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
Well, despite promises that the cable modem would be "50 to 100 times faster" than a phone dial-up, he couldn't connect at 300K; the screen flashed a message saying that his connection was too slow to support that speed (300K, incidentally, is only 5.4 times faster than a 56K telephone connection). At 100K, the Netcast of opening act Pavement was pretty decent. But a funny thing happened when Rage Against the Machine hit the stage: The picture broke up, the sound became intermittent . . . basically, the transmission failed. I continued to receive a decent Netcast over my telephone connection, so this may have been a local reception problem, or it may have been a problem with the 100K server.
My friend's hitches point to the bigger problem with cable-modem connectivity: The available bandwidth is shared among all users. Basically, those connecting to the same cable system (in the same neighborhood) are offered a certain total amount of bandwidth. If only one person is actively downloading, that person gets 100 percent of the bandwidth. If two people download, each gets 50 percent. But if 100 people try to use the cable modem simultaneously, whether they're downloading newsgroups, surfing Web pages with lots of pictures or viewing a Netcast, suddenly each gets only 1 percent of the bandwidth. And if 1,000 people use the Internet at once . . . well, you get the idea. Basically, your cable modem can work extremely well if you're the first on your block to get it (and my friend thought he was), but as more people sign up, the service will automatically degrade. The phone companies are now offering a competing high-speed service known as DSL, which promises full-time data transfer rates of 384K to 1,500K, but I wasn't able to test DSL during these Netcasting events.
Content Is King
SINCE A 5-INCH TV SET WORKS BETTER in every way than the best-quality Webcast, one would need really exciting and/or interactive content to inspire one to switch to the Net as a medium of video entertainment. One Santa Monica company, Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), is trying to make this happen in a big way by offering a large variety of professionally produced "minishows" for Netertainment. Aimed at kids 14 to 25, DEN promises video on demand: a full show that you can enjoy in just a few minutes, anytime, anyplace that you have a computer. (Never mind that if these quick hits of entertainment were any good, they could be very addictive.) I found a typical 21-year-old kid to help me test the service.
The site, .den.com, offers a wide assortment of choices, but first you have to download DEN's custom software. Although I always consider downloading an intrusive burden, I didn't have too much trouble getting the software to work with Windows Media Player on my PC. But my Mac friend couldn't get the QuickTime 4 version to work and settled, eventually, for a RealPlayer G2 version. Regardless of your connection speed, the video plays in a 2Þ-inch screen surrounded by "interactive" content, which, in the future, will allow you to buy products promoted by the videos. With a high-speed connection, it is possible to enlarge the picture to full screen, but even with the fastest connection (at DEN headquarters), it still had the blurry, pixelized look typical of computer video.
We started off with DEN's skateboarding shows, which weren't any different from shows you'd see on MTV Sports -- the typical mix of interviews and skating footage. Watching action-oriented material on a small, limited-action screen pretty much defeated the point.
We also checked out feature programming. My friend went straight to the "erotic" section, where he was treated to a view of a woman on a topless beach . . . from behind. Sure, DEN doesn't promise an X-rated experience -- there are plenty of adult sites for that -- but perhaps something more exciting than "TV-PG" could be expected.
I watched two episodic shows, Fear of a Punk Planet, an overly P.C. view of punk rock, and Redemption High, a show about a Christian high school. Overall, the content on DEN struck me as second-rate versions of shows that have been done for years on MTV and other conventional media. More disturbing, much of the programming seemed to deliver a sanitized, patronizing message. Real kids don't talk or write anything like the middle-age professionals who produced this site. And while a DEN spokesman pointed me to a series on the dangers of AIDS (as if that's something new), he also admitted that a gay-themed show had been canceled.
My younger friend was more blunt in his assessment: "The quality sucked, and the shows sucked. Why would I watch that instead of real TV?" Why, indeed? I suspect that DEN will make a lot more money from their IPO than they'll ever make from streaming video. And how do they plan to sell things to minors over the Internet when minors are not supposed to use their parents' credit cards?
Of course, video on demand is a great idea. If I could access the entire television schedule as easily as I rummaged through DEN's lineup, I'd be a happy camper. But every company that's tried to build an interactive network with television-quality video has been stymied by the sheer amount of data, and eventually failed to make it work economically or technically. The Internet, which was never designed for high-speed data, really shouldn't be burdened with video traffic.