In his more than five decades in the TV business, Tom Wolzien has been a news photographer, reporter, producer, TV news executive and highly respected Wall Street analyst.
But the former NBC News vice president and Sanford Bernstein media analyst has managed to keep one of his many talents — inventor — relatively hidden over the past several years. That could change after Wolzien’s latest project — dubbed the Video Call Center — was issued U.S. Patent No. 8,767,031, a technology that Wolzien believes could revolutionize the talk TV format.
This isn’t Wolzien’s first patent. He has received several for his early interactive television inventions linking mass media and the Web, which he has licensed in the past to Discovery Communications — but it could be his most ambitious.
Wolzien started working on the Video Call Center technology about four years ago and since February 2013 has been testing the VCC in the carriage house of his upstate New York home via his own web talk show Talk Center America with host Diane Dimond.
Wolzien’s simple explanation for the complicated technology is bringing the concept of talk radio to TV. With the VCC and a Skype connection, the program’s viewers can see outside callers and whatever else they want to show. The host of the program also has virtual control of how and what video is seen, quickly toggling between shots of callers and the newsroom.
The technology also makes typically lowcost call-in shows even more economical — Wolzien estimates that with VCC, live shows can be produced with just five to six people — the host, a show producer, two call screeners, and one or two video/IT technicians.
While technically a producer could operate a VCC with as little as three people — a host, screener and camera person — about half the crew of a typical call-in show, the real value behind the gear is in its control and its ability to make virtually anyone with a Skype-like connection and a smartphone into a field reporter.
“The technology is an enabling technology that allows you to do always original, always new, live television at a fraction of the cost of traditional live television,” Wolzien said. “In a world where increasingly the competition is from video on demand, whether it’s DVR-based or Web-based and where multichannel video programming providers are telling programmers, ‘Why are we paying you so much for basically reruns?’ this becomes an alternative that is always new, always fresh and always live.”
Like all new technologies, Wolzien understands there will be a learning curve regarding content providers’ acceptance of the Video Call Center. But after serving as Sanford Bernstein’s top cable analyst for 14 years (he retired in 2005) and 16 years at NBC News — where he was in on the introduction of early computer graphics — Wolzien seems practically groomed to run this business.
So far, some programming executives are on the fence regarding the technology, with some saying while the technology sounds interesting, they’re not sure they want to be the first on the block with it.
To Wolzien’s advantage, the Video Call Center technology comes at a time when networks are increasingly looking to talk radio to simulcast shows. Cable networks like Fox Business Network (Imus in the Morning), The Blaze (The Glenn Beck Radio Program) and Fox Sports 1 (The Mike Francesa Show) are devoting one-to-five hours per day to simulcasting what are essentially radio shows.
The addition of the Video Call Center could bring a new dimension to those programs — allowing viewers to not only see callers’ faces, but also any visual aids they might bring to the party, including graphics, charts and any background that could add color to a story or topic.
Wolzien has already been testing those waters, holding what he calls an “after party” with fans of the Fox show 24: Live Another Day, right after the program airs on Monday night.
“With a host in the center you can bring together stars and fans from anywhere in the world,” Wolzien said.
Wolzien said in an interview that he has held talks with a programmer that owns multiple networks. He declined to disclose the network, but he said he was hopeful a deal could eventually be reached.
“We’ll see where it plays,” Wolzien said.
And Wolzien said Talk Center America’s operations are moving from his carriage house in Rockland County for a 2,000 square-foot facility in a high-tech building in Palisades, N.Y.
“You can only go so far in your own garage,” Wolzien said.