The Problem with NASA TV

I want NASA TV to look like this!

I want NASA TV to look like this!

Not like this!

Not like this!

I have a problem with NASA TV: it’s boring!

This has been a pet-peeve of mine for quite a while, but with all of the excitement about the current Hubble repair mission, I have been reminded just how bad NASA TV is.

Think about it. Right now, as I write this, the astronauts are suiting up and preparing for a spacewalk to begin repairing the Hubble space telescope. They are doing this while orbiting 400 miles up in space, falling around the earth at thousands of miles per hour. The repairs are intricate, unforgiving tasks. One wrong move could damage the telescope. One slip with the bulky gloves of the spacesuit and vital scientific instruments, costing millions of dollars, upon which scientific careers are relying, could be lost in space! There is no room for failure! Tensions are running high! Years of training all culminate in a handful of spacewalks!

And yet, for the last ten minutes, NASA TV has shown a stationary shot of part of the shuttle with dead silence, punctuated by occasional astronaut communications that don’t mean anything to a casual viewer. Yesterday when I tuned in, there was dead silence and a wide angle view of the mission control room.

Now, I know that I should be amazed that we can watch live video of people working in space, and I am. But I am watching it in spite of the dullness. This is the sort of thing that should have people around the world glued to their TV sets! We should all be collectively gasping in awe. Instead we’re all yawning.

NASA TV isn’t always bad. Last year for the Phoenix landing, I thought they did an excellent job! They had sexy computer graphics simulating the landing, a professional-looking newscaster doing interviews with people involved in the mission, and it was actually really cool to watch! All that for a robot! Why don’t we have something even better for real, live spacewalks!

There should be dozens of camera angles on the shuttle. Even small webcams would be fine for most of the shots. Just something other than interminable wide angle views! Rather than staring at the door in silence waiting for the astronauts to come out, there should have been cameras showing them suiting up. There should be a professional newscaster speaking during the dull periods of silence, explaining what the goals of the spacewalk are, what the stakes are, how they trained, etc.

And most of all, NASA needs to tell a compelling story. It’s not hard. We’re talking about people! In! Space! Fixing Hubble! Huge stakes! Heroic astronauts! It practically writes itself. When the spacewalk is not actively happening we should be seeing pre-made special sequences about the people involved. We should be getting to know the astronauts, the ground crew, their stories, their struggles, and their teamwork to make missions like this a success.

Remember the movie of Apollo 13? Did they show silent, wide angle views of mission control? No! They were up close, catching the expressions on people’s faces! The struggle to overcome impossible odds! There was dramatic music! We cut back and forth between the action on the ground and in space, wrapped up in the struggle to get home safely. Now, I hope there is never another space mission as “exciting” as Apollo 13, but there’s no reason that the current missions couldn’t be filmed that way. Small unobtrusive cameras, some music and professional production values would go a long way.

NASA TV could be awesome. It should be awesome. Its subject matter is inherently awesome, far more so than the slick-looking cable news channels! And yet a lot more people watch Fox and CNN than watch NASA TV. If we want people to be interested in what NASA does, then it wouldn’t hurt to invest a little bit into conveying the excitement of each and every mission to the public.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humans in Space, NASA, Not Mars

38 Comments on “The Problem with NASA TV”

  1. CharlesP Says:

    Very good points all. And I think that one person that makes it blatantly obvious how relatively “easy” this could be, is Leo Laporte. If he can set up the whole TWiT network on the cheap (or Robert Llewellyn with his video podcast Carpool), then it shouldn’t be all that hard for the geeks at NASA to rig up something simple and easy to do this. Heck, even if it was time delayed, or broadcast after the fact (like some of the HD coverage of launches) it would FASTLY improve the network, and go a long way towards making the awesomeness of space more marketable to young kids.

  2. CharlesP Says:

    OK, I obviously meant VASTLY, though fastly sort of works there.

  3. @Ageekmom Says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but have an alternate take. First, I’m not sure where you think all those “dozens of camera angles on the shuttle” during this mission would come from. The only wide angle shots of the orbiter Atlantis we are getting are from cameras onboard the vehicle.

    And the astronauts up there are doing their work. This is work after all, not entertainment; Apollo 13 the actual mission, real life, unfolded quite differently than the movie of the same name–with awkward silences and “missing” camera angles and no compelling musical score–all of which the MOVIEMAKERS had to fill in for when they made a movie based on Apollo 13.

