Feds set sights on small screen

Experts say diving into Web video isn’t as expensive or difficult as might be expected.

Web users have fallen in love with online video, and savvy government public affairs officers have taken notice.Online video is more popular than ever. The video-sharing site YouTube receives more than 1 billion views a day and accounts for nearly 4.5 percent of daily global Web visits, according to the Web information company Alexa.That popularity has spurred some government agencies to dive into producing videos to boost visits to agency Web sites and improve communications with the public.But producing and sharing video won’t carry the price tag of a Hollywood blockbuster. The equipment and software needed to create professional results are surprisingly affordable. Some agencies have already achieved great success with online video. For example, NASA’s multimedia coverage of its Phoenix Lander’s mission to Mars received wide coverage and viewership. In the past, NASA packaged raw video clips and gave them to news outlets, but the popularity of Web video prompted officials to try producing videos on their own.“As soon as we had the opportunity to produce video, we went for it,” said Veronica McGregor, news services manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.NASA now produces robust video coverage. Its NASA TV Web site includes four video channels: a live feed, scheduled programming, news and an educational channel. NASA also posts its videos on iTunes, YouTube and other video-sharing sites.“It’s giving us many more venues to put out information in different ways,” McGregor said. “There are some people who really only want to hear what the mission-control people are saying.”However, most agencies won’t need four channels of video content. For them, a single well-produced and regularly updated video channel would suffice. For example, Environmental Protection Agency officials began a weekly video interview program called Green Scene in October 2007.The videos consist of five- to 10-minute interviews with EPA officials on relevant topics. A recent video features an Energy Star program official discussing the ways people can make their homes more energy-efficient in summer.Judy Pino, a producer at EPA and host of Green Scene, said the videos aren’t meant to be the final stop for environmental information. Their short length precludes in-depth discussions of environmental topics, so each posting has links to more information on the EPA Web site.“We’re trying to get people to the Web site,” Pino said. “People don’t have the time to look at 30 minutes of video. The videos drive more interest.”She said the videos have also become popular among EPA employees, who watch them to stay informed about environmental issues.Thanks in part to Green Scene, EPA’s multimedia Web site now receives about 400,000 to 500,000 visits a month.As the videos’ popularity began to grow, officials at the agency’s regional offices became excited by the prospect of producing their own videos. Although EPA headquarters has a video-production studio and media center, the cost of creating a quality Web video isn’t high.Danny Hart, a visual information specialist at EPA, said online videos are now easier to produce because the technology has matured. In the past, Web sites used many different video formats, such as RealMedia streaming video and Microsoft’s Windows Media Video. No single format dominated the market, but that changed when YouTube’s Flash-based video player gained popularity.“Standardization has made things easier,” Hart said.Agencies that want to produce videos must invest in some basic equipment. EPA bought several Apple workstations for vide o editing and three high-end video cameras, but smaller organizations could get by with less and still produce high-quality videos. For example, the Prince William County Service Authority in Virginia is considerably smaller than EPA and NASA, yet Communications Director Keenan Howell has created videos using minimal equipment. The agency has posted the videos on YouTube and aired them on local cable TV stations.Howell recommends buying a digital video camera in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, a tripod, some basic lighting equipment and microphones.“Bad audio will kill an otherwise clever video, so never rely on the on-camera microphone,” Howell said.Editing software is another necessary investment. Howell uses an Adobe Systems suite of editing software, while Hart prefers Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Such software costs about $1,000, and a good computer to run the software will cost about $4,000.EPA’s Pino said those investments can also be used for other projects. EPA uses the studio to record podcasts and the editing suite to craft broadcast and other video communications. The studio can also be used for live broadcasts, although Pino said the agency hasn’t needed to do that yet.There is one final investment: people. All agencies discussed here have employees who are experienced in some aspect of communications. Pino was a Spanish-language news anchor in Miami before she joined EPA to do video production work. Howell used to anchor for NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. McGregor said the NASA communications staff includes several former journalists. Their experience enabled them to determine what would work best for their audiences. Also, NASA’s video coverage is supported by two blogs, numerous podcasts and a Twitter account, an online application for posting short blog entries.The final step for creating online videos is the easiest: sharing them. YouTube and other services, such as MySpaceTV and Yahoo Video, allow easy uploading of content. Those services also allow agencies to embed the videos in their Web sites.McGregor said the way users share online videos with one another gives NASA a wider audience. “We’ll take our video to YouTube, and if [viewers] take it and they post it on their channels, the videos do much better,” McGregor said.However, if agencies offer videos on their Web sites, they must consider making them compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires systems to be accessible to people with disabilities. EPA originally added closed captioning to videos, but the readers used by visually impaired viewers wouldn’t recognize the captions. Now, the agency uses an embedded Flash player that displays subtitles in a text box the software can read aloud.Despite the ease of producing and posting Web videos, McGregor said agencies should start with other forms of Web 2.0 communication. A blog written by agency officials and audio podcasts are good ways to ease into Web 2.0 and video, she added.Officials at EPA’s mid-Atlantic region office were excited about Web video but decided to start small with audio podcasts. The office will launch the podcasts this month, said spokeswoman Terri White, with the goal of using videos for more significant announcements in the future.