Where the wild feeds are

When Bill Gates uses the F-word, it doesn't show up on TV. But Web sites featuring raw satellite transmissions let it all hang out.

Published July 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"I did not wash my hair last night because I felt a certain amount of stiffness was probably healthy," Dan Rather says to a producer as he prepares to go on air with a report from Soweto, South Africa. "What do you think? OK, OK, the question is whether or not to wash it for tomorrow, but we'll make that decision as we go along, I guess."

Such are the weighty choices our news anchors are forced to make from day to day. Rather likely did not expect to be discussing his coiffure on public view, but he is. This peek behind the curtain of the TV news business is known as a "wild feed" -- one of the unscripted, random moments found in the raw satellite transmissions used by TV networks and affiliates to send live sound and video from one location to another. The feeds are sometimes scrambled by the networks. But often they aren't, and they can be intercepted by anyone with a satellite dish who knows where to point it. Wild feeds reveal some of the embarrassingly creaky machinery beneath the high-gloss Oz of broadcast television -- and these days they can be found online.

Comedic actor Harry Shearer's Web site features the Rather clip, as well as some choice words from Bill Gates: "We fucked up. We look really stupid. We look like these greedy fools," and Geraldo Rivera, who is overheard saying that if he were Ron Goldman's father, "I'd want to strangle the motherfucker." (O.J. Simpson, that is.) Jed Rosenzweig's Wild Feed TV site boasts film rushes from a Calvin Klein underwear commercial starring Christy Turlington, among other fun clips.

A computer screen still seems an odd place to watch TV, but these purveyors of wild feeds suggest that the Web may, in fact, be the ideal medium for certain kinds of video. The potential of a global audience can be had for
the relatively inexpensive cost of maintaining a Web site; only public access television has production prices to match, but it has nowhere near the reach or the always-on quality of the Internet. Besides, wild feeds
belong to a different medium than television: It is precisely TV's special form of mediation between event and audience that is the subject of the wild feed parodies.

Until recently, wild feeds have been the province of a handful of experienced satellite hobbyists. "Those of us with satellite dishes often get a completely different perspective on a news event than the regular TV viewer gets," an enthusiast, Gary Bourgois, writes on his Web site. "We see activities occurring before the rest of the country, and sometimes after the event, with camera and microphone still hot, a politico or celeb will drop a comment that they think is being heard just by those in the room, but is actually transmitted to those dish-heads lucky enough to find that particular feed at that particular time."

It's no wonder that some people want to share wild feeds with a larger public, and have turned to the Web as the perfect vehicle for "broadcasting" the clips.

Most wild feeds -- "the seashells of the media coastline," as Shearer calls them -- feature celebrity journalists doing, or waiting to do, their thing. "I'm not interested in people picking their noses, necessarily or swearing," he says, "but just in their pre-manufactured existence before the camera." A member of the mock-rock band Spinal Tap and the voice of countless characters on "The Simpsons," Shearer says he "may well possess the world's largest collection of video of famous people doing nothing." But he won't actually acknowledge that the clips on his site are stray satellite feeds, given the legal uncertainties surrounding their use.

Chances are the stars would prefer not to be seen this way, but so far, the legality of publicly broadcasting the feeds remains untested. That may change, of course, should the anchors and celebrities and the media barons they work for decide to press the issue in the courts, as they almost did in 1996 when a TV network threatened to sue Rosenzweig for a public broadcast of a wild feed.

Rosenzweig was a New York video artist in 1996; today he works for a major Web portal. But his claim to fame arrived with some off-the-cuff remarks by Tom Brokaw about fellow anchorman Dan Rather. During a rehearsal at the Republican convention, NBC's Brokaw said Rather had often reported false stories fed to him by Richard Nixon's White House. "I felt this was a much more compelling version of television than TV itself," said Rosenzweig, who created what he called a "piece of video art" around some intercepted feeds, "presented as if it were a TV show." After screening the clips as "Wild Feed TV" in a gallery show in New York, he announced his intentions to air the candid remarks as a one-time public access TV show.

Within a day of the announcement, NBC's legal department contacted Rosenzweig, telling him the tape was a violation of a section of the Communications Act that bars the retransmission of satellite signals. Rosenzweig claimed fair use, a legal principle set out in copyright law that allows material to be borrowed without permission for one of six "exemplary purposes," which include news gathering and commentary.

Fair use, of course, is often cited by members of Brokaw's trade, when songs or movies need to be broadcast to illustrate a story or an obituary; Rosenzweig cited the principle based on his artistic prerogatives. "Jed was engaged in a critique of the media, trying to educate viewers on the mediation between the news and news reporting, to show what it's like behind the scenes," said First Amendment lawyer Robert Perry, who offered to defend Rosenzweig pro bono. He said Rosenzweig's argument was compelling because the use of the feeds was not commercial and had no effect on the market value of the borrowed work, important considerations in walking the line between fair use and copyright infringement.

Perry had previously represented 2livecrew, a band that looms large in entertainment (as opposed to journalistic) fair-use cases, because the group fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to parody "Pretty Woman," Roy Orbison's hit single. "In the 2livecrew case the Supreme Court was quite clear that it was a transformative use" of copyrighted material, said Bob Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington. In other words, the artists were taking something (a protected piece of intellectual property) and making something new with it (an artistic parody). Corn-Revere would not comment on any specific cases, but said he isn't so sure about the legality of broadcasting wild feeds: "If you're talking about taking copyright material and merely re-presenting it, I'm not sure you have the same issues."

Intellectual property faces new kinds of challenges in the digital age, but the fair-use principle works the same online as it does in every other medium. "The Internet has presented decision-makers with unique factual situations," Corn-Revere said, "but the basic principles are the same on the Internet as they are anywhere else."

Rosenzweig ultimately opted out of the free-speech debate by choosing not to air the Brokaw clip on his TV show. He said he was daunted by what he saw as "the unlimited resources of NBC, and a judicial system that's generally not very sympathetic when it comes to artistic license."

Ironically, CNN did broadcast the comments in its own story about the controversy. Brokaw later said the remark might not be true and that he regretted its "reckless" nature. Kim Akhtar, Rather's spokeswoman, said the CBS anchor knew of the Brokaw flap, but indicated that he was only vaguely aware that he was being portrayed in clips elsewhere on the Web. "He just takes those kinds of things in stride," she said.

Rosenzweig has taken a number of outtakes to his Wild Feed TV Web site, which he originally set up in 1996. Though he recently updated the site -- which until May offered its video in the slow-to-download MPEG format, but now boasts streaming video -- Rosenzweig still shies away from showing the controversial Brokaw clip. But he continues to defend the value of the feeds: "They pull back the curtain to show the real show behind the show," he says.

Truth be told, the wizard seems smaller than ever. But does he know it?

By Frank Houston

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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