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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

TV News Meets Cyberspace   

Will freewheeling Internet users watch online shows?


By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

When newspapers first encountered the Web, their instinct was to do what they knew: post a complete online "edition" once a day. They eventually learned that Web users crave rapid-fire updates and a sense of continual evolution. Now that broadband video is finally a workable format, TV companies are rushing to apply their own familiar formulas to the Web, in the form of what else online "shows." But is there an appetite for appointment programming on the Internet? Thanks to an explosion of online newscasts, we may soon find out.

In April, NBC affiliate KPNX in Phoenix launched a three-minute newscast on AZCentral.com, updated several times each weekday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Offering a brief but well-produced roundup of top stories, the report is fronted by the TV news team and looks as polished as anything you'd see on air.

In San Francisco, NBC station KNTV's "Web News On The Hour" follows a similar TV-like template, though somewhat more casual and less produced. It's updated hourly between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. In Birmingham, Alabama, NBC affiliate WVTM's Webcast is streamed daily at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. It runs a little longer 5 to 15 minutes and the programs are archived on the site.

For an avant-garde rendition, see New England Cable News' "Lunchbox" Web show between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays. Hosted by Director of Digital Media Steve Safran before an animated backdrop of flying sandwiches and milk cartons, the show runs a few minutes and takes a more irreverent, less formal tone.

Even farther afield from typical TV news fare is Raleigh CBS affiliate WRAL's "live@WRAL.com," which debuted in late June. The 10-minute show takes a conversational approach to the day's news; the best action happens when the hosts go mobile and roam the newsroom talking to station staff at their desks. The show is Webcast live at 1:15 p.m. and then archived on the site.

We already know Web video works well on demand and during breaking news. Repurposing broadcast clips is standard practice. So is live streaming video during major news events, from bombs over Baghdad to the funeral of Pope John Paul II. There have also been plenty of mini-documentaries produced exclusively for the Web, and many sites have provided important Web-only video during severe weather and other disasters.

But the idea of a hosted Web show, produced every day and available at appointed times, is radically different and defies conventional wisdom about Internet culture. Web users are supposed to be autonomous grazers, choosing the stories they're interested in and the order in which they read or view them. A talking head reading the news hardly fits that ethic. The Web is also supposed to be the antithesis of scheduled programming it's there when you want it.

That doesn't mean Web shows are destined to fail. Most of the Webcasts mentioned above remain available for a window of time, some updated throughout the day. And scheduled Web events aren't totally unprecedented; washingtonpost.com often touts the success of its online chats. If the content is good enough, it might work. And heck, why not try?

"It may flop," wrote New England Cable News' Safran on the industry blog LostRemote.com. "It's an experiment, and there is still plenty of news at our site all day, so it's not like we're making them come for the news when we want them to. We're trying to hit a target it's absolutely possible we will miss."

Newspapers are taking a shot, too. Wilmington, Delaware's News Journal hired a local TV anchor and launched its twice-daily Webcast in October. In fact, newspapers could have an advantage in developing successful Webcast formats because they're starting from scratch. In the early days of online news, CNN and MSNBC were better than most newspapers at formatting text stories for the Web because they didn't have the option of copying an existing product. Broadcasters know a lot more about video production than print folks, but following an old-media template makes it easy to gloss over the research and development process.

So far nobody is boasting about huge numbers for their Webcasts, but it's too early to make judgments about potential audience or revenue. At this stage it's enough that newsrooms are testing concepts.

"The result of all these Webcasts was to 'demystify' live streaming, where the newsroom came to understand that it was just like producing an on-air show..but without the same restrictions," writes Bonnie Buck, managing editor of NBC4.tv, the Web site for Los Angeles' KNBC, in an e-mail interview. KNBC's recent Web specials covered the mayoral election and the Michael Jackson verdict.

New technology offers newsrooms the opportunity to show how innovative or how rigid they are. Now that we can do almost anything we want with video on the Web, what will it be?

Note: Three of the stations mentioned in this column KNTV, WVTM and WRAL are partners of Internet Broadcasting, the company I work for. In each case, the Webcasts were conceived locally and are produced by the TV stations.