CNN puts Skype in picture

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NEW YORK -- When CNN wanted to interview vacationing analyst Jeffrey Toobin about the Eliot Spitzer scandal Tuesday, it used a videophone service that has made its name on free calls between friends and family members.

Toobin, who went to Harvard Law School with Spitzer, appeared via telephone Monday from Maui to contribute to the coverage. For the second day, CNN executives wanted to use a video feed but were stymied by the fact that they didn't have the equipment to make it happen.

"I didn't want to take this guy and his family away from vacation and send him to Oahu (where there would be other facilities)," CNN senior vp David Bohrman said. "I thought it would have been really annoying."

Looking for another way, CNN's tech staff and producers discovered that some technicians had been experimenting with a feed from Skype, the eBay-owned videophone service that offers free voice and webcam calls over the Internet.

"They had done a bunch of tests and were itching to try it," Bohrman said. "No one had ever done it, as far as they knew."

Using a laptop computer and webcam borrowed from the business center of the hotel where he and his family were staying, Toobin set up a makeshift studio overlooking poolside.

Bohrman said he was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the video. It didn't make "The Situation Room," but an interview was featured in CNN's primetime political programming, and Toobin later took part in a roundtable discussion on "Anderson Cooper 360." CNN called Toobin's cell phone with the audio feed, and he used his cell phone earpiece to hear what was going on.

"Other than that the lighting wasn't perfect, it worked really well," Bohrman said. "It looked as good or better than the broadband with more complex technology."

Other networks use broadband technology and, in some cases, Treo or cell phone video for live reports. Fox News Channel used live video from a cell phone for Spitzer's initial news conference when no one else was able to provide live video. Fox News Channel regularly uses VoIP technology, notably in its mobile election units. MSNBC's campaign embeds and correspondent Lee Cowan use ComVue video technology to file live reports.

A Fox TV affiliate, WBRC-TV in Birmingham, Ala., used Skype last year to file live reports from a tornado scene.

Skype executives couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

CNN U.S. president Jon Klein said the use of the Skype videophone is another advance that boosts the news product.

"It enables us to cover the news in more places and less expensive than ever before," Klein said. "That's a good thing. The end result is more information for the viewers."
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