Broadcast.com Heralds Web Multimedia Age.
TOPS IN WEB MULTIMEDIA
Unless you are a follower of Web multimedia, you'll probably wonder what all the fuss is about. In its own domain, Broadcast.com is the top dog--the largest aggregator of audio and video content on the Web. It Webcasts thousands of radio and TV programs, sports events, press conferences, news programs, music CDs, audiobooks, videos, and concerts. These are delivered in real time and on demand, and all for free. (You will need a sound card, speakers, and a media player. The most popular player is RealNetwork's RealPlayer. Download it for free at http://www.real.com.) Despite all this, the Age of Internet Multimedia, as rolled out by Broadcast.com, is not yet upon us. Broadcast.com does some things, such as radio Webcasts or company announcements, quite well. Other things, including most video events, leave very much to be desired. But the future is coming fast, and for now at least, Broadcast.com is its agent. Mark Cuban, a software entrepreneur, and Todd Wagner, an attorney, started the company in 1995. It w as originally named AudioNet, and its first programs were audio Webcasts of radio sports events, Since then, Broadcast.com (the new name was adopted in 1998) has steadily expanded and diversified its audio and video programming. It receives over a million visitors daily.
RADIO WORKS ON THE WEB
Broadcast.com's first medium, commercial radio programming, continues to be its largest and most content-rich format. It Webcasts programming from over 400 stations in the U.S. and abroad. A few are large networks, such as the BBC World Broadcasts, but the large majority are local U.S. stations. The entire range of radio programming is represented: sports, talk, news, and every kind of music. Some stations Webcast their entire schedule, but the majority provide selected shows or events. There is a mixture of live and archived content. Archived programming typically includes news and sports shows of continuing interest. Broadcast.com's audio Webcasts are often quite satisfactory from the listener's perspective because audio can be handled fairly well by present Web technology. As with other Web content, quality depends primarily upon the user's connection and equipment. Dedicated lines and Pentiums with lots of memory will usually provide reasonably good sound. Programs delivered by modem to weaker equipment will often crack and break up. Radio Webcasts are particularly popular in the white-collar workplace, in part because high bandwidth lines provide good sound quality.
NEW MEDIUM FOR CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS
Radio Webcasts may be Broadcast.com's richest format, but business programming pays the bills. It receives close to three-quarters of its revenue from this source. The rest comes from banner ads and from short commercials that lead into programs. Over 1,000 corporate clients license Broadcast. com to distribute a variety of news and programming, including press conferences, product releases, quarterly earnings announcements, executive interviews, speeches, and promotional programs. It is rapidly evolving into an accepted medium for corporate communication. Because of ubiquitous desktop availability of the Web, live Webcasts can easily reach corporate audiences; afterwards the programs are often archived, so that they can be retrieved at any time. Business Webcasts often include video, but it is actually more a gimmick than a satisfying visual experience. Even with robust communications and equipment, the images are fuzzy and have the jerky quality of early silent movies. With lesser equipment, they are unwat chable. The player video screen itself is tiny, occupying only a few square inches; viewing it is like watching a tiny, hand-held TV, without the picture quality.
The shortcomings of Webcast video may be tolerable in corporate announcements, which consist mostly of talking heads, and where the audio is actually more important. But most other video content on Broadcast.com is far less successful. Broadcast.com Webcasts live programming from over 50 broadcast and cable sources, including local stations and national networks. These concentrate in news programming, where visual quality is somewhat less important than it is in entertainment viewing. Broadcast. com also has archived video content in a great variety of topics, including public affairs, education, science, technology, and consumer issues. Much of this is from non-profit providers like government agencies, educational institutions, and associations, or by companies as a public service. Although much of it has genuine content value, transmission shortcomings severely limit its practical utility.
Improving video quality is one great challenge for Broadcast.com and other Webcasters. The other is how to deal with profit-oriented content. Everything on Broadcast. com is free; there is no payment mechanism, whether subscription or transactional, such as those used by online information and cable TV services. Thus, Broadcast.com's channels for audiobooks, music CDs, TV programs, and movies are a bit disappointing. There is a lot of it, but little that you really want.
For example, Broadcast.com has over 1,000 full-text audiobooks, but they are a blend of old titles (published decades or centuries ago) that have exhausted their commercial appeal, or of new, obscure ones that had little to start with. The same pattern applies in other media. There are over 3,000 music CDs, but the mix again contains some old titles from a few prominent artists, and many from obscure ones, who are hoping that Web exposure might provide a breakthrough. There are smaller collections of video programming, including TV programs and movies, with the same blend of the old and the unwanted. These channels will remain sideshows, until quality video becomes technically practical, and payment mechanisms are in place that will entice content producers to Webcast popular, first-run material.
Broadcast.com content is divided into 16 broad categories, which are in turn subdivided into smaller, topic-specific subcategories. This makes for easy browsing, which is valuable, because Broadcast.com's search capabilities are minimal. There is a global search capability, but lack of indexing, annotations, or other program descriptions makes it almost useless. Several individual categories have a separate search option that works somewhat better. Overall, searching is undependable, whether for locating a specific item, or for gathering all the content on a specific topic. The Broadcast.com home page and each topic page highlight the top live programs for the day, and a useful schedule lists live programming, hour-by-hour, for the next two weeks. Page layouts are often busy and confusing because there are so many ads. Frequently it takes a second look to distinguish between an ad and a program link. Site navigation is relatively simple, but browsing program lists can be frustrating because descriptions are erratic. At the very least, format and length indicators would be welcome. These search and navigation nuisances are understandable, since Broadcast.com was neither conceived nor designed as a searchable database. Nevertheless, if its content continues to grow, improved search and navigation will become more important. Broadcast.com has other upcoming chores to tackle, particularly the integration with its new owner, and developing pay-per-view methods to attract better entertainment programming. (It would also be important, you might think, to finally make some money, but showing a profit doesn't seem to be required of Internet companies.) Broadcast.com's greatest challenge, however, may come as broadband technologies eventually make it possible to distribute high-quality video. This will raise the stakes in Webcasting and sharpen the competition, especially from media companies that create content. The battle lines have a lot in common with those between database producers and intermediary search services. Like an online service, Broadcast.com aggregates and distributes content, but creates none of its own. Thus, like today's online services, Broadcast.com will have to be relentlessly successful in delivering added value.