    STS-125 has an IMAX camera on-board. Rest-assured, the MOVIE based on the amazing things that are going on at 17,500 miles an hour above our heads in space will hit the big screen, but right now? It’s life or death, real life, and just like you don’t normally have LIVE broadcasts of emergency rooms, operating rooms, etc., it’s no place for Hollywood producers demanding the astronauts stop what they’re doing to get more makeup, relight a scene or change the orientation of the orbiter to get a killer shot. They’re up there long enough that compelling shots make themselves happen and will be captured, if not in video than in high-res still images.

    Patience, grasshoppa’!

    • Ryan Says:

      I completely agree that whatever we do should not interfere with the astronauts’ work and safety. But cameras these days are small. They could be placed throughout the shuttle, be remote controlled from the ground, and be very unobtrustive.

      I don’t think it’s possible to make NASA TV as seamless as a movie, but they could certainly learn something from news networks.

      And yeah, I can’t wait for the IMAX!!

  4. russ Says:

    NASA TV – a way to show the US public where their tax dollars are going. A public venue to see the real life aspects of space, not the media ‘Star Wars’ pretty space explosions with sound warp speed stuffs. The slow, tiny maneuvers. The beauty.

  5. @Ageekmom Says:

    That said, my favorite aspects of each mission are the little sometimes cheesy handheld video clips the astronauts, unscripted and in their “free time” (as if they really have much of that) record and downlink. This mission’s clips have been especially telling, showing a crew that clearly has (even moreso than usual) truly been working and training and relying on one another for years (7?). They have a great rapport and I also liked the NASA astronaut-driven Q&A the STS-125 crew did; even though they’ve worked together for so long, the questions they asked (from cuecards) still resulted in some “Wow, I didn’t know that about you!” moments among the crew. Good stuff for those seeking to connect more to the human side of manned spaceflight and not just the glorious pictures of Earth, Hubble, the orbiter, etc.

    We live in an era where, blessedly, *WE* create the experience we seek. I can have NASA TV, another HD live NASA stream (spacevidcast.com) plus a chat window, plus Wikipedia, etc. open and make the experience I seek. Have a question or want to see more? Pull up a Flash animation about the Hubble Space Telescope. Want to learn more about the Commander or Pilot or MS1/2/3? Read their bios and read about previous missions they’ve been on. Etc.

    Sorry for hogging the comments. I’ll shush up now. ;-)

    – Shannon

    • Ryan Says:

      No need to apologize! It’s always great to have people commenting and discussing!

      I agree about the candid shots and learning more about the astronauts as a team of humans and friends. That’s the great thing about human space exploration, and it’s a lot more interesting to most people than all of the technical details.

      All the resources at our fingertips are pretty amazing. I’m just saying I wish NASA TV was as good as it could be, not just the bare minimum effort.

      • valhalla Says:

        I think every ten minutes that NASA should set off an explosion near the Space Shuttle and have the crew fly across the deck and rock back and forth in their seats.

        Then the captain should ask the first officer what’s going on and he can shout “Awaiting analysis, Captain!” while staring into a device that makes his face glow blue.

  6. CharlesP Says:

    I don’t think Ryan is asking for hollywood production, and mostly just using a bit of the more modern technology to make for more compelling content (though he does call for a more professional voice-over person and music, those would be end of the production line issues that wouldn’t bother the astronauts). The little lipstick cams that Robert Llewellyn (Kryten on Red Dwarf) uses for Carpool are small enough that they could probably be relatively easy to place in a few locations on the ship, and very easy to place in a few locations at mission control. I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be people available to do a bit of active mixing for that data before it’s being broadcast.

    That said, there’s certainly an argument to be made for not trying to integrate it into the current shuttle model and aiming for the next round of space vehicles, but that would still leave room for some improvements to be made on the coverage at the operations on the ground.

    At this point in NASA’s career, with the limitations on what it can and can’t do (let’s face it, sending men to the moon 30+ years ago means that whatever they try to do NOW is going to seem less exciting than that until we go back to the moon, or to Mars), it needs to get into a bit of PR if it wants to keep those tax dollars headed its way. The space “fans” are going to watch whatever it puts up, but if it can garner a significant increase in broad taxpayer interest, with minimal cost, it would seem a good idea.

