By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Art by J.T. SteinyNO LESS AN AUTHORITY THAN TV TECHNOLOGY, THE biweekly bible of the broadcast industry, has suggested that the future of home entertainment may lie in low-definition, Internet-based narrowcasting, and not in the trillion-dollar high-definition digital upgrade to traditional broadcasting known as DTV.
But is Internet programming ready for prime time? For the answer, we took a look at some high-profile Net video events over the last week -- the global NetAid concert and fund-raiser; SoCal's own Coachella Festival, with Netcasts of Pavement and Rage Against the Machine; and Santa Monica's Digital Entertainment Network, which promises hip, televisionlike shows delivered "24-7" to your desktop.
The theory behind Netcasting is that what people really want is not bigger screens, sharper pictures and CD-quality surround sound, but content and interactivity -- the ability to pull up programs and services on demand, micro-engineered to their lifestyles (as if 210 channels on DirecTV aren't enough). Many Netcasts so far have been live concerts, and I've often wondered if the record companies allow these "bootleg channels" in spite of their low quality -- or because of it? (The subliminal message: Stick to your CDs.) How much quality are we, the cable generation, willing to give up? Sure, we sit closer to our computer screens than to the television, but generally, live "streaming" video over the Internet has meant Post-It Notesize images and blurry, intermittent motion. Would the latest technology from Microsoft and RealNetworks, or high-speed service from cable modems, change this?
In a word: no. Webcast quality has improved, to be sure, but we're still very much in the Dark Ages. Consider that a broadcast DTV channel offers more than 19 million bits per second, while a 56K telephone modem offers less than 0.003 times that much -- and the technology that turns bits into pictures, MPEG2, is basically the same for both systems.
Save the World
LAST WEEK'S NETAID CONCERT AGAINST POVERTY was billed as the largest Internet event in the world, with the promoters hoping for "1 billion hits" on their Web site. But they offered only 28.8 and 56K connections, with no higher quality for viewers with high-speed Internet connections. Clicking on the 56K connection brought up a wide-screen video-window tease. But it quickly gave way to a much smaller, 2-inch picture, which barely moved, with sound comparable to a 1919 crystal radio set. Like most of the concert Netcasts I have seen, it was a matter of "tune in for the curiosity value" -- and tune out within a few minutes.
Cisco Systems, the technological sponsor of the event, had a full Web page ( .cisco.com/netaid/supporting/ about_technology.html) bragging about their new technology -- how many simultaneous servers they used, et cetera -- but none of this really mattered if the final product wasn't worth watching. In fact, for all the talk of new technology, the concert broadcasts themselves were carried on the same Intelsat and C-Band domestic satellite system that carried the Live Aid concert 14 years ago.
I suspect that Cisco declined to offer high-speed connections because of the possibility of overloading their servers, or even the entire Internet. A Cisco representative wouldn't acknowledge this, but stated that the company considered the Netcast a success because so many people were able to tune in without experiencing congestion or busy servers. I maintain that the only reason so many people were able to connect is that no one stayed around, due to the poor quality. Cisco also sent a high-speed "multicast" transmission to selected college sites, but this was not made available to the general public. This "multicast" technology sent just one data stream to all viewers, unlike current Netcasts, where each viewer gets a private stream of data. Multicasting would eliminate the congestion that could occur if everyone had high-speed connections and all tried to watch Netcasts at once. But it isn't compatible with the way people currently connect to the Internet, and, of course, it requires everyone to be watching the same thing at the same time -- just like broadcasting.
The very next day, local concert promoter Goldenvoice offered two acts from its Coachella rock festival via Netcast. This was the first Webcast I've actually seen at 56K that was almost watchable and enjoyable. It was offered in 28.8, 56, 100 and 300K in both RealPlayer G2 and Windows Media Player formats, and I found the Windows Media version at 56K offered a decent-size picture (perhaps one-quarter of my computer screen) and tolerable sound: not exactly high-fidelity, but it didn't make my ears bleed. I tried to compare the 56K stream on the Windows Media Player vs. RealPlayer, but RealPlayer refused to play the 56K stream, saying I had insufficient bandwidth. A friend on a Mac got the same message. I contacted â RealMedia representatives for comment, but they were unable to shed any light on the problem.
Cable Modem to the Rescue?
IF THE 56K VERSION OF COACHELLA was good, perhaps the 100K and 300K would be great! My friend with a Media One cable modem and Mac computer in the mid-Wilshire area tuned in to check it out. Cable modems, as you may know, promise high-speed Internet connections for everyman -- right over the cable-TV line that "we all" already have in our homes.