San Francisco ready for online closeup

Television City is a studio in Los Angeles, the birthplace of many famous shows. But San Francisco, 400 miles to the north, may also lay claim to that name now.

When the local Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, Board of Education or almost any official body has a meeting, chances are it's being streamed live online on SFGTV. Begun in 2000, the city government's online TV channel can send two high-quality streams at a time and shows nearly 40 hours of meetings a week, plus press conferences and more than three hours of original shows per month.

And it doesn't stop when the final gavel comes down: All the meetings are available on demand on the Internet. Interested in just one of the agenda items? Go to that item in the index and click on it, and that part of the meeting starts up on the 320-by-240-pixel video window.

Many cities broadcast meetings on a cable TV station, as does San Francisco, and others are starting to stream video on the Internet, said Jack Chin, SFGTV's general manager. But the city was among the first to go online, he said.

The live and streamed meetings, available at http://www.sfgov.org/site/sfgtv_index.asp?id=13353, feature multiple camera angles and good 30-frames-per-second quality as well as titles and camera techniques that border on flashy. The speakers themselves can be relied upon to provide entertainment: Dapper Mayor Gavin Newsom once appeared on a centerfold in Vanity Fair magazine with his then wife, one supervisor is a former stand-up comedian and the city is a hotbed of liberal politics.

"It's the ultimate in reality TV," said Tom Ammiano, the former comedian, who has been on the Board of Supervisors since 1995. Some politicians just naturally play to a crowd, but when the remote-controlled cameras were installed behind glass in San Francisco's meeting rooms, they didn't suddenly create amateur thespians, he said.

"For 20 seconds you felt ... perhaps self-conscious, or that the camera was on you, but then you forget. There's too many distractions," Ammiano said.

Online video began as a scrappy, low-budget project built around PCs and servers handed down from other city departments. The main cost was a server license from RealNetworks Inc. to stream content using RealPlayer. At first, the city only made meetings available online for 90 days. SFGTV has since expanded coverage and delivers meetings on demand for as long as a year, Ammiano said. Now the hosting work is outsourced to Granicus, a San Francisco company that handles video for municipalities around the U.S. A city staff of eight operate the cameras and produce shows.

SFGTV has switched from RealPlayer to Windows Media Player, because most users have it on their PCs, Chin said. Media Player automatically adjusts the quality of the video to match the speed of the viewer's Internet connection. The channel gets some complaints about poor video quality, usually from those on low-bandwidth links, he said. It has its own technical support team to help users who are having problems.

The service was getting about 10,800 unique visitors per month early this year, the last period for which figures are available. It's not just city residents tuning in, Chin said.

"We get calls from people in Washington, D.C., or places outside the city asking how they can get to this content. A lot of times they don't know that it's online," Chin said.

The city still gets requests for hard copies of meeting videos -- on DVD now, instead of videotape -- but those fell by half when SFGTV launched video on demand, he said. Viewers can also download the videos, but most just watch, because the files are large. The channel also provides all its recorded meetings as free video and audio podcasts, and it offers subscriptions to all the podcasts of certain types of meetings. A video can be uploaded and available as soon as two hours after the meeting ends, Chin said. Closed captions are also available.

San Francisco is seizing new technology faster than most of the approximately 160 local governments Granicus serves, said Pablo Gonzalez, marketing director at the company. About 90 percent take advantage of the standard meeting index feature, but only 10 percent to 20 percent offer podcasting, he said. San Francisco's site also has one of the highest click rates, even in a field that includes bigger cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, California.

Some cities are looking to follow in the online footsteps of places like San Francisco because they fear losing public-access cable TV as a way to reach residents, according to Gonzales. In many places, the local franchise system forced cable operators to provide a government channel, but the operators are trying to change that system, Gonzales said.

Ammiano calls SFGTV's fans a "stealth" audience.

"You would think that everyone is watching something else," he said. "But people are watching it."

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