  7. Doug Ellison Says:

    I have to say – the control room launch video’s they release a few hours after launch are very interesting. Certainly, there are big fat chunks of NTV that are dull – but a whole spacewalk of Helmet cam sort of makes up for it :)

  8. Eric Collins Says:

    It may be easier to get all of those compelling camera angles than you think. When they don’t have the live video down link, they switch between the wide shot of mission control and the computer generated model updated from telemetry (with the white background). I don’t think it would be much more difficult to hook up some high-end graphics processing hardware on the back-end and render the computer model more realistically. If they can get video games to look compelling and be near real-time in their responsiveness, then they should be able to do the same for their computer model. In any case, the compelling camera angles could be obtained from just about anywhere, then seamlessly interleaved with real-time, or slightly delayed footage from the on-board cameras. Computer animation will almost certainly be among the post-production techniques they bring to the final IMAX version.

  9. equinox Says:

    Early this morning I watched the Live ESA broadcast of the launch of Herschel and Planck. Coming so soon after the launch view of Atlantis I had ample opportunity to compare the coverage of both. Neither is perfect, but wow, did ESA ever put the NASA coverage in a box.

    Every low spot in activity prior to the launch was filled with cut-away media of film, animation and really relevant information about the satellites, the deployment, the scientist’s excitement and the 20 years some of them had put into fulfilling this dream. By the time the we saw them in the control room jumping to their feet at the successful unfurlment of the second device, we knew why they were hugging each other and weeping. Seriously, they were crying! And they let us, the viewer, see that!

    ESA didn’t show us enough reruns, and like NASA they cut the shots off at exactly the wrong moments, but still the production value was 10x what I had watched 48 hours before on NASA TV. They clearly involved a professional broadcast team to develop their production and it showed.

  10. phoenixpics Says:

    I have to echo the comments about ESA’s Herschel/Planck coverage – it managed to combine “extremely professional”, “informative” and “exciting” effortlessly. There was never a moment, in the hour or so I was watching, when I was tempted to look away from the screen, there was always something going on that I wanted to follow. Watching NASA TV isn’t like that; there are long, frankly dull periods when I can easily get up, go make a cup of tea, do the washing up, etc, then come back to the monitor without having missed anything. I think there needs to be more interviews, more “mini-docs” (ESA’s were fantastic, just 2 or 3 minute quick-look-at pieces that gave background to what was going on and added to the event). NASA TV also needs a couple of presenters who would link everything together professionally, and become familiar faces to viewers, trusted “windows” on the space agency and its activities. Miles O’Brien would be perfect, wouldn’t he? If he’s busy, then PLEASE let Candrea Thomas do more; she’s great on camera, and knows her stuff. NASA really needs to use her more, I’ve thought for a while.

    NASA TV at its best *is* exciting and informative (yes, the Phoenix coverage was brilliant!), but it could be a lot better. A good start would be to reduce the amount of time it gives over to showing people sitting at those frakking control consoles, drinking coffee, shuffling papers, talking with the people in front of or behind them, yawning or – pardon the pun – staring into space. That’s boring, to be honest. You could fill those gaps with chats with people involved in the mission.

    NASA TV is educational and informative, but it comes across as cold and somehow detached, as if the production team are all Vulcan. It’s content is logical and effecient. There’s a place for that, of course, but let’s have some of the passion, drama and beauty of space exploration too! :-)

  11. Eric CT Says:

    You are dead on. Sounds like an excellent carrer choice for you, Ryan. Make NASA exciting.

  12. Bruce Moyant Says:

    Re:”We’re talking about people! In! Space! Fixing Hubble! Huge stakes! Heroic astronauts!….some music and professional production values would go a long way.”

    I prefer my NASA TV (and science news in general) without hype. Music!? Puleeeease!

    As others have said, wait for the documentary.

    • Ryan Says:

      Yes, but you (and I) are in a small minority. If NASA wants to reach a wider audience than space enthusiasts, it needs some production value for NASA TV. Frankly, I tune out after a minute or so of watching a silent wide angle shot, even of the shuttle in space. If I’m tuning out, what motivation does someone with very little interest in space have to watch?

