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Extending broadcast space
Streaming standards
Beating congestion

How To Make A Success Of Streaming

by David Fox

Like any media, the key to winning on the Web is to attract and retain people. That's never easy. But, the Internet also has its own unique problems: the fact that reaching more people can cost you more money; the bottlenecks that cause Net congestion; and the question of which streaming media formats and access speeds to use.

For most would-be Webcasters, the problem of content is far more difficult than the technical challenges in coping with popularity. Broadcasters and programme makers start with an advantage. You have the content, so it is just a matter of getting it on the Web. Or is it?


Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of what's on the Net, "but they are looking for compelling content," says Roger Davies, RealNetworks' European marketing manager. "People are now actually willing to pay more to get less information."

"In the end it is all about stickiness. Get somebody online, keep them there. One of the biggest challenges for Internet broadcasting is that the typical attention span of an Internet user is about seven seconds, that's what research says is the likely average length of time that it will take for somebody to wait for a Web page to load before they give up and go somewhere else. I think in the TV world, because of the more passive nature of it, the attention span is significantly longer," Ian King Akamai's director of operations, Northern Europe.

"One you've got them, you have to keep them, and you have to keep them in a very, very short period of time," he adds.

If a page doesn't come up in about six seconds, people won't wait, so you need to ensure the page is fast and easy to use, but having streaming media means you can more easily get away with smaller and fewer pictures. "Video attracts more users, who stay longer and click through more," says Davies.

However, you must never forget that "the agenda of the customer is more important that the person in charge of the Web site," he says. It is not just the viewer who has to be interactive.

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Extending Broadcast Space

Now the Internet is spreading itself across the quality scale (from 28.8 postage stamps to HD), traditional broadcast companies like Chyron have had to become involved with the Internet and interactive TV. Roger Henderson, Chyron's president and CEO, now sees the main difference as being between regulated and unregulated space rather than quality.

"The advent of broadband on the Internet is creating new customers using streaming media," he says, such as pseudo.com, which is currently creating entertainment for small audiences but aims to take on the big networks (like CBS). There are also other media, such as newspapers, getting into TV who already have readers and content "and see themselves as being able to make a major impact as broadband rolls out."

There are some areas, such as distance learning, which are ideal for the Internet, because they can be on demand, or mundane things like shareholder briefings, for which the potential audience too small to be worth addressing using traditional TV.

"Many companies are just experimenting right now, especially as 56.6k doesn't give a great picture, but it allows them find out what products and packages are appealing," says Henderson.

Analysts predict that about half of all US households will have access to broadband services by 2005. "It is a substantial audience, and one which will need professional production and content management. But, most companies have no idea what to do, which is why they are turning to professionals like us for support," says Henderson.

Today, because of the bandwidth limitations, producing for the Internet requires non moving presenters, the use of static cameras and large areas of the same colour, to make it easy for the compression system. But, at broadband speeds, 300kbps and above, you can get good, moving, pictures, says Henderson.

Interactive TV is the logical result of marrying broadcast and Internet technologies, what is needed are better ways of simultaneously repurposing material for Webcasting, iTV and broadcast transmission so that no extra work is required, but this is still in the development stage, says Henderson. Content management is a big issue in all these areas.

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Streaming Standards

Whatever speeds you encode video for, from 28.8 upwards, there is also the problem of which of the three main playing formats, RealVideo, QuickTime or Windows Media you use (there are others such as Geo Interactive's Emblaze).

"You can encode for all three, and we do," says Chris Frampton, managing director, the Mediawave Group, which has been streaming media since 1995."We don't do an enormous amount of QuickTime, because a lot of the stuff we do is live, and it's not quite there yet, although it's fairly good. But, for the high-bandwidth stuff, QuickTime is a broadcast format that broadcasters and editors have been using for a while, so it is actually very well placed for the high bit rate market. I think with the deals that are being struck at the moment, with Real taking audio codecs from Microsoft, and Microsoft enabling QuickTime and having stakes in Apple, and with QuickTime players being able to deliver other people's codecs (which it pretty much can now, he says). I don't think it will be very long before it won't actually matter which format you are encoding, but if I was working for Apple, RealNetworks or Microsoft, I'd probably have completely different answers. But, I think the format is fairly irrelevant, given that the people who are producing content can encode it in any format. And people who are receiving it will be able to receive it using any player, because it's a free download."

Mediawave had the first dedicated Internet OB van, where everything is broadcast quality and encoded to whatever streaming standard is required. It has done lots of live events, most notably the Robbie Williams concert from Slane in 1999. It has also been nominated for a Yahoo! Broadcast.com for the best live Webcast for their production of Oasis in Toronto earlier this Summer.

Despite the attractions of the other formats (including free licences) RealNetworks claims that 85% of all Web sites that offer streaming media use its systems. Its first RealAudio package emerged in 1995, now it is on RealPlayer 8 for audio and video. There are currently 135 million copies of RealPlayer around the world, more than 30 million of which are in Europe. It is the third most popular software download on the Internet and 3% of all IP traffic is in the Real format. The Net Aid concert, for example, attracted about 3 million viewers worldwide.

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Beating Congestion

The other key problem Webcasters face is Net congestion. The vicious circle where the more content there is, the more bandwidth it needs and the more congested the Net gets.

However, Frampton believes it is the other way round. "The issue of Net congestion is how much bandwidth and processing capacity is available in relation to the number of users who can have access at any one time, and there is no question in my mind that there is enough fibre already installed around Europe, America, and the Far East, and with satellite communication, there is enough bandwidth for everybody in the world to connect to a fairly reasonable stream. The way we're building networks now, with split servers, caching and Multicast, it will not be an issue of how much content is there. There will be enough disk space for all the content people want to put up, and the more content there is, the more we'll build warehouses to put it into."

He feels a bigger issue in the longer term may be one of 'personal bandwidth' rather than the amount of content that's available. "The Internet frees up the amount of time you have as a scheduler to put programming on. You can put a thousand hours of programming on a day, if you are a scheduler. But, if you are a viewer sitting at a PC or TV, you can still only watch 24 hours of video a day, so that's an issue."

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© 2000 - 2010

Making streaming work - A seminar report from Sreaming Media Europe 2000.
Streaming Gets Reality Check - keynote speech by Martin Tobias of Loudeye at Streaming Media Europe 2000
Making money from your streaming media websites - you want business models? we got business models.
Webstation: Gritted.com - how one post house launched its own Web channel.
Akamai - leading edge streamers!

David Fox