Lights, Camera, Broadband

 
 
By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2001-01-22 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Video, other features vie for bandwidth.

In november, after cable television network Black Entertainment Television touted an interview on its Web site, BET.com, with 13-year-old rap music star Lil Bow Wow, teenagers flocked to the site like hungry puppies going after a juicy bone. Fans not only got to read what the young star had to say about his latest single, "Bounce with Me," they also got to view a 30-second clip of the music video—complete with Lil Bow Wow barking out his lyrics—and a 5-minute exclusive online video interview with the artist.

While the star power of the rising rapper certainly had a lot to do with the big turnout, according to BET.com LLC officials, the video clips played a big role in stimulating visits to the year-old site. Although most of BET.coms audience probably doesnt have access to the kind of broadband connections that are ideal for viewing video, the site scores a hit, averaging a 30 percent boost in traffic whenever it features packages with video or other broadband-oriented features, said BET. com Online Manager Phillip Williams, in Washington.

As a result, BET.com has been increasing the sites video capability, combining content from majority investor BET Holdings II Inc., which runs the cable network, with original material. As much as 15 percent of the sites content falls into what Williams considers is an area best accessed from broadband connections.

Adding features aimed at broadband users may be a no-brainer for entertainment and media Web sites such as BET.com whose businesses revolve around video and audio. But enterprises in industries ranging from financial services to online retailing are also developing strategies for reaching what some analysts describe as a rapidly rising number of broadband users. Theyre increasingly making bandwidth-intensive features such as video, audio, and three-dimensional and graphic-intensive images integral parts of their sites.

The time may not be right for every e-business to redesign its site around broadband-friendly content, given the high cost of creating and distributing video content, experts say. But there are ways around the high costs, such as partnering with broadband content technology providers. So, experts say, the growing audience of broadband users means now is the time for businesses to explore whether building broadband-oriented features into their sites in the near future holds real return-on- investment potential in the form of higher-value advertising, pay-for-content subscription models or simply more online visitors.

How big, how soon?

One question e-business managers will have to answer is how fast the universe of broadband users is growing. The answer depends on whom you ask. While analysts typically agree on the definition of what a broadband connection is—DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem connections at speeds of 128K bps or higher—they disagree on the pace of broadband penetration. According to Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., 36 percent of U.S. online households, or 28.8 million, will connect to the Internet through broadband in 2005 compared with 9 percent, or 4.8 million, this year. Others are more bullish. Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., estimates that 64 percent of U.S. online households, or 46.7 million, will have broadband connections by 2005.

Despite the uncertainty, most e-business managers are at least beginning to chart broadband strategies. About 90 percent of companies surveyed by Jupiter either had begun offering broadband features on their Web sites or had plans to in two years or less. The majority of sites are initially targeting video.

Besides attempting to determine the potential audience of broadband users, e-business managers should be investigating whether they can justify the often considerable cost of creating and distributing content for broadband. For the majority of Web sites, unless theyre in industries such as entertainment or media, broadband features shouldnt be a top priority, said Robert Hertzberg, an analyst at Jupiter, in New York. Web sites considering streaming video, for instance, should be leery of jumping into it if theyll have to produce video content from scratch, Hertzberg said.

Why? The short but sad histories of a few of the pure-play broadband content sites tell a clear story. Many have been undone in part because of high production costs and the lack of a large broadband audience, according to a Forrester report. Failed sites include those of Digital Entertainment Network Inc., Pseudo Programs Inc. and Pop.com. Now-defunct Digital Entertainment Network, formerly of Santa Monica, Calif., for example, spent more than $60 million in a year to make $370,000 in revenues, Forrester reported. The cost of producing Webcasting shows in some cases was said to have run companies as much as $100,000 for a 6-minute episode. Expensive video equipment, production talent, the need to encode video for multiple Web formats and content distribution all drive up costs, experts say.

The potential for high startup costs worried executives at financial services company Morningstar Inc. when, a year ago, they began to investigate incorporating broadband features into the companys site, Morningstar.com, under a directive from CEO and founder Joe Mansueto. They were able to avoid most of the costs of producing and delivering streaming video by partnering with a video technology provider.

Morningstar in October launched video content on its site through a partnership with a startup streaming video syndicator in Chicago, TV House Inc. As part of the deal, TV House handles the encoding and streaming of video for free but receives a share of any revenues Morningstar receives from syndication of its video content to other sites, said Cathy Odelbo, president of Morningstar.com, in Chicago. Prior to cutting the deal with TV House, Morningstar opened its own television studio, where its 50 analysts conduct interviews with financial news outlets. Morningstar now also uses the space and equipment to film three daily Web segments featuring analysts opinions on markets and investing. Odelbo said Morningstar.com hopes to increase that frequency to five programs in the next couple of months. So far, the video content is available only on the Morningstar site. No syndication deals have been signed.

With hardly any cost, Morningstar. com was able to begin experimenting with streaming video. At the same time, it stands to gain a return from any revenues generated through TV Houses syndication of its content to other sites. But Morningstar expects that the bigger return will come from learning what it can do with broadband content. So far, the number of viewers of its video streams is relatively low, with about 1,500 unique viewers on an average day compared with an average of 180,000 unique visitors to its overall site each day.

