ABC Taps VNI for Digital News

ABC NewsOne, ABC's affiliate news service, has signed a deal with Atlanta-based Video Networks Inc. to use VNI's store-and-forward delivery system to digitally transmit news clips to more than 180 ABC affiliates and 30 national and international clients.

The deal is similar to one signed by NBC News Channel, which has been using VNI's NewsTracker system to deliver digital news clips to affiliates since 1999.

ABC News has been looking for a digital delivery system for about two years, according to Vice President of Telecommunications and Distribution Services Rich Wolf. NBC's success with NewsTracker was a big reason for ABC NewsOne's deal with VNI, he says. "Sometimes, it's not that foolish to be second or third in a new technology."

VNI, which plans to change its name to Pathfire in 2001, uses MPEG-2 compression and Internet Protocol (IP) packet technology in NewsTracker to distribute video content as digital files that can be transmitted over satellite and received and stored on video servers. News producers can browse content in low-res form on their desktop and then transfer it at full resolution to videotape, production servers or nonlinear editors. The receipt of the IP packets is also verified through the Internet, allowing VNI to discover files not completely received and retransmit them via satellite.

ABC will roll out NewsTracker to 25 to 30 beta sites in March and hopes to have it deployed to all ABC NewsOne affiliates by July. The network will encode and transmit news material from ABC NewsOne headquarters in New York, using its capacity on the Loral Telstar 4 and 5 satellites. ABC will also create uplink, or "upload," capability for the VNI system at key news bureaus-such as Washington, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles-and ESPN Center in Bristol, Conn. The Seattle and Atlanta bureaus will also be able to encode and transmit NewsTracker material through fiber connections.

ABC NewsOne will compress video at 5.5 Mb/s, the same encoding rate ABC is using for its aggressive digital satellite news gathering (DSNG) initiative. Roughly 40 SNG trucks affiliated with ABC's ABSAT program have switched to digital uplink gear, and Wolf hopes that the remaining 45 trucks and 35 fixed uplinks will be converted to DSNG by the end of 2001. Although the two efforts are separate, the switch to digital technology at both ABC NewsOne and ABSAT allows ABC to most efficiently use its existing satellite capacity, he says.

The biggest change with the VNI system, however, will be a gradual change to "push-and-pull" news distribution, says Wolf. Since NewsTracker provides verification, ABC will get a clear picture of which affiliates are using what content and may be able to deliver more-targeted news.

"I think the overall network infrastructure allows for ABC NewsOne to decide what content it pushes to all, and what content it doesn't push at all but is left for individual affiliates to pull when they require," says Wolf.

In addition to news deals with NBC and ABC, VNI also distributes commercials to cable headends for Charter, National Cable Communications, AT&T, Insight Communications and Time Warner. The company has launched a product based on NewsTracker: Digital Media Gateway lets producers access a variety of content, including stock footage and syndicated material, through their desktops. VNI also has created applications to allow NewsTracker customers to easily stream content to the Web.

VNI Chief Operating Officer Floyd Christofferson says the ABC deal should provide a boost to VNI's goal of using NewsTracker to deliver syndicated programming and commercials in addition to news. The same hardware and software can be used for any content, he says, noting that delivering different IP files to different desktops within a station is no harder than delivering different e-mails to different addresses.

"With this contract, we've achieved critical mass," he says. "ABC puts us into nearly 50% of the broadcast footprint."