Questioning Technology: Webcasting on the Fast Track
When the history of Internet broadcasting is written, the year 1997 may well be remembered as the time when the new medium finally got its act together.Once again, it was the deep pockets of Microsoft that provided the momentum. Last summer, the computer giant announced a licensing agreement and minority investment in RealNetworks, the inventors of the RealAudio and RealVideo streaming media technologies. Next came word that Microsoft would purchase VXtreme, another key multimedia player on the Net. Then a flurry of other dominos began to fall.As the year-end approaches, the Internet is on the fast track to having a single, universal broadcast multimedia standard. Eventually, all a user will have to do is flip the computer "dial" to the program of choice. The days of fumbling with various proprietary players and plug-ins will soon be over.Microsoft's moves gave the fledgling new broadcast medium mainstream credibility. "We believe the Internet will become the next broadcast network," said Jim Durkin, product manager of Microsoft's NetShow streaming technology.While a string of webcasting technology announcements have come rapid fire in recent months, webcast programming was the topic of a recent two-day conference in New York City. Sponsored by the Center for Business Intelligence, Burlington, MA, and moderated by Peggy Miles, president of Intervox Communications, a Washington, D.C. webcasting consultancy, the conference brought together a who's who of major webcasters. Perhaps the most interesting part of the event was the quick realization that webcasting is so new and primitive that no one -- including the largest media corporations -- really know yet how to use it. For the moment, at least, broadcasting over the Internet is a level playing field where anyone with the right stuff can still be a successful participant. Ironically, it was webcasters from the largest companies, in off-the-record conversations, that expressed the most frustration in creating successful online media. One major executive told a group of attendees at lunch that having to deal with many egos promoting personal agendas on the web site was the most difficult challenge in her organization. "The lesson I learn over and over again: No matter how smart we think we are, we're not. We are constantly surprised at what is popular and what's not," said Patrick Seaman, chief technology officer of AudioNet, a major webcaster that now re-transmits the feeds of over 250 radio and television stations.One of the things that surprised Seaman was the success of PoliceScanner.com, an AudioNet web spinoff that combines live police scanner feeds from New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas with online chat sessions. Coming soon: Web audio feeds from airport and fire department scanners.Many web sites offered by media companies fail because they are unfocused, unclear and vague, several new media executives told the conference. A key consideration for those planning a presence on the web, they urged, is to know what the site is about before it is built. "If you are going to take your web site out to a dinner party, how would you introduce it?" asked Tom Regan, supervising online editor for the Christian Science Monitor. "If you can't summarize for someone what your web site is really about in 25 words of less, then I don't think you know what your site is about."There were examples of combining elements of old media to create new media. One successful new web enterprise combines radio drama (RealAudio), visuals and the traditional text of a novel to create a new form of interactive entertainment. Called "Digital Dramas," the series of multimedia stories about witchcraft is from Lifetime Television (www.lifetimetv.com)."Before we started Digital Dramas we were averaging two million hits a month. In two weeks, it went up to seven million hits," said Brian Donlan, vp of new media at Lifetime Television. "The audience had to know it was getting something extra, different, better." Another site, this one from Comedy Central (www.comedycentral.com), found success by offering "absolutely nothing of practical use" to its audience. "We know every single one of our (nine million) customers," said Larry Lieberman, vp of strategic planning for the comedy cable channel. "They are goofing off. They are at home avoiding chores or they are at work getting paid while they goof off. We give them what they want." To keep users on the site, Lieberman said his company uses a "breadcrumb" approach to lure net surfers. "For every piece of content we have a teaser to get you to the next piece of content," he said. "That's why we average about 12 minutes per viewing session."On the technology front, AudioNet's Seaman predicted that multicast -- the ability to reach large numbers of listeners simultaneously -- will become a very important factor within six months to a year. "Things are changing very, very fast," he said. "We are negotiating (multicast) agreements now. By the end of this quarter, we expect to able to reach 250,000 simultaneous listeners. By the end of the year, we'll reach at least 500,000 listeners via multicast."Another fast emerging technology for Internet broadcasting is wireless transmission, said Seaman. "This is a tremendous growth area because so much bandwidth has been freed up," he said, noting that AudioNet is already in discussions with several companies about offering such a service. "I'm personally looking forward to the day when I can replace my car radio and listen to AudioNet while driving," he said. "I don't think that day is that far away."