StoryBridge.tv co-creator Katy Sai introduces the first episode of her online program Chronicles.
"You have all of this content flooding online," says Katy Sai, a longtime Madison television reporter who recently left the airwaves for the ether. "Now, people are going to become increasingly discriminating as online video becomes another option. They will want higher-quality video that's professional but still really personal and interactive."
This is what Sai hopes to provide with StoryBridge.tv, an online video program launched last Friday. Started by Sai and her longtime collaborator, photographer Jay Olsen, the site seeks to raise expectations about what can and should be done in the world of online video, by presenting longer-than-typical news series focused on personal stories.
"We love to do the more personal stories, and sometimes those take more time," Sai says. "When I say more time, that's three-and-a-half minutes, which is a lifetime in television." She believes the Web offers opportunities for storytelling that's more intimate and interactive than broadcast TV, which is constrained by obligations to weather, sports, and commercial breaks.
"I have done television for a long time," says Sai, who began at WISC (Channel 3) as weekend talent right out of college, and over the next 17½ years anchored nearly every newscast. When Sai ended her tenure in March, she was hosting its "Live at Five" program and working along with Olsen as a consumer and special projects reporter.
Sai and Olsen began thinking about launching an online video project in the late summer of 2005, when they conducted extended online coverage for WISC about the Act III AIDS Ride in August and a subsequent trip to New Orleans to cover the response to Hurricane Katrina. But the biggest boost came from the growing popularity of online video.
"YouTube is what really made our idea viable," says Sai. "It's weird to think what a different world it was online in 2005."
In January of this year, only months before her contract at WISC was expiring, Sai she started talking seriously with her collaborators at StoryBridge. In addition to Olsen, the team consists of developers Preston Austin, Glenn Loos-Austin and designer John Huston. The plans coalesced swiftly.
"We had our first team meeting on Monday, March 12," says Sai, noting that this was one day after the end of her contract, "and they were able to put the site up at midnight on Friday morning."
Sai says the goal is to tell tales, not milk controversies: "We're not trying to do polarizing pieces, which you can see when you watch television any given night," she says. "Storytelling is at the heart of what we're doing."
So far, StoryBridge has set out to present five different series. The only one now up and running is Katy Chronicles, an ongoing series featuring Sai that will eventually be updated daily. The other series are: Backstage Pass, which will focus on Madison musicians; Zoo U, about the animals at Henry Vilas Zoo; Laugh. Love. Live, on the campaign to create a local Gilda's Club for cancer survivors; and Breaking New Ground; which will track the newly revitalized Goodman Community Center in the Atwood neighborhood.
But these video series are only one component. The team also hopes to build StoryBridge into a kind of social network that Sai likens to a community MySpace page. Kai wants it to be a place where people can create profiles, share media, and network with others in the community.
"We would like to move them to do something in the real world," says Sai. "The Goodman Center, for example, needs volunteers, money, and users. If you learn who they are and care about them, it might motivate you to do something."
Sai and her team are independently financing StoryBridge and putting their own time into it as sweat equity. "We just thought that we're all really capable, and hopefully we can build something that can stand for itself," she says. "If it pays off, it will pay off for everyone."
They hope the program will eventually draw advertising and cause-marketing sponsorships, and there are plans for a nonprofit affiliate called StoryFund, which Sai hopes can attract sponsors in a format similar to PBS.
While StoryBridge.tv is based in Madison, and has an initial slate of local stories, Sai says it is not limited to regional reporting: "If it catches on we can roll it out anywhere we choose as the opportunity arises." One idea she is already considering is a story on playwrights Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn, who recently moved to New York in an attempt to launch an Off-Broadway production of Walmartopia.
"We really believe in this type of storytelling," says Sai. "We've seen on TV that it's really meaningful for people, it's fun for us, and the time is right."
On June 11, Broadcast Engineering reported that online media is expected to supplant television news as the primary source of information, as based on a recent international Harris poll. "While television news programs on broadcast and cable networks are the primary information providers today in all the regions polled, a sharp increase in the role of online news information is predicted for five years down the road, largely at the expense of television, with smaller inroads into the market for newspapers," the TV trade publication reports.
Sai points to the boom of online video and its often questionable quality, both in terms of storytelling and presentation, as an opportunity. "As most of the stuff out there is so amateurish in quality, this is the time to be bringing more professional video products online," she says. (It's a sentiment shared by others: The Madison-based creators of Chad Vader credit their approach to production as one reason for sustained interest in their work, while auto insurer Geico recently launched a set of commercials that mock online video clichés.)
The clips on StoryBridge are easily a few steps above the typical online video experience, with their widescreen format and comparatively sharp pictures. Sai says her team is picky about the picture quality: "People don't even realize what they're giving up when it comes to YouTube."
StoryBridge plans to roll out regular programs in about six to eight weeks, and will continue to add interactive features to the site. And interest in the project is building, simply as a result of ongoing productions. "Every time we are out shooting, people are very curious," says Sai. "We're also trying to think of ways of working with traditional media as well."
Taking a cue from last year's debut by Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News, one of Sai's first requests for audience interaction is help with determining a sign-off. The first episode of Chronicles ended with Sai disappearing into thin air via the magic of video editing. Will this concept stick? "I don't know," says Sai. "If you come up with a great idea, we may just use it."