By Leslie Walker
More than a million people are expected to tune into the Internet throughout the day Monday to watch the video of President Clinton's grand jury testimony as it is broadcast from Congress. Video signals will beam through cyberspace and arrive on personal computer screens as small, grainy images.
Why would folks go through the trouble of installing special computer software to view choppy video on the World Wide Web when they could switch on their televisions and see a much clearer image of Clinton on C-SPAN?
Access, explained Mark Hall, spokesman for RealNetworks Corp., the Seattle firm that pioneered sound and video over the Internet by distributing free software called RealPlayer. "When news breaks, they may not have access to a television in their offices, but they do have RealPlayer," Hall said.
"The second reason is convenience," he said. "You can watch the Clinton testimony when you want to watch it, as many or as few times as you want."
Well, maybe. On-demand video, linked to explanatory text, is the holy grail of Internet multimedia, and most news sites are scrambling to provide some version of it Monday. But at least initially, people won't be able to control which portions of Clinton's testimony they see because sites probably will not have time to index and excerpt the material until later in the day.
And far fewer people will be able to access the video than were able to read independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress when it was released last week on the Internet. That's partly because it costs more to send video over the network, and most sites lack the computer server capacity to meet the expected surge in demand.
Unlike text, video is compressed and then decompressed in a "stream" that requires a dedicated connection, like a telephone call.
CNN Interactive, which has more multimedia firepower than most sites, signed agreements with several outside firms to boost its video capacity for Monday. "We think we'll have somewhere around 30,000 concurrent streams, which is 10 times what we can do on a normal day," said editor-in-chief Scott Woelfel. "But it still may not be enough because everybody" will be linking to the news sites simultaneously.
Specialists say that at all the Web news sites combined, there likely will be no more than 150,000 connections available. By contrast, millions of people simultaneously accessed the text-only Starr report.
At Home, a company that provides high-speed Internet access via cable to more than 150,000 subscribers, believes on-demand access will be a hit.
"We are going to break it into small pieces, create a table of contents and index it so our subscribers can look at any specific element they'd like," said Richard Gingras, vice president of programming and editor in chief.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company