Wednesday, February 15, 2012

WisconsinEye Must Open Their Videos To All Wisconsinites

WisconsinEye is to Wisconsin politics what C-SPAN is to federal politics. They're a non-profit organization that provides video of all public events in the State Assembly and Senate as well as news conferences and other public policy events. WisconsinEye broadcasts these videos on Charter Cable Channel 995 and via streaming video on their website. WisconsinEye is an invaluable public resource, but they're not as open as they appear, nor as they should be.

As a non-profit resource for the citizens of Wisconsin, WisconsinEye must make their content easily accessible and available to all Wisconsinites. However, they currently lock down their video in proprietary Microsoft software. This makes it very difficult for Wisconsinites to view and share the pivotal events that take place in the people's house, and it unnecessarily increases WisconsinEye's expenses.

The videos are stored in the Windows Media format, which makes them very difficult to view unless you're running Windows. If you use a Mac, you have to install special Microsoft software called Silverlight, and even if you run Windows you may have to. In the days of YouTube, where special software is rarely required to view videos online, why does WisconsinEye make us install special software to view public content?

The level of difficulty that WisconsinEye users experience and the steps required to view a video is depicted in WisconsinEye's barely helpful help page.

I don't use Windows. I don't even use a Mac most of the time. I use a beautiful OS called Linux. So, since the videos are in Windows Media format, I have to violate a few questionable user agreements just to view the WisconsinEye videos. Why should it be potentially illegal for Wisconsinites to view videos of sessions of our Senate and Assembly? There's absolutely no good reason.

Linux isn't even the biggest WisconsinEye loser. No smartphone can view and access the WisconsinEye video archives. Not iPhone, and not Android. So, when you're not sitting in front of a computer, you can't view what's going on in the Capitol, but you can watch all the YouTube videos you want. We can do better, cheaper.

WisconsinEye should make it easy to embed videos in third-party websites as other video and news sites such as YouTube and MSNBC do. Wisconsin's other non-profit channel, Wisconsin Public Television allows embedding of videos. If WisconsinEye doesn't want to offer the bandwidth to embed their videos in other websites, they need to offer their videos for free download - not just streaming. Without that ability, we're left to chopping up the WisconsinEye videos and posting them on YouTube via the fair use doctrine. Not only that, but WisconsinEye wants you to think you're in violation of the law when doing so, by making you click through a user agreement.

This is absolutely unacceptable, and recently, WisconsinEye seems to have made sharing even more difficult. It should be clear that Wisconsinites have the right to share clips of WisconsinEye videos, and Wisconsinites should have the right to share full videos for non-commercial use.

This is not how a non-profit resource should be provided. It's like your local library saying you can read all the books you want in the library, but you can't make copies of any text or take any books out of the library to share with friends. That's just ridiculous.

There is free software that WisconsinEye could use instead of the proprietary Microsoft software to both save money and make it easier for Wisconsinites to view and share WisconsinEye videos. Switching from Windows Media to a format such as WebM would reduce the complexity of viewing files for the majority of WisconsinEye users. Most users won't have to install any additional software to view WebM videos. It would also immediately add support for Linux users (I realize we're few and far between, but we also tend to be informed and vocal). A different royalty-free video format, H.264, would allow iPhones and Android phones to view WisconsinEye videos, too.

All WisconsinEye videos of government proceedings should be licensed under a Creative Commons license. So that everyone knows that we can share the public resource, and so we have the unambiguous right to share full videos. WisconsinEye can still lock down their original content (which is quite good) and try to make money selling DVDs, but the videos of government proceedings must be open and freely available online. Making these changes probably won't reduce their revenue from DVD sales, they'll save money on Microsoft license fees, and they'll get more exposure and viewers.

I find it difficult to support WisconsinEye while they keep their videos of government proceedings locked down. It just doesn't make economic or ethical sense.

Time Warner Cable or AT&T U-Verse customer? You're missing out on WisconsinEye.


