As a reporter and anchor for KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia, Mo., and the broadcast lab for the Missouri School of Journalism, I already chat with viewers via Facebook and Twitter on our “Livestream” behind-the-scenes webcam mounted on the news set. Now, KOMU has added yet another delightful distraction to the other side of the set. It’s turned me into one distracted driver.

Google Hangout is Google+‘s video chat feature, and it’s a shiny red sports car for an interactive anchor.

Squirrel!

Google+ Distraction

Let me explain the allure of this distraction.

Hangout is similar to a group Skype chat for up to 10 people. On Monday, we believe we were the first station to use this video feature to interact with our TV viewers during a live newscast. We posted notice of our “Hangout” on our Google+ profile and invited people inside and outside our “Circles” to join in. The result gave viewers around the world not only the opportunity to see what happens behind the scenes of a live newscast, but for the first time, it also gave us anchors the chance to see our viewers beyond their profile pic. 

We followed up Wednesday night with what we believe to be the first Google+ Hangout on air. Viewers from all over the world got the chance to wave to people in mid-Missouri as we took a live screenshot of our video chat screen. (Watch the video here.)

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KOMU’s Sarah Hill

On Livestream, I can only see a still profile picture of who’s chatting with me during the newscast. In Google Hangout, I can see the viewers in real time: his sunburn, the baby she’s holding, the psychedelic curtains hanging in their living room. No more chatting with profile pics or typing emoticons in chat. Anchors — and the audience — can now see our viewers’ smiles!  

On Sept. 12, KOMU News will launch an interactive newscast “U_News @ 4” that will further explore this real-time conversation going on between anchors and viewers during the newscast. We’re excited about the role Google Hangout could play in better connecting with our viewers, especially during severe weather and breaking news.

Jen Lee Reeves, the station’s interactive director, put it this way: “KOMU’s goal has always been to reach out to our market and truly connect. The Google Hangouts allow that in a way we’ve never been able to do before. Not only are we writing and speaking, we get to see instant reactions and feedback. It’s just one more way for us to really show our news consumers that we are in this together.”

Changing lanes

No longer is the studio camera an anchor’s sole focus during a newscast. Now, there’s a lot of typing and talking to viewers even during a 10-second sound bite. The talented people who keep KOMU on this interactive road are changing lanes and embracing this new kind of “talking head.“ With two netbooks, two phones and two tablets on set, all with different viewer conversations going on them, our floor director is starting to add a snap to our “standbys” to get our attention. Producers are learning they have to talk in our earpieces like bingo callers and repeat instructions loudly and slowly.  

Drop, B-17.

Drop. B 17.  

Bingo!

With so many interesting roads for interactive anchors to explore, the good news is they all lead to closer connections with our viewers. I’m still learning how to talk and drive and not end up as roadkill on camera.   

After a couple test drives, I see Google Hangout as another opportunity for us talking heads to take our hands off of 10 and 2.

Squirrel!

How to Improve Hangouts

Here are some items that would make Google Hangout an even better extension of our newscast.

1. Allow more than 10 viewers in the Hangout. 

2. Make the Hangout screen a 16×9 friendly format so that its dimensions look proper when we take it live on-air.

3. Provide captioning when audio is muted. We have to mute the Hangout audio during our newscast so as not to interfere with our microphones. We can see Hangout viewers but not hear them. It would be great if there was a captioning or Google translate function that would pop up when you mute the audio so that anchors could still read what the viewer is saying.

4. Provide the opportunity to join a Hangout even if you don’t have a Google+ profile.

5. Allow recording of the Hangout so that after the session ends, the creator can save it as a video file that can be shared on other social networking sites and blogs.

6. Enable some kind of private messaging in chat. We get frequent story tips in newscast chat. Why? Viewers like to say in front of a bunch of people that they’ve got a hot news tip. But they often don’t want to provide the background details of the City Hall extortionist in a public chat room. 

Sarah Hill is an anchor and reporter on KOMU in Columbia, Mo. You can Hangout with Sarah weekdays during the 5 pm (Central Time) newscast here. Not on Google+ yet? You can also check out KOMU’s behind-the-scenes webcam and chat with us here during the news. 
 

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