TV's Coverage Shows Up the Internet
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page E7
TV whipped the World Wide Web yesterday.
For all those who wanted to watch the four-hour video of President Clinton's testy testimony to Ken Starr's grand jury, television was far and away the best and most popular medium.
In this age of digital hype, the computer was found to be sadly slow and lacking. On most monitors, the video delivered via the Internet a technology still in its infancy was herky, jerky and unpredictable. And the 3,183 pages of supporting evidence released to Congress along with the videotape proved especially irritating for news organizations to post online and for people to search. For Internet-based news organizations and for many computer users, the day's events were a reality check.
"I think this is still largely one big experiment of what is the best way to deliver video over the Internet," said Gene Shklar, vice president of Keynote Systems, a San Mateo, Calif., company that analyzed traffic at 40 large Internet sites during the Webcast. "It clearly is not a substitute for television, where the quality is still so much better." Still, there was enough demand on the Web to slow Internet performance slightly at some sites during the videotape broadcast, Shklar said.
RealNetworks Inc. of Seattle, which pioneered multimedia on the Web by distributing a free software player, reported record demand for yesterday's Webcast. The company's previous record for live video accesses was the 1.4 million people during the July Webcast of a live birth. RealNet works didn't have a final tally for yesterday available last night.
But the role the Internet played in yesterday's news was in stark contrast to its role on Sept. 11, the day Congress made public the independent counsel's 450-plus-page summary on a disk that was easily transposed to the Internet. Web sites were overwhelmed by traffic the next few days. The text was made available to public and commercial Web sites in a format that was easy to index, read and search, with no videotape involved, and television and newspaper reporters relied on it for information.
For the Internet, yesterday's supplemental report proved more millstone than milestone. "Unlike that first Starr report," said Mike Bright, an electronics specialist at the Government Printing Office, the 3,183 pages "were delivered in boxes full of sheets of paper," resulting in what "must have been hundreds" of government employees toiling over the weekend to scan them into computers. "When I came in Monday morning, some people had been here for 25 hours," he said.
This time around the GPO used a process that took photos of the pages and loaded those onto its Web site and put them onto CD-ROMs available only through the office bookstore. As a result, the information posted on the Web sites of the GPO, Library of Congress and House of Representatives was not easily searchable.
"They couldn't have released it in a more bandwidth-intensive format," said Mark Stencel, politics editor of Washingtonpost.com. "As a result, all the news organizations on the Web were trying to download these files simultaneously. The files were massive."
Brian Nash, an Internet editor for Thomson Investors Network in Rockville, said he tuned into the Clinton Webcast on his personal computer at work and was unimpressed. "It was scratchy and you couldn't see it too clearly," said Nash, 23. "The audio feeds were okay, but I don't think television has anything to worry about any time soon."
Video images on the Web appear so sketchy because large image files must be compressed to squeeze them into telephone lines, then decompressed when they reach a user's computer. While compression techniques are improving, image quality isn't expected to really blossom until there's a winner in the race among telephone, cable and wireless companies to widen the Internet's transmission pipes.
"The Internet is not a good medium yet for the kind of video the masses are used to," said Barry Schuler, president of interactive services at America Online. "Think TV in the late 1940s. Someday it's going to get there. It was a great opportunity for companies to do stress-testing."
Some Web sites reported increased demand. CNN Interactive, for example, served more than 300,000 video streams to Internet surfers during the four-hour live Webcast, and more users returned to the Web site later to replay segments. Yesterday was the second busiest ever on the CNN site, exceeded only by the traffic on the day the Starr report was released.
"We saw approximately 10 times the number of simultaneous users of this live video than we have of anything else we have done in the past," said Kerrin Roberts, spokesman for CNN Interactive.
Officials at Dallas-based Broadcast.com estimated that 50,000 people had plugged into a Webcast of Clinton's testimony. "It's electronic democracy at its best," said company President Mark Cuban. "People who because of their schedules couldn't watch the whole thing are coming back to view selected portions. And they can even watch it together say, 'Here's the evidence. Let's look at it; let's discuss it.' "
With improved video and audio technology, the Internet's challenge to TV as America's primary news source is likely to grow stronger. After all, millions of desks in corporate America are equipped with computers, not TVs. And when news breaks in the middle of the day, the computer will be the technology of choice.
Yesterday, though, belonged to TV.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company