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by David Fox

How one production company has future-proofed its new Webstation.

You want to launch your own channel on the Web? You just buy a DV camcorder and an iMac, and go for broke…. And in all probability, that is exactly what will happen. It will break. Even if it doesn't, there are so many other attractions on the Web that viewers won't come back unless you give them quality they can't get elsewhere. And that quality should start at the beginning, according to Jim Allen, chairman of Manchester-based production company, Light Age.

He has just launched a round-the-clock entertainment Webstation, Gritted.com, whose equipment list would put some high-end facilities to shame. He has installed a full broadcast facility, complete with three Quantel Editboxes (adding two to one he bought last year), two 5D Mashers for plug-in effects, a Hal, and an Avid Media Composer. With material shot mainly on DVCPRO-50 (and some DVCAM), its content could grace any broadcast channel. Instead, it will be encoded at various compression levels for today's modem connections and streamed on the Web site [www.gritted.com].

"We could use lower grade equipment and put it out on the Web and it would be acceptable, but we are making programmes we can deliver anywhere: narrowband, broadband or broadcast," says Allen.

Everything is being shot widescreen, so it can handle any delivery mechanism except HD, and the Editboxes can be upgraded to HD if necessary.

Light Age, a corporate production company that has only been in operation for 18 months, makes all the programmes and Gritted streams them. The two companies have 50 employees, but are growing fast, with an Amsterdam office about to be launched, and plans to expand across Europe with, eventually, language specific services.

The programmes mainly cover fashion and music, but there are also documentaries, information and arts slots, mainly (but not exclusively) aimed at the 16 to 25 age group. There is no set length, running from three minutes to 30, as he believes in giving each story the time it needs rather than trying to overextend or shorten it.

The channel is free to watch and he says: "it really is an alternative to television."

It is streaming using Windows Media Player, initially at 28.8, 56k and ISDN speeds, although it can encode for any bandwidth. He chose Windows Media because RealVideo was expensive to licence, whereas Microsoft doesn't charge. Although it isn’t as popular as Real or QuickTime, he points out it is free to download, so he doesn't see that as a big restriction. Besides, having invested heavily in other areas (which he believes is paying off), he says: "we have to use all means available to keep costs down."

Although he will consider doing on-demand downloads later, everything is being streamed now because it is more cost efficient. Gritted is using a single server at the ISP, but because it is using multicast (via UUnet), there should theoretically be no limit to the number of people who can view at one time.

Because the source material is such high quality, he maintains it encodes a lot better than a lot of material you see on the Net. As clean pictures compress more efficiently, giving higher quality results.

In between each item there is a multi-layered sting produced on Hal, which has so much going on in it that "I was worried how the compression system would cope with it. But it looks really good." However, "we're learning lessons all the time about what the computer does and doesn't like." They started with bland backgrounds, but now shoot anything, no matter how busy. "It's not a problem. It's looking good," he says. He believes this is due to keeping everything at high quality, using SDI in the studio. But there are limitations, and there are sometimes glitches when people move, while fades don't work as well as cuts.

For the moment, Gritted is funding the complete service, with no banner ads, but once it is established and has a proven audience to sell to advertisers, it will use conventional commercial breaks between segments. "I didn't want a false start, getting advertisers interested and then failing to deliver," says Allen.

It is aiming (within six months) to have six hours of programming per day, in two loops, with fresh content each day, almost all of which will be produced in-house.

As an independent producer, Allen believes Webcasting will make the two companies "masters of our own destiny. We can make the films we want, when we want to make them. It's very exciting."

He believes broadband will be slower to take off than the industry would like, but it will be easy for them to deliver over it when it does come.

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David Fox