Are You Ready for Your Close Up?

Who doesn't like to watch a guy skiing down a subway escalator or a reporter getting an on-air taser demonstration? But streaming video is not just the domain of amateurs posting homemade masterpieces and snippets of TV programs.
by | January 29, 2008

Who doesn't like to watch a guy skiing down a subway escalator or a reporter getting an on-air taser demonstration?

But streaming video is not just the domain of amateurs posting homemade masterpieces and snippets of TV programs. From Sarasota to Sacramento, more and more local and state governments are going online with audio and video from public meetings. (Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo is pictured here in an image taken from the stream of a recent council meeting.)

Governing's Ellen Perlman wrote last April about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's executive order requiring state agencies to begin webcasting all meetings covered by open-government laws -- a move that our colleague Melissa Maynard later noted was part of a new wave of Web-enabled transparency in government.

All of this openness is turning out to be lucrative for some technology vendors, especially those in the business of providing online audio and video feeds from government meetings. One indication of just how fast that business is growing came earlier this month, when JMI Equity dropped $10 million in financing on Granicus Inc., a nine-year-old company that is one of the leaders in providing audio and video services to government, especially municipalities.

The privately held San Francisco company, which says it has been profitable for several years, has nearly 400 government clients, having added 165 just in 2007. Some of the recent additions that have popped up on my radar include Oxford, Ohio; Snohomish County, Wash.Birmingham, Ala.; Burlingame, Calif.; and the Port of Tacoma Commission in Washington state.

One of the company's high-end offerings, which I saw demonstrated at a Public Technology Institute meeting in Denver last year, allows a clerk to create official minutes for a meeting as it's being held, effectively indexing the video as it's produced. That's helpful for clerks and board secretaries. It also spares subsequent viewers from having to watch a long stream all the way through just to find the one agenda item they were looking for.

So how much does it cost a city or county board to get up and streaming? Granicus' video offerings are an example of software as services (or SaaS), an on-demand model for delivering applications to clients in which the vendor hosts and maintains the tools for the customer. The idea is to exchange the cost of software licenses and hardware with monthly fees and consulting services.

Granicus' fees ultimately depend on which services a client chooses and the size of the community and agency being served. According to the company, a full bells-and-whistles installation for Clark County, Nevada -- one of the company's larger clients with a population of about 2 million -- cost taxpayers there a $167,029 one-time payment for setting up the system plus about $3,500 monthly fee for ongoing services. At the other end of the spectrum is Chatfield, Minn. (population: about 2,500), which made a $2,941 upfront payment and has a $750 monthly managed service fee.

There are other streaming vendors out there, of course -- and other business models. And in the YouTube era, posting and hosting online video is no longer as complicated or pricey as it once was, so handling audio or video streams in-house is not impossible. One local news organization feels strongly that's exactly what officials in Raliegh and Wake County, N.C., should have done instead of hiring Granicus. (Hat tip to for the Raleigh Chronicle link.)

Writing from the perspective of a former multimedia executive for another media company, the actual expenses of producing and hosting online video for mass consumption are easily underestimated -- especially when you realistically tally the costs of personnel time, longterm archiving, keeping up with changes in streaming formats, and dealing with customer service issues. And that leaves out other hardware and software expenses.

As with any outsourcing option, a serious cost-benefit analysis is a good idea. But in the case of the fast-changing world of streaming media, the strength-in-numbers that come from working with businesses that can spread their capabilities, experience and expertise across many clients will continue to be an attractive option for many governments.

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