"As video on the Web gets better, it will create more of an experience customers will want to come back to," Odelbo said. "Creating an experience that makes customers want to come back time and time again is what will give us our return on investment."

Production costs arent much of an issue for sites affiliated with broadcasters, such as BET.com or the sites of CNN Interactive, a division of Time Warner Inc.s Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc. unit. Instead, at CNN, the biggest cost hurdle is paying to distribute its broadband content to online viewers, said Monty Mullig, senior vice president of CNN Internet Technologies, in Atlanta.

"We would more aggressively use more high-bit-rate video if the bandwidth costs were lower," Mullig said. "We spend a lot of energy trying to drive costs down."

CNN, Mullig said, is negotiating with its distribution providers—which include Akamai Technologies Inc.—in an attempt to cut those costs in half over the next year and by a factor of 10 within the next 18 months to two years, Mullig said. He declined to specify CNNs streaming media distribution costs. Akamai charges customers based on the number of megabits delivered each month, with a minimum charge of $2,000 a month.

Once distribution costs are cut, Mullig hopes CNN can expand the amount of higher-bit-rate video its sites offer. Right now, 300K bps video, the highest it offers, is limited to the CNNSI. com sports site and to news, sports and financial information video streams provided as part of nine broadband alliances with ISPs (Internet service providers). Those ISPs handle the streaming on their own networks, rather than the open Internet, saving CNN the cost of distribution and providing a higher-quality feed.

Putting more high-bit-rate video in place, according to Mullig, will give CNN a competitive advantage over its online competitors because the network will be better able to showcase the dozens of live video feeds it has at any one time.

In addition to cutting broadband costs and using video and other broadband-oriented features to attract visitors, some sites are experimenting with ways to generate more revenue from video and other broadband content. Both Morningstar and CNN, for example, said they hope they will be able to charge more for ads that run with streaming video content. While few sites have demonstrated that advertisers will pay more for placement with video content, experts say they may be willing to. Thats because the broadband audience is likely to be more coveted by advertisers. Zia Daniell Wigder, an analyst at Jupiter, in New York, said that, by most estimates, broadband users are online four times longer than narrowband users. They also tend to be wealthier and more tech-savvy.

Those kinds of demographics have allowed at least one site, NBC Internet Inc.s portal site NBCi, to charge a premium to advertisers on its broadband portal, according to Benjamin Feinman, vice president of publishing and media products at NBCi, in San Francisco. A $20 ad on the regular portal site could cost $75 on the broadband site, Feinman said.

Sites are examining other revenue models as well. WWF New Media Network, the online division of the World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc., conducted limited pilot tests last year of pay-per-view wrestling events streamed over the Internet at 650K bps. This year, it is aiming to launch a full-blown pay-per-view offering that could include income from sponsorships, along with the paying viewers, said Gerry Louw, chief technology officer at WWF New Media, in Stamford, Conn.

Louw plans this year to offer a subscription model for some premium video content, like archives of past special WWF events.

Keeping everyone happy

Besides scoping out how to cost-justify broadband content and make money off it, e-businesses will need to determine how to best integrate video and other bandwidth-hungry features into existing sites.

That means finding a way to make features such as video available to users with broadband connections while not alienating the majority that are still connecting via dial-up connections, experts say.

Since most e-businesses havent deployed tools that can allow them to dynamically distinguish one group from the other, the key, experts say, is to ensure users have options as to what types of content they want to access.

BET.com, for example, makes sure that someone on a 28.8K bps dial-up connection can read an article, while also providing a DSL user the opportunity to click a music stream or watch portions of a BET cable show, Williams said.

Sites, in most cases, should emulate BET.com and integrate broadband content into the overall design of a site rather than create a separate broadband-only site, Wigder said. Addition of broadband features remains new to most e-businesses, and the number of broadband users is still limited.

More often than not, Wigder said, todays broadband users are looking to do similar activities as narrowband users but at faster speeds.

"One of the mistakes over the last couple years is that people thought their broadband offering was an all-or-nothing proposition," Wigder said. "Now theyre coming to the realization that they can add applications incrementally, and thats a step in the right direction."

NBC Internet, for instance, is planning to merge a separate broadband site, speed.nbci.com, into the main NBCi site. Currently, NBCi links to its broadband site from the NBCi.com portal. Once connected to the broadband site, users get a new interface that includes broadband-oriented navigation features such as Flash graphics, more photos and access to streaming video and audio.

In conjunction with the move to integrate broadband features back into the main site, NBCi plans to deploy technology it developed to detect the connection speed of each visitor. NBCi will then dynamically serve the appropriate broadband features.

Already, NBCi has begun using the technology to provide users on its portal site with broadband-oriented advertisements, according to NBCis Feinman.

As sites like BET.com and NBCi continue to test such techniques and as the cost of distributing video content continues to fall, its certain, experts say, that video and other features that demand broadband access will become increasingly common.

Most sites still have a lot to learn about how to make money on broadband content. But sites such as BET.com know one thing for sure: The right broadband features have the power to lure a new audience. So you can bet that Lil Bow Wows online barking is only the beginning.

 
 
 
 
Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for eWEEK.com, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for eWEEK.com. Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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