New C-SPAN Video Archive for the Impatient

Posted October 2, 2008 at 3:59pm

Few speeches given on the House floor match the power of the one delivered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during Monday’s debate on the bailout bill.

Almost immediately after the measure failed, GOP leaders blamed the controversial speech, arguing it reeked of such partisanship that many Republicans decided to vote against the measure.

The turbulent aftermath left many Americans wondering: What exactly did Pelosi say? After all, few people were actually glued to C-SPAN during the debate.

And that led many folks to venture to C-SPAN’s recently renovated online video library, where visitors can now locate video of specific statements in hours-long floor speeches, debates and events merely by typing in a keyword.

“As soon as we posted Pelosi’s speech, there was very high view,” said Robert Browning, director of C-SPAN’s archives. “And that’s C-SPAN’s philosophy: … helping people get beyond a seven-hour event or a four-hour event or even a one-hour event to an individual piece.”

In other words, the organization has created a sort of YouTube for the political wonk crowd. To date, C-SPAN has collected hundreds of thousands of hours of Congressional coverage in its video archives, from floor debates to campaign events to general discussions on political happenings.

And everything that C-SPAN has broadcast since October 1987 is indexed and searchable online in the network’s video library. It’s a wealth of information, much of it rich, juicy and historic, like the Pelosi speech.

But some of it can be, well, kind of boring.

So the key to making all the footage relevant is having a system that allows folks to find what exactly they’re looking for — down to a single sentence, Browning said.

“We’re like a library, or kind of a rare-book store,” Browning said. “There are some popular items, like people will watch the debate from the other night. But everyone has their own interests.”

For many years, searching C-SPAN’s archive was a bit of a challenge. Sometimes, after finding the event they were looking for, viewers would have to sit through hours of discussion to get the sound bite they needed. That was increasingly unlikely to happen as attention spans shortened.

Knowing this, C-SPAN has worked hard over the past several months to create an unrivaled online video database that gives visitors the ability to find specific information faster than ever before — and then use it in a variety of ways.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Here’s a four-hour hearing on housing,” Browning said. “Now people want to know, ‘Did Sen. Dodd speak? And when did he speak?’ It’s like picking up a book and looking at the index.”

Here’s how it works: Within seven minutes of airing, everything broadcast over C-SPAN’s networks is put into the Flash video format and posted to the archive.

All C-SPAN footage is archived in a chronological matter, providing a basic framework to begin any search. But most programs aired since 2003 also have searchable text — meaning text is integrated with the Flash player, allowing users to jump directly to the point on the video when a particular word is spoken.

“The beauty of it is, not only does it pull you to the text of the discussion taking place, it also pulls you to the video element,” C-SPAN spokesman John Cardarelli said.

For example, say an energy bill is the topic of the day on Capitol Hill. A constituent can do a basic search for energy, find the most recent floor debate on the bill and then type in his or her Member’s name to find out what that person said about the bill.

And aside from making it easier to locate specific information, the Flash format also allows visitors to clip portions of video, which can then be posted on a Web page or e-mailed, Cardarelli said.

Journalists and bloggers have found the feature helpful, a way to show readers specific events that took place in Congress, Cardarelli said.

And some Capitol Hill press secretaries have clipped video of their Member making a floor speech, then posted it to the Member Web site and e-mailed it to constituents, Cardarelli added.

C-SPAN is in the process of converting all of its footage into Flash video format, with a goal of getting it all in Flash by 2010. All video from mid-1998 already is available in the format.

But despite the relative ease of searching the archive, for many, the thought that there’s hundreds of thousands of hours of footage out there can be a bit intimidating.

With that in mind, C-SPAN officials have created several additional Web sites designed to focus in on specific topics.

Take the network’s “Congressional Chronicle” Web site, for example. On the site, each Member has a specific Web page that features every floor speech that particular Member has given in the past eight years.

Just like in the main video archive, visitors can search for specific bills — and even specific words — and bring up instances where the item is mentioned on the floor, Browning said.

C-SPAN also has launched sites that take advantage of interest in the presidential political season. During the conventions, they launched “Convention Hub,” a standalone site that helped visitors find coverage of specific convention events and floor speeches.

“The blogging community found it very resourceful,” Cardarelli said. “It was a way for the blogging community to focus in on specific statements. … There was so much aggregated on the site that people found it very resourceful.”

Convention Hub’s success has led to “Debate Hub,” which allows visitors to find specific topics and remarks in the presidential and vice presidential debates. It also features video links to additional C-SPAN coverage of the debates, including reactions from politicians, political observers and network viewers.

And while all this new technology will certainly make video searches easier, it also will allow viewers to find those “gotcha moments” with greater ease, no doubt creating headaches for talkative Members.