Internet TV Age Is Dawning, but Who Will Watch?

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, April 28, 2005

Now that television has dumbed us down, will Internet TV weird us out?

One might get that impression based on Tuesday's launch of Open Media Network, which aims to be the online version of public television with a nonprofit Internet channel anyone can use to distribute video.

This is one weird corner of the Web, a place touting a film called "Gun Shy," about a man afraid to use public restrooms, alongside a 1960s radio broadcast by Eleanor Roosevelt. It features a Napster-like peer-to-peer system for distributing multimedia files and an electronic program guide to help users find and download shows to watch on computers.

"We wanted to reinvent public television," said OMN founder Mike Homer, who ran Netscape's Web site in the 1990s.

OMN is one example of a mini-stampede underway as entrepreneurs rush to exploit what they see as the dawning of the Internet TV age.

Trouble is, no one is sure yet what Internet TV should be, whether it will have much worth watching or what people might be willing to pay to see that isn't already on television.

Homer's network is owned by a nonprofit foundation and offers mostly free content. It is designed to eventually be self-sustaining by taking a small commission on fees that video producers charge for premium content. An audience rating system is in the works to help users discover shows that other people have liked -- and to help filter offensive content such as porn and pirated material. Homer said the system runs through central computers that will allow managers to track and take down unauthorized copyrighted material.

At its launch this week, OMN ( ) featured a mishmash of archived shows from several dozen public TV and radio stations; daily news video from the Associated Press; 300 independent films from the Cinequest Film Festival and nonprofit; plus a ton of amateur video blogs and audio shows.

One premise behind Internet TV start-ups is that the cost of distributing video over the Internet to those wanting to watch a particular program is much lower than broadcasting shows to millions of homes simultaneously, regardless of who actually sees them. The theory is that many special-interest shows might prove economical for the first time, while others already recorded might find fresh audiences.

"We are tracking about 14 different revenue streams we might get from Internet distribution, including traditional underwriting," said Dennis Haarsager, who runs Northwest Public Radio, a group of 13 radio and two TV stations based at Washington State University. His group offered 13 episodes of a TV series on the art of making flies for fishing.

Haarsager said he is particularly interested in the audience-rating tools OMN is developing and software it has planned to let video producers offer subscriptions and pay-per-viewing. Producers will be able to limit the number of times users can watch a show or copy it to portable devices, using Microsoft Corp.'s digital-rights-management software.

Haarsager said he leads a consortium of public broadcasters eager to use the Internet to extend the viewing life of their shows. "Right now broadcasting is a pretty ephemeral thing," he said. "You put it on the air and nobody ever sees it again."

OMN is not alone in trying to attract and distribute Internet videos from independent filmmakers and home hobbyists. Brightcove Inc., founded by former Macromedia Inc. executive Jeremy Allaire, is planning to launch a commercial Internet TV network this year that will invite participation from both traditional cable programmers and independent filmmakers, potentially offering a way to bypass Hollywood's big studios.

Another start-up is Denver-based ManiaTV ( ), which sees itself as the MTV of the Internet. ManiaTV has been offering live streaming video on the Web for several months and plans to launch an on-demand download service next month.

Other start-ups let people watch video downloaded from the Internet on television sets using special set-top boxes. Akimbo Systems launched an Internet TV subscription service last fall requiring purchase of a just such a setup.

A Huntington, N.Y., outfit called VCinema Inc. plans in September to offer something similar, which it calls a "downloadable home video store and digital video recording service."

Traditional broadcasters and even telephone companies are tiptoeing in, too, developing their own systems for delivering TV shows over the Internet.

MTV this week launched a channel of streaming video at its Web site called MTV Overdrive, featuring video segments shorter than the usual half-hour MTV cable shows, from 2 to 15 minutes long.

Former vice president Al Gore chairs a new company that hopes to launch a cable channel called Current ( ) on Aug. 1 with a heavy Internet emphasis. Current is already inviting audience participation by letting Internet users submit videos that viewers will eventually be able to watch and rate. In addition to professionally produced videos aimed at young people, Current plans to air many user-created videos and will display data from Google about what people are searching for online.

The big challenges facing Internet TV ventures, of course, will be how to attract quality content and find the right audience. Who wants to watch a TV show about a man afraid to use public restrooms? How about a video blog of your neighbors eating breakfast? If there are audiences for such shows, how will the producers of such fare find them?

"It is a classic chicken-and-egg thing," said Josh Bernoff, a Forrester analyst. "If they get the content, people will come and use it. And if people come and use it, then folks will want to make their content available on the system."

Already, Google and Yahoo, the Web's top search engines, are trying to match Internet videos with viewers. Both recently rolled out trial video search engines that attempt to index the millions of video files published across the Web and show still images from them. This month Google went further, announcing plans to host video files on its computers, potentially laying the groundwork for its own Internet TV network.

Maybe I can become a star on Google TV and retire one day, watched by billions who share, say, my acute fear of going to work.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is

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