AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time   

Hype doesn't match reality in online video, where slow images and out-of-sync sound are routine.

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

I WORK FOR A company that manages Web sites for TV stations. The question I hear most often from department heads, news directors and reporters is, "When can I watch our newscast online?"
Not today, I say, but soon. The technology simply is not there yet. The users aren't all ready. We'll reproduce a half dozen of the day's most compelling clips, but we lean on text and still pictures to get the stories across.
I know that's not a satisfying answer. They want us to fulfill the promise described in trade magazines and press releases, in which television and the Internet merge in one awesome stream of interactivity--faster, easier and more beautiful than anything plain text can express.
The truth is that online video--even streaming video, which begins to play while it's still downloading--is mostly slow, frustrating and ugly. And even with high-speed connections, users still squint through tiny windows at out-of-sync sound and video served from a jumbled tray of text and graphics. Watching the reporters speak is reminiscent of a badly dubbed movie. Want to see a home run soar into the stands? Forget about it. Think you can order up a personalized newscast without installing 13 different video plug-ins? Good luck. The hype surrounding online video technology has simply outpaced its reality.
Take a look at the major TV networks, those that should have the resources and incentive to stay on the crest of video technology. ABC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN and Fox have yet to move much beyond a smattering of segments clipped straight from their newscasts. The standard display is 160 by 120 pixels--about half the size of a playing card. A 60-second clip can easily take 30 seconds to load on a 56K modem, still common among home users. On a high-speed connection, the wait is negligible, but the product still isn't pretty.
The biggest technical barrier is basically the amount of bandwidth available to serve up crisp, full-motion video. But even a pipeline the size of a silo means nothing to users struggling with slow modem connections and outdated software.
I've watched the very same folks who'd hoped to see their entire newscasts online attempt to watch a two-minute video clip. When they're prompted to upgrade a video plug-in, they mutter something about loading it later and move on. Some even give up after a few seconds of load time because they don't have the patience to wait. Why should the average viewer behave differently?
Fortunately, that's starting to change. Users are souping up their connections at home, and video publishing software is producing a crisper and more compressed clip.
Beyond the logistical hurdles, there is still the matter of presentation. In the dawn of online news it was natural to copy and paste a newspaper article onto the Web. There was no regard for "online style" because we didn't know what that was. Now competitive news sites hire journalists to write original content and repackage existing stories in a Web- friendly format. Expect video to make the same progression.
If viewers are to think of online video as an enhancement to their news diets, they'll need to feel like they're getting something they can't find with a remote control. With all the raw tape that never reaches the airwaves, there is ample opportunity for multimedia producers to customize online packages. They'll also need to figure out how to arrange all that video, text and interactive feedback on one screen in a way that makes sense to users.
Online news video is in its adolescence. It's no longer novel or groundbreaking, but it's still too primitive for mass consumption. It's fast enough from the office but too slow from home. The clicks can't compete with text stories, but dismissing the promise of the future would be foolish. Companies are spending millions of dollars to impress thousands of visitors.
This is not meant to discourage sites from Webcasting the news. Rather, they should be doing more to explore the full potential of online video--to move beyond gratuitous clips and create something truly innovative.
Soon programming unique to the Internet will be commonplace, and breaking news updates will be routinely watched as well as read. The concept of personalized print news--pioneered in the 1990s--will be eclipsed by sites from which viewers can order both text and video clips from all over the world. Eventually we will watch broadcast news and surf the Internet on the same screen at the same time. The future is wide open.