  1. Technology can always be changed depending on demand. WisEye had to make a choice several years ago when they set up their studios. They'll be able to make different choices in the future. However, without funding sources, WisEye will cease to exist. I think they've proved their worth to the residents of Wisconsin. I hope they find a more secure funding mechanism.

    Arguably, in this day and age, I think this function of proactively documenting government's actions is a legitimate role of government. It increases citizen awareness and serves as a permanent record for the future. Although WisEye has the cooperation of the State (in the sense they have permanent equipment at the Capitol) I don't believe they receive any funds from the state.

    Although Wisconsin's open meetings law requires government to make reasonable accommodations for you to videotape their meetings, there is no legal requirement that you must give your recording to anyone who wants it. As they are structured now, WisEye is a private entity. They are allowed to control what they produce.

    We have a rich environment of community television stations in more than sixty cities around the state. They're like WisEye but for local government. Municipalities generally collect a 5% "franchising fee" on your cable bill to generate revenue that in many cases is the way these local channels are funded. It's the way you can watch your local city council or school board. WisEye has no such public funding.

    City councils were once allowed to add a separate fee to your cable bill to provide a method of directly funding your community television channels, but about four years ago, the legislature removed this local control.

    Many community television channels also stream their programming on the web using various technologies. For more info, visit Wisconsin Community Media.

  2. Thank you very much for the detailed info and the link to our community media, John. Unfortunately, your link doesn't work, so here is a working link to Wisconsin Community Media.

    I agree with you that WisEye has proved their worth, but it only goes so far. I'm making an argument that they have no reason not to open their videos, and I don't want to support them if they refuse to open their videos. If they don't do it, someone else needs to. Those videos need to be open.

    The user agreement click-through makes me doubt this is purely a technology issue for WisEye.

    I realize that WisEye can do what they want with what they produce. I'm saying if they expect to be a non-profit public resource, they should allow us to share the videos of government proceedings. I also realize funding may be tight, but if WisEye decides conversion is a priority, they can probably make it happen.

    I don't dislike WisEye, but I believe the videos should be open. I don't hear anyone else making the point, and so I felt that I needed to.

    I fully support a funding scheme similar to community television stations for WisEye. This would go hand in hand with full public rights to the videos of government proceedings.

  3. I've had the backstage tour of WisEye. They have an incredible digital workflow paired with a complex digital distribution and archiving center. I've toured a great number of television studios, and WisEye was remarkable because it was so modern and did not have the rooms-full of legacy junk found at almost any other station.

    As you can see on their "support us" page, they went for a revenue model based on donations. There's a few big fish on that list that no doubt keep them alive. Channels like this sell their programming to video service providers (like the big players in Wisconsin: Charter, Time-Warner, and AT&T), not give it away. If Time-Warner picked them up at a nickel a subscriber, it would help WisEye a great deal. On the other hand, the VSPs aren't hot on the idea that the same programming can also be viewed online for free. They want to believe someone might become a Time-Warner subscriber because they like WisEye.

    You've got an interesting blog here - you should make an effort to be added to the blog rolls of other blogs. It would bring more visitors!

  4. Thanks for your compliments! And thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm very glad I started a conversation about this and you've taken part.

    I imagined WisEye has some pretty high-tech stuff. They update their video archive almost as soon as a live feed is complete. It's quite amazing when many other stations/networks take hours, even sometimes days.

    I admit that I don't know much about how to keep a TV network running financially, and it must be difficult, especially with the Internet. However, I only see more and more content becoming freely available online. Nearly every major channel available on cable services such as Time Warner offer embedding of their videos online. So, I don't see why WisEye couldn't and still claim they add value to TW customers.

    WisEye already offers their content for free on their website, they just make it difficult or impossible for certain people to view. What's the problem with making their content as free as they proclaim to be? They would be able to increase their potential audience and receive more support.

    Time Warner and AT&T should be expected to pick up WisEye to sell TV in Wisconsin. TW is a PITA when it comes to making deals with networks. They always seem to have issues with Fox, NFL and others that Charter doesn't. When I have to pay for the Oxygen network, which no one in my household will ever watch, but I can't get WisEye, which I'd gladly pay a nickel for, something's very wrong.