Stream of Consciousness

SnapStream and the future of searchable video

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.

In the past, words uttered on television simply disappeared into the ether, and retrieving them meant tedious work. You could wait for a show to post a transcript. You could search a clipping service like TV Eyes, which only goes back thirty days, doesn’t allow you to post video and doesn’t include every channel. You could request footage from news outlets themselves, or send away for loaned footage from Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive, which, with recordings of news broadcasts from every national network since 1968, is the world’s most extensive and complete archive of television news—but which stamps its footage with ugly time codes. Or, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report used to do it, you could assign a lot of interns to monitor a wall of TiVo’ed television shows, tediously fast-forwarding and rewinding each show to find the mention they were looking for, with the help of cross-referenced transcripts from Lexis Nexis.

SnapStream speeds that entire process up.

“We bring some of the power of ‘new media,’ the ability to search, copy and paste, and e-mail clips, to the old media of television for organizations,” Agrawal said. “You weren’t able to search television before, but now you can. Now you can pinpoint stuff and you can hold people accountable and move at the same speed at which media works in the online world.”

Paul Niwa, a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, says that SnapStream presents major implications for the future of how we consume television, and how broadcast journalists approach their work. He has been using it to teach broadcast and digital journalism to undergraduate and graduate students for three years.

“[SnapStream] has a really great impact on ability for people to remember stories, and I think that is so key,” Niwa said. “We can spend a lot of time on our journalism, crafting stories, finding good sources, but if that story is not memorable to the audience an hour, a day, a week, or a year from now, then that story has less impact. What video and audio searchability I hope will help us to do is make our stories more memorable.”

As in, more permanent. And therefore, more important.

“Charles Kuralt once said something like, ‘What I do disappears at the speed of light,’” Niwa paraphrased. “What he was talking about is when he crafted a story, it would get played once, it would go out into the airwaves and never be seen again,” he continued. “What searchability does is to give the traditional video journalists and audio journalists that permanence. The second thing it is going to do is improve the accountability of the video and audio journalist because their work will be more permanent. They will see the responsibility that they are now journalists of record.”

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.