The nation’s major television networks have sharply increased the prices they charge for live “pool” footage of important government and political events, raising concerns among some media organizations that they will be unable to afford to carry video of breaking news at the presidential debates and conventions.
Five major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox — constitute the video pool for official events to which media access is restricted because of space constraints. The networks take turns supplying camera crews and technical facilities to cover these events; they then distribute their footage to subscribing news organizations. Subscribers in turn broadcast the material or stream it on their websites.
The TV pool follows the president on foreign and domestic trips, for example, and enjoys special access to otherwise restricted events, such as a presidential visit to a memorial or a discussion with a foreign leader. The pool also covers news conferences and events at the State Department, the Pentagon and the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill.
But at a time when live news video has become one of the most valuable commodities that websites offer, the networks have proposed a new subscription and pricing model that will substantially raise the cost to non-pool members, potentially pricing them out of the market just as the conventions and presidential debates loom.
“In the short term, the American public is going to lose out, because fewer outlets will be able to show these historic events,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, managing editor for digital news at The Washington Post, which has protested the price increases.
“The intention of the pool was never to limit anyone’s access to news of government events,” he added. “This policy is doing the exact opposite of what [the pool] was designed to do.”
The Post has proposed forming a new pool, separate from the networks, that would feed digital video to its own members. It has written to 10 “major digital publishers” about the idea, according to Garcia-Ruiz, who declined to name the recipients.
Such an alternative digital pool, however, would require permission from official sources; there are a limited number of seats for journalists on the president’s airplane and at certain events, so a new pool might have trouble gaining entry.
The action comes as a result of the sticker shock that followed the expiration of the last TV pool agreement on June 30. Under the new plan, pool representatives have told news organizations such as The Post, the cost of full access to live video will be $300,000 for the remainder of the year.
Previously The Post, among others, received this video under an overall multimedia agreement with the Associated Press, which bought the video from the pool and resold it to its own subscribers. The pool members have decided, however, to eliminate “middle man” resellers such as the AP and will now charge all news organizations directly.
Although this is nominally a mundane fight over prices, the larger frame is that video news is a valuable selling point and a competitive advantage for anyone who can offer it on an exclusive or semi-exclusive basis. In an age when digital technology has eroded the boundaries between various types of news organizations, traditional print publishers such as newspapers have become online video-news publishers as well and compete directly with the TV networks. The networks, in turn, use video news as part of their Web operations.
Network representatives deny that they are raising prices in an attempt to drive away competitors.
Rather, they say, they are merely attempting to recover a fraction of the ever-rising cost of the camera crews, satellite trucks and transmission lines needed to maintain the daily TV pool.
“We’re not denying anyone access to anything, and anyone who says that is wrong,” said one TV news manager, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the five networks. “Why should the networks be providing this free coverage to The Washington Post when The Washington Post turns around and sells ads in competition with us? It’s expensive and hard to get this. We just want to cover a little of our costs.”
Another TV manager, who is intimate with the pool’s operation, pointed out that non-subscribers can gain access to the live video free by picking up the Web stream when one of the TV networks puts it on its website.
The White House Correspondents Association, an organization that negotiates for access to the executive branch on behalf of text, radio and TV reporters, took a neutral position on the issue in an email last week. “The WHCA is not involved in private contracts between news organizations, and was not involved in or consulted about this change,” it wrote, distancing itself from complaints.
Garcia-Ruiz noted that the new pool contracts affect domestic news organizations only, which means that international news organizations will continue to have access to live video involving White House and political events, while their American counterparts are priced out.