      Science and space news *should* be hyped. It should also be informative and reliable. The two are not mutually exclusive.


  13. Ryan – I have to really agree with you – especially your last para. While it is amazing that we get real live time feeds this is dulled down by the style of how things are presented.

    The impression that I get when I watch is that this is something produced by a bureaucracy! The style tends to be stitled, cautious, predictable etc. etc. A bureaucracy never makes stuff ups!! While I can appreciate the vital importance of having a tightly controlled organization in terms of launching and running space missions carrying this sort of ethos over into communications tends to lead to a bland boring result.

    The q is why do NASA have TV anyway? If it is to publicize, inspire the public and get them onside, boost their funding then they would be much better served if they focused on these aims, gave their communications staff clear guidelines along these aims but more independence withing the guidelines and invested a bit more and made it more exciting. I wonder what their market research says – if they have done any?

    However, I do have to say that some of their animations are excellent – if not stunning.

    • Ryan Says:

      I believe NASA TV originated to keep astronaut family and friends up to date with the missions in real time. It has turned into an outreach tool, but retains its very “no frill” approach, which makes it much less effective (though it is still great at its original purpose).

      Regarding the animations, those are not associated with NASA TV, they are actually made by a Cornell alum who now has a company dedicated to making cool digital simulations for outreach purposes: http://www.maasdigital.com/

  14. Don Davis Says:

    NASA TV has some great aspects which already exist I would encourage the producers to emphasize. I love the camera looking at Earth, even for most of an orbit, aimed so the planet almost fills the screen, with minimum foreground hardware. The space environment itself should be visually emphasized, not the current means of getting there. This becomes almost a ‘video wallpaper’ with geography, weather, and lighting changes making the view different every few minutes. Past shuttle missions would use a camera which would allow low light video as well, so we could see city lights, aurorae, and occasional meteors below. I miss such views. Having someone on the ground at the controls of some of these video cameras with an aggressive photographic sense would be beneficial.
    The Kids programming is very uneven looking to me, often feeling like propaganda. I would rather see more documentaries and compilations of the best video moments from their archives.
    I would also like to see the annoying NASA logo removed, as the origin of the video is obvious and as it is in the public domain there is no need to deface the views of space in order to protect its ownership. Since the 90’s the use of such logos has defaced many worthy sights on TV, no need to copy the bad example of others who constantly felt it necessary to remind you of what channel you are watching.

  15. David P. Says:

    Having lived through the 60s launches as a kid, the product they put out now is a huge improvement. Not just the technology, but the willingness to provide the feeds.

    The repair space walks on Hubble covered as much as they could. The internet resolution could be better, but heck, it’s free. Unless my local cable company includes NASA-TV, that’s as good as it will get.

    I do think the PAOs controlling the feed selections could do better, but remember, live video feed eats bandwidth that is limited between the shuttle and ground. Also, ponder the displays in Mission control for a while and you will realize there are limits to full time coverage for video. Voice and telemetry always trump that.

  16. John S. Says:

    I like NASA TV as is.

    I agree with David P.

    Compared to when all we had was the 3 networks (ABC,CBS and NBC)and before the news networks of cable. Trying to watch a space mission was hit or miss. If the network thought you should see something they would cut in but toward the end of the Apollo era, they were the ones not showing us anything but a small bit on their evening newscast. One of the reasons we get the wide shot of Mission control is the signal from the shuttle/ISS is not available. I really don’t like someone talking during a mission because I want to be able to hear space to ground without it being step on by someone.
    Leave NASA TV as is. If you want comment’s about a mission watch CNN or other news channels or have a channel like NASA but with the reporters and anchors.

    • Ryan Says:

      “Better than it used to be” is not the same as “good”. I understand the limited access to the signal, and the priority of the actual telemetry, but my point is that NASA TV is, for the most part, an ineffective way to get more people interested in NASA. It is fine for informing people who are already interested, but those people (aka you and I) are the easy ones to please.

  17. Bill Says:

    Well, I have to agree: it’s ironic that NASA TV’s coverage of the most exciting achievements of mankind in space comes off as some of the dullest material on television. And it is especially frustrating when I try to get my kids excited about the space program in the same way that I was during the days of project Gemini and Apollo, and all we see on the screen is 20 minutes of the back of the flight controller’s heads.

