July 12, 2008

The Evolution of All Things Televised

By Carr, John

On June 18, 1939, The New York Times ran an editorial about the evolving technology of communications. On the subject of the newly invented television and the threat it posed to the entrenched medium of radio, The Times said: "The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn't time for it... for this reason, if no other, television will never be a serious competitor." Fast-forward 70 years: "It should come as no surprise that video has exploded as a valuable content source on the Web," says John Blossom, senior analyst and president of Shore Communications, Inc. "We've been staring at screens that have had at least as much resolution for image detail as a typical television for years."

Today, the "old media" is determined to learn from the past and to evolve in order to remain competitive in the new media dynamic. Recently, there has been a boom in old media content moving into new media territory.

But the transition is not without complications. How do online viewers want to watch this media-in browsers or in a separate application? How will the news work in the online video world? And there are issues of delivery and network capacity-content providers need to supply end users with a high-quality experience to prevent them from turning elsewhere. And even if providers can properly manage delivery, can the internet handle all that video?

Browsers Versus Applications

In 2007, two major players entered the online TV arena to great blog fanfare: HuIu (www.hulu.com), a joint website from NBC Universal and News Corp., and Joost (www.joost.com), an internet TV application from Skype co-creators Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom.

According to Nielsen//Net Ratings, HuIu streamed more than 63 million videos in April 2008, with the average viewer watching more than 2 hours of video per month. This puts HuIu in the lead among TV network sites for total video streams and overall user engagement time.

It's harder to determine how Joost is doing. Since it is an application, the company's self-reporting is the only indicator of usage. As the program prepared to exit private beta testing last year, there were reportedly 1 million users. Since then no further numbers have been released.

NBC Universal is exploring options outside of the browser too. In addition to the company's continued support for HuIu, it is testing NBC Direct, which allows users to download full episodes of the network's prime-time and late-night programs for offline viewing. "NBC has been in beta testing for months," says Robert Levitan, CEO of Pando Networks, Inc., NEC's partner in the project, "and they are working to get the entire user experience, but really the user interface, to a point that they feel comfortable opening that up to the general public."

NBC recognizes Pando's value in regard to the technical issues of video delivery. Pando is a peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution company that can handle the traffic spikes that can occur when a new episode of a popular program is first offered online. Levitan notes that P2P networks are "more scalable and more resilient. ... [If] a million people click to download something from a CDN [content delivery network] at the same time, then their delivery experience is going to be pretty bad, because the network wasn't built to handle that capacity at the same time."

He adds, "In a P2P environment ... a million people click to download all at the same time, it actually becomes a more scalable, more resilient, better performing network." End users downloading files in P2P networks simultaneously upload pieces of the file, assisting the content delivery. This helps content providers deal with any large influx of traffic.

But what about the network's back catalog of programs, the ones likely to have far fewer peers to assist in delivery? Levitan explains: "What we do isn't pure P2P, we call it managed P2P In the case of NBC direct, it's actually P2P plus [a] CDN interoperating." This handles delivery for long tail files and for the first few end users to download a new file. "It depends on the network conditions, but maybe the first 50 people have to get it from the CDN," says Levitan. "Then No. 51 can get a whole bunch [of the file] from the first 50."

The New News

Prime-time programming isn't the only TV network content making its way online-"broadcast" news is shifting as well. "If we read about a massive earthquake or a flood, we get a sense of what might have happened," says Blossom. "But when we see it for ourselves, our understanding takes on a whole new level of meaning."

Kevin O'Kane, president of Red Lasso, Inc., is familiar with both sides of the old media/new media divide, having spent more than a decade at Viacom before founding Red Lasso. "My feeling is that the trend [toward online news] is a result of consumer habits," says O'Kane. "Mainstream media is simply trying to meet the changing demands of consumers."

Red Lasso is trying to meet those demands. The company describes its site as "a tool that permits the blogging community to search blogger selected content via keywords, enabling them to find and clip the limited duration vignettes on which they wish to comment and play on their blogs." Basically, bloggers use Red Lasso to make short clips from news content that networks have already placed online. The model brings together multiple forms of news commentary in a manner seemingly consistent with evolving news consumption habits.

