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Don't hold your breath for online TV

By Hugh Brown - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

There is a Doonesbury cartoon that dryly observes that a sudden increase in YAP!.com’s site traffic meant that the "demand for tiny, jerky videos that never play has nearly doubled".

Sad to say, this is an accurate reflection of the state of video content on the Web – it simply is not an attractive proposition and is really only watched for its novelty value.

The only exception to this, unsurprisingly, seems to be pornographic videos, for which resolution is not such an important issue as suggestion is. Even in these, however, the dominant (transmission) model seems to be to provide short mpeg excerpts for download and subsequent replay than to provide access to live streaming.


So what happened to the much-hyped promise of live TV via the Internet? Where is the broadband access to live footage of sporting events? And could the lack of this capability explain the recent retreat of Rupert Murdoch and his cohort away from Web publication to the relative safety of interactive broadcast TV?

Allow me to suggest very strongly that it does and, further, that there will be very little consumable activity in the direction of Internet-delivered TV programming or movies for quite a few years yet.

A short time ago there was a flurry of stories crowing that newspaper-based Web sites seemed to be far more popular than their TV-based equivalents.

These stories derided TV sites for their poor preparation, lack of commitment and resources, and general level of involvement and enthusiasm for the new medium. They ignored the almost total absence of profitability among newspaper-based Web sites.

Since then, the headlines have been dominated by stories of layoffs, staff reductions and a supposed drive among on-line publishers towards profitability. Lachlan Murdoch was reported as attributing these down-sizings to a lack of faith "in the economic model that’s driving these stand-alone, advertising web sites".

But the writers who wrote off the TV-based web sites missed the most important point: the Internet is not yet ready for video. What all of these "driving towards profitability" endeavours have in common is that their sites rely almost exclusively on text-based content. Not a single video-streaming or live broadcast site to be seen.


So, what is this utopia of Internet-delivered TV programming? Why couldn’t it work and why isn’t it working? What’s not to like about this idea?

The vision is simple and eminently desirable to consumers:

I turn on my TV-style watching device and, in about the same time it currently takes for my TV to warm up (preferably less time), I have access to all the Internet, including a back catalog of (depending on subscription) every movie, TV show, video clip or CD ever made. Using, say, an infra-red mouse device, I can relax on the sofa and click on one of them, say episode 42 of "I Love Lucy" and it appears – full size or whatever proportion of the screen I deem appropriate – on my viewing device. While watching it, I can pause at a certain spot and call up the biography of a guest actor who appeared on that show, because I’ve never heard of her before but apparently she was highly regarded in that period and she’s very pretty. The biography contains links to a catalogue of her career. I can use the same device to call up my friend and invite her over to watch an all-night replay of the actress’s entire career this weekend. And so on.

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This article first appeared in the Internet Content newsletter on March 6, 2001.

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About the Author

Hugh Brown is a PhD candidate in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT and teaches communication at the University of Queensland and QUT. He was editor of On Line Opinion from June 2000 until August 2004 and has a degree in journalism from the University of Queensland, for which he was awarded a University Medal. Before joining On Line Opinion he was editor of the now-defunct Tr@cks e-zine, based in Brisbane, and inaugural student editor of The Queensland Independent. He has also freelanced for a variety of publications.

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