    Now I know that having the kind of up close coverage like we saw in the movie “Apollo 13” is not likely to be seen on NASA TV…after all, NASA’s limited budget will not cover the cost of hiring Ron Howard to direct. But, NASA could do itself a favor and spend a bit more on the TV coverage and commentary. Perhaps they could hire someone to anchor, and have memebers of the astronaut corps to give color commentary on what is happening, the significance, etc. If only Walter Croncite were available…think of all the support and enthusiasm he could build for NASA.

  18. GFL Says:

    Like I was a teanager at time of Applo 13 and well recall the daily news casts of the unfolding life or possible death drama here in the UK. As of todays current nasa tv coverage yes modern cameras may be small and light but many of the prior posts seem to forget a very vital detail. To send video back to earth by one camera takes space in the radio spectrum and needs a finite band width to do so and just how much band width do some of you folk expect to be set aside simply to keep you amused it has to be kept for vital data transmission not entertainment value so be greatful for what you get now. These people could still become casulties up there or have we forgotten columbia so soon? Dont forget the Fire on launch pad due to flash over in 100% oxygen atmosphere in the mid sixties either. Keeping on moaning about what you do have could result in a blanket black out altogether so no one would then see a thing except what was given as in the 60’s B & W TV newscasts.

    • Ryan Says:

      Believe me, I work with robots on Mars, I know about limited bandwidth. As I said above, safety and the mission always come first, but communication technology has improved significantly since Apollo. I was talking to someone at Johnson Space Center earlier this summer who had been involved in Apollo and is now planning for the return to the moon, and he said they were having to re-think how everything was going to work because of the flood of information that is available now. To give you some idea, LRO is returning hundreds of gigabytes every day!

  19. GFL Says:

    I agree with comment about not talking over downlink feed

  20. Ron Says:

    disclaimer I have not read any of the comments, but had to add my comment about NASA-TV. How old are you 9? NASA-TV is the “press” feed provided to all, I’m happy we can watch this service from NASA without 90 (M)million bugs, graphics, crawls, tickers, spinning logos and the picture shrunk to a postage stamp size to make room for it all…with somebody talking over whats going on, if you want that watch FOX, or CNN, or whatever as they all take this feed and add the crap you want…let the rest of us watch what is happening LIVE, when needed the Public Affairs people at NASA will cut in with annoucements (This is Mission Control Houston…..) the cue for your Anchors to shut up and let them talk, which they don’t always do, so I think it is great we can go right to the source, and bypass all the crap. But that’s just me.

    • John S. Says:

      Thank you.

      This is just as I feel. If you want an anchor to comment or any other “crap” over the video go to FOX or CNN or MSNBC. I like to see it as it is coming down and let me be the judge of it. Not someone who thinks he know what I want to see and hear.

      NASA PAO do a good job and let the audio come and they don’t step on it. In other word they stop talking when the crew audio is coming down.

      Again thank for your view

      • Ryan Says:

        I think you guys are missing the point, and misinterpreting what I am saying here. I don’t want NASA TV to be like 24-hour news networks with their inane babble and tickers all over the place. Ugh. And I don’t want some newscaster talking over the audio from the mission. What I’m saying is that NASA does a bad job of making their live mission coverage accessible to people who are not already interested.

        NASA would not need to resort to vapid babble seen on 24-hour news, because there is a lot of substantive stuff to be said during the downtime. Most viewers don’t know all of the background information about the mission or about the people involved. I would much rather hear about that than watch a silent, blurry, wide-angle shot of Mission Control, and I work for NASA!

        Did you watch the NASA TV coverage of the Phoenix landing? That was excellent! They had a professional anchor, interviews with people involved, graphics to show things that were not available as live video, and it was really interesting! And that was just for a small robot lander! Why is that so much more professional-looking and exciting and accessible while sending humans into space, pretty much the coolest thing humans can do, is made so boring?

        All I’m asking for is some slight effort beyond the minimum possible from NASA PAO. I mean, Walter Cronkite did exactly what I’m talking about 40 years ago for Apollo! With modern technology it would be easy to do even better, making it interesting to casual viewers while still maintaining high standards of content and not disrupting mission operations.