Voxant, Inc.'s Newsroom is built around a similar model. However, unlike Red Lasso, which creates clips from news stories posted elsewhere, the Voxant clips are individually licensed. This allows Voxant to incorporate advertising, with revenue going to all parties involved, bloggers included.

In some cases, though, the bloggers are making their own news videos. An upcoming offering from Newstex, LLC (set to launch in September) will help traditional content companies, such as LexisNexis and NewsBank, index this growing content. "We're basically sending video through the existing blog channel, through the pipe we already have to a lot of our customers, so they don't need to do any new work," says Larry Schwartz, president and co- founder of Newstex.

Incorporating video from a large network of licensed bloggers (as well as B2B sources), Newstex will be providing video in a way that saves long-standing content companies a lot of trouble. "If you go [to] a traditional content company, none of them do video today," says Schwartz, because the costs and time involved in building the new infrastructure are prohibitive. To get around this problem, Newstex is transcribing all its video content. "We provide a transcription which they can index into their databases for search," says Schwartz, "and then we provide a player so it looks to them like a news story, except there's a link to play the video." This way content companies can get a handle on the tremendous amount of news video online.

And the amount of news video online is likely to continue to grow rapidly. Says Blossom, "Perhaps tomorrow's 'evening news' will be simply streaming the top news videos back to back."

Network Strain

"Video viewing is one of the most popular online activities, with more than 20,000 new uploads of video clips to YouTube every day," says Blossom. "While Web infrastructure has been handling this pretty well overall, we're still not at a point where clicking on a video is going to result in a predictable experience."

One reason playback continues to be unpredictable is that video files are much larger than text and images and can put a strain on ISP resources. Lots of users watching video simultaneously can overwhelm a point in the network, creating "bottlenecks." Edward FeIten, public affairs director for the Center for Information Technology Policy and professor of computer science at Princeton University, as well as a blogger at Freedom to Tinker (www.freedom- to-tinker.com), describes the situation: "If you want to improve performance, often the only real options are to use the bottleneck more efficiently or to increase the bottleneck's capacity."

Verizon and Pando have formed the P4P Working Group, which aims to use P2P technology to make the existing network more efficient. Levitan says, "P4P is basically about a P2P company and an ISP communicating." This communication allows traffic to be structured in a way that puts less strain on the ISP.

"Verizon will give us some abstracted network data," says Levitan. "All we know is that if one of these nodes asks for information, here's a bunch of other nodes that are good for Verizon, meaning close to [the first node] for the information to come from. ... That tells us what are the most efficient routes for the traffic, and then we deliver it according to those rules."

By keeping traffic within a small geographic area, an ISP uses fewer resources in delivering information. As information travels throughout an ISP's network, it moves through routers, which can only handle a certain amount of requests at a time. But, Levitan says, "The closer people are, the shorter [the] distance data travels, the faster the data travels." So if two users in the same town are sharing the same file, the information can often be shared directly between their computers. And this means those users aren't using any resources beyond their own bandwidth. This sort of traffic shaping is likely to be crucial to ISPs scaling service with end users' demands. According to Blossom, the online video industry is still in its infancy. "But we are nearing the time when reliable video delivery will be a given," he says. He predicts that in the coming years, television producers will face new pressures. "Like the music industry, video producers have to accept that making it easy for people to [get] consumer video content where and when they want it should be their first priority," Blossom says. "Wrangling with intellectual property rights as the music industry did will only delay the same moment of reckoning that the music industry had to accept when they realized that their fundamental economic model was no longer relevant."

Copyright Concerns

On May 20, NBC, CBS, and News Corp. accused Red Lasso of violating copyright laws by streaming clips of their content without permission. In the company's response, Al McGowan, COO, says, "Our basic goal is to develop a win-win relationship with the networks." Red Lasso makes it clear that it wishes to have a mutually beneficial relationship with content providers and bloggers. But it also highlights that this issue is far from clear-cut; Red Lasso's response letter contends that what they are doing is new, but it is also legal with or without content providers' consent, reading: "Clip usage by bloggers is an exercise of First Amendment rights to provide social commentary on newsworthy events."

John Carr is an assistant editor at Information Today, Inc. and works on several publications. His email address is [email protected] Send your comments about this article to [email protected]

Copyright Information Today, Inc. Jul/Aug 2008

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