The tale is widely told, probably with dramatic license, that tycoon David Sarnoff of RCA and NBC made his first proposal in 1915 for radio broadcasts of music and news. His associates, the story goes, pooh-poohed the idea as "messages to nobody in particular" and demanded to know who would ever pay to send them.
Often invoked to illustrate myopic thinking, that (possibly apocryphal) challenge looks more farsighted as content providers shift their focus from radio and TV to IP-network media. Those who pay to send the unaddressed messages of mass-market advertising can now know much more about whos receiving them—and have much more power to decide who theyll pay to reach.
Were at a watershed moment in the creation of a mainstream audience for Internet streaming content, according to Scott Moore, vice president of Content Operations for Yahoo. I spoke with Moore as Yahoo was getting ready to light the fires on its coverage of the space shuttle launch originally scheduled for July 13. With an exclusive deal on the upstream side to serve NASAs official video feed and downstream arrangements for 50G bps of bandwidth, Yahoo was aiming for appreciation from the strong Internet demographic of spaceflight enthusiasts. "Were not making money from this," said Moore, but Yahoo obviously hoped to gain good associations for its brand.
As we spoke, I thought of the hallways of my elementary school, filled with students and teachers watching low-data-density broadcasts from the launch pads of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. The memory made for quite a contrast with the multiple images and multiple channels of collateral data available to a desk worker with a broadband connection while waiting on July 13 (and, as of this writing, still waiting) for Discovery to fly.
Streaming-video quality, to be sure, is not yet as good as what most of us can get from a TV broadcast. It takes about 750K bps to match the quality of a VHS tape, Moore estimated, acknowledging that the typical broadband channel of 300K bps is not in the same class—"but on a high-res monitor with a smaller window, its pretty darn good."
That said, though, Id agree with Moore that its missing the point to criticize a streaming-video feed for looking worse than a DVD movie on a home-theater display. "Its the immediacy, the content, [and] the combination and the integration with blogs and IM and other ways of sharing," Moore said, that make streaming media different and, in many ways, better—not something to be judged by the same criteria as the TV broadcasts that have come before.
When I look at the trends in broadcast media over the last few years, it seems to me that IP-network content delivery actually gives people more of what they want, rather than asking them to settle for less.
In fictional entertainment, people are clearly engaged by complex stories with multiple concurrent threads and even by high-risk experiments such as reversing the normal flow of time—as seen, for example, in various episodes of NBCs "ER."
People would rather piece together for themselves whats really happening from grainy, jerky cell phone camera images from London underground tunnels than see a re-enactment with superior video quality and better camera angles. People want to have more than one point of view and be free to compare multiple sources of information, rather than accepting any one persons choices in any one networks control room. Thats what AOL plans to offer with its own multicamera coverage of the next shuttle launch.
In return, people are giving the folks in the control room a whole new look at their audience. By logging in to a Web site, by subscribing to narrow-cast e-mail bulletins, and by leaving click trails that indicate when and what they want to see, the streaming-media audience makes itself a better-illuminated target than the invisible mass thats giving its attention (or maybe not?) to broadcast programs.
"Were still on the blade" of streaming medias hockey-stick growth curve, predicted Moore. Its time to think creatively about what to do with messages that can go to everyone in particular.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.