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.
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.
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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.
MY FINAL VERDICT: AT BEST, STREAMing video today is a novelty. If it gets 10 times better, it still won't be as good as the cheapest TV set. It seems to me that hardcore sex is the only content that people will willingly view with such poor quality. Until some other really unique content comes our way, which for some reason can't or won't be broadcast on traditional media, Webcasting will continue to get more ink than viewers.