        PS – Ron, you should have read the comments, since I already talked about this stuff. Also, be polite. I understand that you disagree, but insults are unnecessary, and make you look much more immature than me.

  21. gobert Says:

    I think what most of us are trying to say is that they (N.A.S.A)will stop going into space one day if we dont get more people interested in this ,in any case NASA needs more money for new space ships,maybe if they made it more interesting for average peeps then tax payers wont mind paying a little more also if its made good peeps would pay more for this channel, kids toys,shirts, hats, much money could be made from such merchandise,to help fund this great quest of mankind, with just a little common sense.we could keep the regular nasa tv as is for the astronauts familys and we could call the other channel E.T nasa tv(extra technoligies nasa tv)or somthing :)

  22. David Kellas Says:

    to me, nasa tv will never be boring, a bunch of hardcore geeks all crammed into one room? the possibilities are limitless, it’s an honor to be here :)

  23. Don Browne Says:

    Yes, NASA TV is really bad. I try to broadcast the feed on my channel at http://justin.tv/kq4ym for each launch and landing.

    It would be so easy to just leave out those silly shots of the shuttle/iss orbit tracks and wide views of the control room. Just put more shots on of space! And some closeups of the folks in the control room and how about a shot of the guy or gal doin the narration?

    I get hundreds of people viewing my NASA feed at any one time and sometimes I wonder how even they can put up with the monotonous video NASA puts out 99% of the time on the Shuttle missions.

  24. Clark Holloway Says:

    Here’s an idea–How about having the best of both worlds? The live NASA TV feed could be left pretty much as it is (though I like the idea about adding a bunch of remote mini-cams all over the place), but let’s get some real professionals in there to cull all this footage down to an exciting hour-long program that could be broadcast once a week–preferably on a channel which most people can get.

    If people will watch an hour-long weekly “reality” show about people chasing pretend ghosts on the SyFy Channel, or truck drivers wending their way over frozen ponds on Ice Road Trucker, why can’t something similar be done about the astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS?

    I’m not too fond of so-called “reality” TV shows, but surely a talented creative team could edit together something interesting out of a week of activities and crew interactions on the ISS. It could be like The Real World or Big Brother without the personal humiliation and back stabbing.

    IMAX documentaries are well and good, but most people never see them. Why not use the abundant footage available from NASA TV feeds to make this into a weekly TV program that people would want to watch?

    • Eric Collins Says:

      Now you’re talking. NASA currently does flight day highlights, but I think they just show clips straight from the NASA TV feed.

      I agree that a decent director/producer could probably cut together a compelling hour of television. With appropriate back story and voice overs, spliced with astronaut interviews and seamless, well-conceived CG imagery, you could put existing reality shows to shame.

      In fact, a single Space Shuttle mission could probably generate enough material to keep a weekly program running strong for an entire broadcast season. (Each mission is 10-14 days. Each hour could cover one flight day.) I’d definitely watch an entire season of “STS-125”.

      One potential draw back to this is that by the time it airs, it would be old news to people like us. But to the average Joe, it might be still be fresh material. Besides, I’m such a space geek, I’d sit through the same footage again and again if it were put together well.

    • Ryan Says:

      Sounds like a great idea to me! I’ve always thought there should be a space news show…

  25. Merlyn Brown Says:

    One question that I cannot find an answer to is how to get this information actually “to” Nasa TV where someone could read these excellent comments. I remember the excitement of the Apollo missions and find all of the rest very exciting but I especially love the scientific advances that have improved our lives that have come via NASA problem solving. I wish they would publicize that more! Second, I sure wish they would show more of the new ISS control room and events on the International Space Station. This has world wide appeal. They do a lot of cool things on the Space Station and they fly every day 24hrs/7days a week and you hardly hear about it! What’s up with this?
    As far as careers with aeronautics, lets see some coverage of the various scientists that NASA and the myriad of subcontractors do employ just to get the job done! Only a few get the astronaut jobs but there are many other supporting careers that enable them to do what they do! Kids need to be excited about physics, engineering, biology etc and see a place for themselves even if they don’t “fly”.

    • Clark Holloway Says:

      That sparks another idea. In addition to what’s going on in the ISS and shuttles, let’s cut once in awhile to real people on the ground reacting or commenting on how their work has been incorporated into what’s going on in space. Adds even more public interest appeal.


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