When he wanted to interview a source in Connecticut for a recent "World News" story on technology, ABC reporter Pierre Thomas didn't even leave the office. ABC's cameras showed him sitting in front of a computer screen, talking to Michael Coppolla through Skype.
The video phone service has become an important tool for television news organizations over the past several months. Producers say it enables them to reach many more people for interviews. It also saves money, although its current users insist Skype won't become a crutch.
Skype encourages news organizations to use the service, doesn't charge for it and offers detailed advice on how to best take advantage of the technology. The company asks networks to display its logo or verbally identify Skype.
"It really has changed the way we do business," said Tom Costello, a Washington-based NBC News reporter.
While reporting on a bad egg outbreak a week ago, Costello found an elderly woman in a remote section of Pennsylvania who has lingering stomach problems from a salmonella poisoning five years ago. There was no way to reach her in time with a camera crew for "Nightly News," but Costello was surprised to find she regularly used Skype, and that's how they did the interview.
One of Washington's paralyzing snowstorms last winter left Costello without power and stranded at home, but his wife held up a laptop to take a picture of him thigh-deep in snow in their front yard so Costello could do a live report.
All three broadcast network newscasts use Skype to a certain extent. Fox News Channel interviews people under the banner "Skype gripe." Barbara Walters talked about her heart surgery on "The View" by way of Skype. The "Today" show keeps connected with viewers through Skype.
"This opens the entire country up for us to get to instantaneously," said Jon Banner, "World News" executive producer. "It is a terrific advance and we would be foolish not to take advantage of any technical advance that's out there."
Skype is perfect for deadline situations — such as the late-day interview ABC's Thomas conducted, Banner said. It also gives ABC access to a wider selection of experts for stories, he said.
A downside is a degradation in video quality. The Skype picture for Thomas' interview was fuzzy, and it sometimes seemed interview subject Coppolla's voice wasn't in sync with his moving mouth. It wasn't the high-definition video to which viewers are accustomed.
That's why Skype, while a great tool, is best used in an emergency, said Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News." The picture is less of a concern to NBC's "Nightly News," which recently shot anchor Brian Williams Skype-ing with a girl he met in an Afghanistan orphanage who is in Los Angeles for a visit.
"The audience has accepted that what you're going to see is a wide range of video quality in a broadcast," said Bob Epstein, executive producer of NBC's "Nightly News."
That's one of the reasons Skype has a website devoted to giving television executives advice on equipment needed for the best picture, said Michele Don Durbin, the company's U.S. marketing director. "Oprah," for example, has a dedicated high-speed line that it uses just for Skype, she said. It doesn't serve Skype's interests if a TV network shows a poor picture with the company's logo.
The company doesn't seek exclusivity agreements with networks or charge for on-air use because each instance solidifies its reputation among consumers, she said.
Not everyone believes Skype's spread is the best idea for news organizations. Steven Rosenbaum, a former TV producer who developed "MTV Unfiltered" and now runs a video sharing website, questioned whether Skype is just a way to cut corners.
At "MTV Unfiltered," his staff would send out cameras to people with stories to tell, asking them to film themselves and their world. It wasn't innovation. "We were just cheap," he said.
There's no substitute for reporters going out on location for stories, he said. Meeting people face-to-face invariably produces richer stories.
"This hastens the demise of the journalism part of TV journalism," Rosenbaum said. "You're making the reporting part of the journalism perfunctory."
Producers note that print journalists make frequent use of telephone interviews and don't always show up at the doorstep of story subjects. The difference, though, is that television is a visual medium and needs pictures.
Deborah Potter, executive director of the TV news think tank Newslab, said that networks can't always get to areas for certain stories, such as earthquakes and other disasters. Local stations use Skype to talk to people from their communities who might be visiting those areas, which allows networks to "broaden their scope and add context to stories," she said.
Skype's improving quality means that the days of expensive trucks being sent on the road for live pictures may be numbered, Potter said.
"No matter what story we're doing, if we have the option to get there and be there in person, that's our responsibility and that's what we do," ABC's Banner said. "There are times when we don't have that luxury."
NBC is owned by General Electric Co.; ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.; CBS is a division of CBS Corp.
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