 24x7, Eenadu TV, and BBC used them intelligently and with their point of view.

In the mid-2000s Oracle’s Larry Ellison addressed a vast event filled with channel partners’, clients and of course the press. During the Q and A, Ellison got into a wrangle with one of the government officials, I think from Madhya Pradesh, about an application that wasn’t working. Ellison abruptly said the official must have tried to build his own app on top of the software, which is why it didn’t work properly. This erupted into a major negative story for Oracle India. I was producing the video news release for that event and it was still distributed even after the fracas. There was every likelihood of the footage being used as background to talk about the incident, but not offering the footage was not a call taken by the company.

Even as far back as 1998, the United States Information Service provided TV firms with international footage, which I used with my own voiceover for a weekly foreign affairs show produced by Saeed Naqvi, called ‘Worldview India’.

I am going to get a little technical now, all these video releases (by USIS as well as the 40 plus I have produced), provided footage and audio separately so that reporters had no problem at all slapping on their own voice overs over the pictures. This is called an unmixed master tape.

So, unlike the article’s implication, these were always technically of broadcast quality (they had to be, or channels wouldn’t use them), therefore there is nothing sinister about a professionally produced master tape.

I do agree with one point that footage from third party sources should carry a tagline saying so, but in that case so should footage obtained from ANI, Reuters TV, APTV and other video wire services. Why stop the transparency at organisation approved footage, if in the case of wire footage the reporter has not been on location either?

I am going to stick my neck out and say that as the cost of producing content goes up across multimedia channels, the demand for organisation produced footage is only going to rise. Journalism has a tough challenge to remain independent, and inclusive in that situation.

And this is a problem not confined to journalism. If you look at the bookstore provided by Apple, the choice is very limited, defined by Apple's view of what makes a good book. I am pretty sure for this reason Amazon is more popular than the Apple bookstore.

Good content will win by default and I am idealistic enough to believe that this would be ultimately balanced content to win the consumer’s attention.

Paarul Chand

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