News fan's story has surprise twist
A hobbyist's Web site is hobbled when the objects of his adoration, TV news stations, suddenly protest the use of their copyrighted material.
By CHASE SQUIRES
Published May 2, 2006
Christopher Blanton has been a television news junkie for as long as he can remember. He not only watches TV news, he thinks about it, he talks about it, he writes about it.
When he goes on trips, he takes a VCR to tape TV news in other cities. He keeps old VHS tapes of favorite broadcasts in his Tampa bedroom, boxes and boxes full.
And at a time when networks are trying to grow a shrinking news audience, Blanton ran Florida News Center, an online shrine to his passion on which he included video from some of the broadcasts he wrote about.
What happened to that site is a symbol of the looming struggle between new and old media. As broadband becomes a household standard, hobbyists are producing video content, vying for the same eyeballs television stations hope to attract, while television stations are hoping to lure viewers to the Internet.
The 25-year-old hospital worker started the site as a student at Plant City High School. But this spring, some of the TV stations he wrote about so devotedly demanded that he knock it off.
The stations' interest in his long-running site came just as network affiliates, and advertisers, are getting serious about the money to be made online.
"I couldn't believe it. I felt hurt, personally hurt," Blanton said. "It was just a blow to me."
Blanton said the first letter came from Gray Television, owner of two Panhandle stations, in early March. The next came from E.W. Scripps Co., owner of Tampa Bay's WFTS-Ch. 28.
"That one from FTS, it was even worse," Blanton said. "It was from a local station. A station I grew up with."
Blanton, who has been following local news since "the antenna days" when he was 5, said he knows he'll never live his dream of being an on-air news personality because of his stutter, which gets worse when he's nervous. The Web site let him feel like a part of the news community, he said.
Not sure what to do about two stern letters from lawyers, and without money for a court battle, Blanton shut down the site. He has since reopened it, but it's a shadow of its former self, stripped of the video tidbits, photos and links.
No hard feelings, said WFTS general manager Bill Carey, but business is business. Just as TV stations are looking to the Web for advertising profits, hobbyist bloggers have been getting increasingly sophisticated. Now, Carey said, they are competition, no matter how small, and if WFTS doesn't protect its copyright in one instance, it opens the door for more infringement.
Blanton insists he never competed for dollars. His site used logos, screen shots and snippets of video taken from stations' Web sites, stuff that was being offered as promotional clips. By putting them on his site and commenting on them, Blanton said, he was expressing a scholarly opinion, educating readers, encouraging debate and promoting the stations.
At its height, the site was getting about 8,000 visits a week, he said. It featured discussion about how different TV stations around Florida produced news. His tone was at times nearly reverential, although he did not shy from criticism when he thought, for instance, that a story was being overplayed or a station was pandering to a segment of its audience.
Carey says the criticism is not the problem: Reusing copyrighted material was the issue. Posting a link to WFTS' site to see clips (and the accompanying advertising) is fine, he said. Lifting the video (without the advertising) is not.
"In the fourth quarter of 2005, advertisers started saying, 'We need to start spending money specifically online; what have you got?' " said Carey. "This is a revenue stream; our world is changing. Now, it all has to do with brand: Where are you going to go for your news? The strongest brands are going to survive."
Which is not to say Carey lacks sympathy for Blanton.
"He's 25 years old. He's just a news junkie. He's doing it as a hobby. My heart goes out to him on that level," Carey said. "But we have serious issues on copyrighted areas. . . . This is where it's hard to talk to a poor guy who's doing it as a hobby."
WFTS, like other stations, is experimenting with ways to increase traffic to its Web site. WTSP-Ch. 10 has been simulcasting a noon newscast. Other stations have offered video and audio. In April, WFTS tried out a brief, on-demand minibroadcast on the Internet.
But why visit multiple sites, and endure the advertising, if you can get the same information from a single hobbyist's site?
And Blanton is not the only local blogger with an online fascination for TV news. Carey pointed to another bay area Web site, News Channel 5. The site contains original video news content, but some areas, such as a traffic camera, are apparently linked back to television stations, he said.
The site's founder is a 16-year-old Tampa high school student, Ryan French.
The teen said he felt so strongly about Blanton's case that he wrote to Carey to protest the desist order.
"I personally believe that if you give credit to someone else and say this is theirs, and you use it on your site, I believe that should be okay," said French, whose site looks remarkably professional and acts as a mini news station, complete with some video clips he shoots himself, when he's not attending classes at Sickles High School.
Carey says it's not enough just to give credit. But experts say there is room for debate, all coming down to whether the reuser's intent involves making or taking a profit.
Miami lawyer Thomas Julin, who specializes in intellectual property rights and media law, said copyrights are valuable and should be protected. Copyrights are under attack by the sheer size and speed of the Internet, he said. Still, there are exceptions to allow scholarly discussion and criticism.
"I don't think the copyright laws should be used to stop discussion," he said.
If small bits are offered up for discussion, and there's no intention to profit off someone else's work, there's no harm, said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, the journalism school that owns the St. Petersburg Times.
"It comes down to fair use," she said. The concept of fair use is what allows reviewers to use snippets from books or a picture of a famous painting in a scholarly discussion.
Blanton said he only wanted to feel part of something.
"I don't call anchors fat or ugly. . . . I just saw it as educational, and I enjoy their stuff," he said.
"This," he said, pointing at a cease and desist order, "this is like setting the lions on me."
Television's evolution, the challenges and opportunities posed by the Internet, video on demand, cable, satellite, hobbyist producers, cell phones, iPods and fiber optic delivery, will continue - but under someone else's watch. This will be my last television column for the Times. I'm moving on to a new adventure, writing about and running across the Rocky Mountains as a reporter for the Associated Press in Colorado.