NAMPA — On Wednesday, Gov. Brad Little appeared in a web-streamed news conference to announce he was extending a statewide stay-home order through the end of the month. The news was met with mixed reactions, but there was one thing many viewers agreed on: The video quality, if it was available at all, was not ideal.
As residents tuned in across the state, anxious to know whether Idaho would reopen for business, they were presented with a grainy and dark picture, jerky video and audio and sound reverberation. The information was successfully relayed — at least for people who weren’t watching Idaho Public Television — but the event lacked a certain cachet official news conferences are known for.
Since the advent of modern communication technologies in the 20th century — radio and television chief among them — Americans have come to expect a reliable communication channel with their leaders, especially during a crisis. Think of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression, President John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs television address or President George W. Bush’s emotional speech following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But news conferences can be victims of unexpected problems or amusing gaffs. Recall, for example, the Bush shoeing incident, when an Iraqi journalist chucked not one but two shoes at the president, who skillfully dodged them. These events are live, anyway, and who knows what could happen?
The governor’s office didn’t anticipate what would happen Wednesday. The same technology — the internet — that allowed the governor to address Idahoans on a multitude of platforms, from Facebook to Twitter, on smartphones and tablets, presented “technical difficulties.” The meeting was streamed via Cisco’s Webex, a virtual meeting platform similar to Zoom.
“Terrible video quality,” one viewer commented on KTVB’s live stream on Facebook. “Love the feed,” another said sarcastically.
Using the Webex platform allowed reporters to ask questions during Little’s “first fully digital news conference,” the governor’s press secretary Marissa Morrison Hyer said in an email. It also led to streaming issues for the news stations and websites that broadcast it. The stream failed altogether in a few places, including Idaho Public Television, which planned to present the address online as well as broadcast it on television.
“We didn’t have enough bandwidth is basically what happened,” said Jeff Tucker, director of content for Idaho Public Television.
Idaho Public Television works closely with the governor’s office to broadcast news conferences, Tucker said. Typically, officials and the media will gather in a room where cameras record live video and send radio-wave signals through transistors directly to your television. Sometimes Idaho Public Television will operate a video pool that other broadcasters can access, minimizing the amount of people in the room.
In this case, there was no media in the room — a decision made by the governor’s office to avoid a gathering — and the Webex stream added another variable to broadcasters’ proven, “rock solid infrastructure,” Tucker said.
“Technology, as great as it is, can always come back to bite you at the worst possible moment,” he said.
The coronavirus has presented unique challenges for everyone, and broadcasters aren’t exempt. Tucker said his peers across the Public Broadcasting Service have experienced similar issues — governments around the country are using virtual meeting platforms to disseminate information.
The fact remains it’s as important a time as ever to keep people informed.
Tucker, who has worked in public broadcasting for nearly four decades, said Wednesday’s news conference included information that “every citizen needs to know about.” When can I reopen my business? Can I resume normal life, or are social distancing measures still in place? “Because of that you need to get it out on every platform available,” Tucker said.
“It’s safe to say no one has experienced what we’re going through right now,” he said. “Everybody is trying to figure out the best way and the safest way to do this. I applaud anyone who is trying to think out of the box to get information out to everyone in Idaho.”
Going forward, Idaho Public Television will provide a live pool feed that should improve video quality, Morrison Hyer said. And reporters will continue to have “interactive access” so they can ask questions.
“The Governor’s Office is committed to providing information, access and transparency for the people of Idaho,” she said.