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09/15/97

Web TV

From a purely visual perspective, video on the web, in its current state, has little to recommend it. The picture is a tiny 2 x 3 inch rectangle; if youíre viewing it via a standard 28.8 kbps modem connection, it jerks and stalls and sputters in a manner that even the most beat-up, cast-off, sidewalk Trinitron could beat. Itís this kind of performance that led New York Times technology writer Denise Caruso to characterize web video as a "science-fair application" not so long ago; if you happen to be watching while network congestion is particularly heavy, you might actually consider Carusoís sentiment unduly unfair to static electricity generators, magnetic levitation devices, and all the other science-fair prizewinners of this world.

But video on the web is still in its infancy, and its potential, as suggested by the attention itís lately been receiving from the industryís most powerful sugar daddy, Microsoft, is unlimited: in addition to developing its own video product called NetShow, the moderate monopolists have also invested in two other companies that produce video products, VDONet and Progressive Networks, and outright purchased a third, VDExtreme. For additional proof of web videoís promise, simply visit Timecast, an online guide to sites that are currently distributing video in Progressive Networkís RealVideo format. The variety of programming is immediately evident; a couple of mouse-clicks can take you to an Israeli news station, the latest music videos from Reprise Records, or a video report of what weather conditions are like at Californiaís High Sierra mountains.

And thus while web video may only move at a rate of 5 to 10 frames per second, as opposed to the television standard of 30, thatís still five frames per second more than many producers are ever likely to transmit via overcrowded cable systems, where even well-funded channels are having trouble getting carriage. Ironically, however, itís not necessarily the webís potential as a distribution channel that Microsoft and other large media companies find so compelling. More attractive, perhaps, is videoís potential as a device to further consolidate web traffic.

In its earliest days, the web was often said to "level the playing field," allowing even individuals to match the efforts of huge media conglomerates. In part this was true because of the dramatic reductions in the costs of production and distribution that the web made possible, but another significant factor was simply the severe technical limitations the new medium placed on content developers. When all you could create was a page that featured text and a few static images, it didnít really matter whether you had $1000 to invest in your project or $1,000,000: there was only so much money you could throw at a project and still see its effect.

This situation was only temporary, of course. With the introduction of advertising and more powerful and complex programming tools, the huge companies that dominate old media were able to start exercising the advantages that their greater resources gave them. And, now, video, which is relatively expensive to produce, becomes a third tool in their arsenal. As the technical aspects of web video improve, sites that can offer new video content on a daily basis will begin to attract an increasingly high percentage of all web traffic; because itís still almost impossible to get users to pay for content, and because web advertising revenue isnít substantive enough yet to cover the cost of high-quality daily production, well-funded companies like FOX, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS are in the best position to exploit this situation. And, thus, the web - which was once positioned as the antidote to the media monopoly that exists in print, radio, TV, and movies - becomes nothing more than an interactive version of the same game.

For all the talk of the webís ability to better target specific consumers, the sort of mass-market advertisers who have the power to turn the web into a viable commercial medium are eager for consolidation; it allows them to deliver their messages to consumers more cheaply and efficiently. And because advertising is the primary way for media-oriented sites to make money on the web at this point, advertisers will dictate its development. If advertisers will best be served by a web in which 60 - 70 mega-sites receive the overwhelming majority of traffic, as Mark Kvamme, CEO of marketing services firm CKS, predicted at a recent industry conference, then thatís the sort of medium the web will become.

The web, of course, will continue to serve as a distribution channel to anyone who wants to use it; for the most part, however, smaller independent sites will have little chance to operate on anything but an amateur basis, as larger sites will attract the overwhelming majority of advertising revenue because of their ability to deliver significantly more eyeballs per dollar. And with these large mega-sites offering daily, comprehensive, state-of-the-art, advertising-supported content for free, itís unlikely that smaller sites will have much luck charging users for programming. In short, the future of independent media on the web will end up replicating todayís zines and public-access shows - people will produce their sites simply because they are passionate about doing so. But with no real revenue stream funding their ongoing production costs, theyíll be hard-pressed to produce the kind of content that will be necessary to attract significant numbers of viewers.

Independent sites that are able to build a loyal following before the eventual consolidation fully manifests itself will no doubt fare better. Some may actually be able to attract large enough audiences to exist on advertising alone, especially if theyíre able to keep production costs to a minimum; some may adopt PBS-like viewer-support schemes, or exist on grant money; others will forsake their independence and end up distributing their programming within the framework of the larger mega-sites.

So far, independent text-oriented sites have had more success than video-oriented ones in building audiences that are large enough to give them a chance to survive the coming consolidation. In the days of Mosaic and Netscape 1.0, when there was significant viewer interest but little content on the web, independent sites like Feed and Suck were able to attract a following almost overnight, without having to invest a small fortune in marketing to do so. Because of technical limitations, video-oriented sites werenít able to participate in the initial Internet brand rush. Now that they finally have a viable product to offer, itís much more expensive to build an audience; there are simply to many sites competiting for attention.

As a consequence, the video equivalent of Suck has yet to emerge. For example, Free Speech TV, an independent video site with its roots in cable, offers an ambitious selection of daily alternative programming, and yet so far it has only managed to attract 400 - 600 viewers a day. But because it will take some time for consolidation that Kvamme envisions to occur, and because they are offering content in a format that isnít yet ubiquitous, sites like Free Speech TV still have a fairly good opportunity to expand their audiences. According to Joey Manley, Director of Free Speech TVís website, the key to audience development at this point lies in developing video specifically for the web, instead of simply porting TV-oriented product here as many of the media conglomerates do. That means eliminating the sort of footage and scene transitions that slow video frame rates to a crawl, and it means using the webís interactive capacities to facilitate greater involvement amongst viewers. While practically every web content producer understands the benefit of increasing viewer involvement via bulletin boards, chatrooms, and mailing lists, for many large media corporations, such involvement is still considered somewhat suspect. When viewers show a penchant for getting too involved, creating tribute sites and other content that makes use of closely guarded intellectual property, companies like Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Sega have responded with legal action rather than further encouragement.

But the desire for self-expression that leads to fan sites is exactly what Manley wants to tap with Free Speech TVís DIY-TV project; taking cues from punk culture and the zine scene, Manley hopes to turn viewers into producers. (DIY stands for do-it-yourself.) To help independent video producers distribute their work, Free Speech TV offers free space on its RealVideo server; it also maintains a bulletin board devoted to education, discussion, and promotion of independent video on the web. In return for these services, Manley explains, Free Speech TV will get additional content and a group of viewer/producers who theoretically have a greater investment in helping to promote the site.

Itís an idealistic vision, but Manley believes it will help make Free Speech TV the most popular site for video on the web. Given the far greater resources of media Goliaths like MSNBC and FOX, that seems unlikely, but who knows? The web, after all, is the place where millions of people around the world, via the mechanism of the webcam, first revealed their interest in viewing a Cambridge University coffeepot or the apartment of some random guy named Dave: perhaps there is a sizable audience out there that would prefer a new alternative to the same old corporate media that often ends up catering more to advertisers, investors, and parent companies than it does to viewers.

-- G. Beato




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