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The 411 On NNS

And now for something completely different (sorry, I saw Spamalot Tuesday night): The scoop on Network News Service, or NNS. It's an organization formed by ABC, CBS and Fox to pool resources and share footage provided by affiliates.

Before I get into this, a warning: Things are about to get a little bit insiderish. But in the interest of explaining how this business works, we thought it would be a good idea to give you an idea of how much of the video that makes it onto the local, national, and cable news broadcasts gets there. So I asked NNS General Manager Alan Suhonen to break it down.

NNS serves approximately 500 affiliates of the three networks above. (NBC and CNN are not involved.) The organization has about 70 employees and processes 70-100 pieces a day. They don't distribute completed packages – that is, the final product that makes it on the air, with a reporter and different slices of footage and a scripted lead in for an anchor. Instead, NNS provides b-roll footage, like sound bites from a press conference or aerial footage of a plane crash, that local and national producers can work into their own packages.

But why, you might wonder, would a Fox affiliate in, say, Boston want to share some really excellent video footage with its competitors? It wouldn't. Which is why NNS embargoes feeds to competing stations on the originating market. (This means that while an ABC station in Dallas could run that footage, ABC's Boston station couldn't.)

Suhonen says NNS was formed for three reasons. The first is that it's an insurance policy. Let's say a CBS affiliate is having technical problems covering an important national story, but ABC has great pictures; instead of having no footage to work with, the "Evening News" and affiliates around the country can use the footage from the ABC affiliate. Affiliates do control their footage, and it's up to them if they want to share it, but because of the cooperative nature of NNS they know they must participate in order to reap the organization's benefits. (Although one can imagine this might give rise to a free rider problem.)

The second reason for NNS' existence is that it gives the networks coverage in areas where they don't have an affiliate. "Before NNS they would be in a black hole," says Suhonen. And the third is that "there are efficiencies in doing business through NNS." What does that mean? Let's say there's an important press conference. Three affiliate crews show up to cover, and set up next to each other to tape the event. Instead of each of them having to process that footage, NNS picks one feed and does the technical and editorial heavy lifting.

About 70 percent of what comes into NNS is raw footage. The remaining 30 percent is packages that have been put together by the affiliates. NNS producers strip those packages, getting rid of the local reporter and/or running commentary over the video, and cut the raw footage down to its most compelling sections. (They don't send out any video longer than a minute and a half.) The producers rely on editorial information from the affiliates or wire services in order to put together explanations of what the video is depicting, and then send the whole shebang out to the various network's in house news distribution arms: ABC News One, CBS Newspath, and Fox News Edge. (Those organizations, unlike NNS, do create and distribute finished packages.)

It can be a stressful and competitive process, because the folks at NNS want to have the footage available before CNN and NBC do, since that gives the ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates an edge on their NBC rivals. The same is true for the cable networks – Fox News, naturally, wants prime footage before MSNBC gets it. The best part for the affiliates? It's free – the networks' distribution arms pick up the bill.

And that, dear readers, is NNS in a nutshell.

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