About a month ago, while on a business trip to New York from his tech company’s headquarters in Houston, Texas, SnapStream president and CEO Rakesh Agrawal sported a hot pink wristband as he worked his way through the day’s appointments. It was a guest wristband from The Daily Show, which, along with The Colbert Report, had recently bought several SnapStream Enterprise devices—the company’s largest sale to date. Agrawal had visited the cable news comedy programs’ Hell’s Kitchen studios to demonstrate the technology—a product that he describes in an elevator pitch as “a cross between a DVR on steroids and a search engine.”
A SnapStream Enterprise server is a cable box-like device you hook up to your television to record shows. One server can record up to ten shows at a time in one centralized location. You then use your computer to search within your recordings, not just using titles, but the actual content of each recording. The server hones in on the exact quote or keyword you’re looking for by searching the closed-captioned text within every show you’ve recorded, allowing you to jump straight to the part you’re interested in. You can then edit the video segment to the length you want, and e-mail, burn, or save the clip in the server, which can store up to 17,000 hours of video. If you want, you can build a cluster of multiple servers to increase the number of channels and hours of footage you’re able to monitor.
The service isn’t cheap, and SnapStream doesn’t offer a comprehensive archive—if you didn’t record it, you can’t search it. But, despite those downsides, it still makes television easier to search than ever before. Not only is this technology changing the way that programs like The Daily Show work—it might change the public’s entire relationship with broadcast news.
In this sound-byte culture, where more and more news is made and then discussed in the impermanent medium of television, video searchability is a big deal. Shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report rely on video clips for their patented media criticism formula of showing a politician/talking head/news anchor saying one thing, then cutting to that same politician/talking head/news anchor saying the exact opposite thing. SnapStream is designed to help them zero in on those foot-in-mouth moments with swiftness and accuracy.
SnapStream has been around for a decade, but didn’t start shipping its SnapStream Enterprise devices until 2007. The company leaves the fair use of copyrighted material up to its clients, who come from three main categories: government, education, and news. Some of the company’s high-profile political clients have included Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Journalism schools at places like the University of Missouri and Emerson College use it for research and analysis. And news clients, including online news outlets like Talking Points Memo and television pop culture news programs like E!’ Entertainment Television’s Talk Soup and VH1’s Best Week Ever, use it to highlight the best of the day’s must-see gaffes, so that you don’t have to hunt them down yourself. Public relations companies and media monitoring organizations also use the software.
But the technology has implications far beyond its ability to enhance the quality of late night satirical news programs, pop culture gossip shows, and political opposition research. SnapStream could feasibly change the very nature of broadcast journalism, simply by making easier to hold broadcast journalists accountable for the things they say.
Broadcast is among the last frontiers for searchability. Some television networks are starting to put more of their archives online; C-SPAN recently launched a searchable online archive of every program it has aired since 1987, which puts over 160,000 hours of political speech and Congressional testimony at the public’s fingertips. But that sort of comprehensive information dump is rare. Most channels, if they include video at all, curate little snippets and highlights, the transcripts of which are not searchable.