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If Web broadcasting goes mainstream, you could be a star

The arrival of Apple TV and other products is pushing Internet video onto TV screens.

By Jared FlesherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2007



Boston

"Vendetta Gunn," like most clips on the video-sharing website YouTube, is not exactly a smash hit. The nine-minute video, the first episode of a comedy about crime-fighting subway cops in Boston, was produced on the cheap by three Emerson College students. The number of times it has been viewed so far: 2,809.

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But amateur projects like this – which lack the big budgets and technical polish of anything you'd see on ABC or Fox – could one day command a presence on your television screen, right alongside the entertainment giants.

"The Internet is going to be able to beam content to your TV," explains Federico Muchnik, director of the digital filmmaking program at The Center for Digital Imaging Arts in Waltham, Mass. "All of a sudden it's no longer 72 channels, it's 72,000 channels."

In fact, it's already happening. In March, Apple released "Apple TV" a $300 set-top box that allows users to play Internet videos on a wide-screen, high-definition television. Some initial reviews of Apple TV have criticized its grainy video quality and limited compatibility – but the future promises an explosion of online video that will look just as good on your television screen as what you get from your cable box now.

"It's almost hard for me to express in words how exciting it is that Apple TV and [other similar devices] are coming out," says Dina Kaplan, chief operating officer of blip.tv, another popular video-sharing website. "Our goal is to get as many of our shows on as many televisions as possible as quickly as possible."

The 'democratization of television'

Internet experts have dubbed this trend "the democratization of media," in which just about anybody with a $200 video camera can post a homemade video on the Web and potentially get famous. In 2006, recognizing the influence of user-generated media, Time magazine named "You" its Person of the Year. Internet giant Google endorsed the idea with its checkbook, by purchasing YouTube for more than $1.6 billion. Today, the most popular videos online get viewed millions of times.

The next big step in this video revolution is the bridging of the gap between personal computers and television screens, analysts and industry leaders say. The transition seems inevitable.

"Whenever we've asked online consumers about their use of Internet video, the most frequently cited reason why they don't watch more is a very simple preference for watching video on TV," says Joseph Laszlo of JupiterResearch, a research firm based in New York City.

Ms. Kaplan concurs. "If you're watching a show, there's no argument that it's more comfortable to do on your couch than in the chair at your computer."

Apple TV is not the first gadget on the market that transfers Internet video to a television, and it won't be the last. (Netgear, Sling Media, Cisco, Microsoft, Sony, TiVo, and SanDisk are some of the companies that have products or are working on them.) But Apple's device is widely considered the most user-friendly of the entries so far, and that might be key to getting consumers to adopt the technology.

"Apple TV is … the first product that's come along that really makes playing Internet video on a television easy to do," Mr. Laszlo says. "The last thing that people want is a keyboard for their television sets."

There are still technical hurdles to overcome. One of the drawbacks of Apple TV is that it currently only plays videos formatted for Apple's iTunes program – meaning it won't play YouTube clips, for example.

Another problem: Because of limited broadband connection speeds in the United States, TV-quality videos on the Internet still take a long time for watchers to download and are costly for providers to host. In some countries, such as South Korea, broadband speeds are up to six times faster and Internet video on television is starting to become common, Laszlo says. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon are starting to roll out superfast broadband networks in some US cities, he adds, but it will probably be three to five years before they're widely available.

Who'll watch what?

If the day does come when Internet video is commonplace on television, what will viewers decide to watch? To a large degree, they may view the same shows they watch now. Analysts say that the big broadcast networks aren't about to fade away, and their hit series will still draw huge audiences.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, a large selection of user-generated content targeted to niche audiences – the kind of subject matter that might never bring in enough viewers to justify a big-budget TV show – could flourish.

"Vendetta Gunn," for instance, is full of Boston-specific references that outsiders might not pick up on or be interested in.

Larry Cohen, Nick Fenster, and Michael Thomas – the three undergraduates who created the show using a borrowed camera – believe they've gotten their money's worth for the $120 it cost them to produce the first episode.

"We never had any illusions it was going to be this amazing, breakout Internet success," says Mr. Cohen, the show's director. "But it has gathered a strong, small following."

"Apparently, employees of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority watch it at the office," adds Mr. Fenster, one of the on-screen stars. An officer at the MBTA has even offered to appear in the show's next episode.

As the technology improves, so will the technical demands for Internet television – unlike YouTube, where anything goes.

Traditional production skills – such as knowing how to properly light a scene – will become much more important, says Mr. Muchnik, the digital film school director, And yet, a low-budget project won't necessarily need to look as perfect as "The Sopranos" to get noticed, he adds. "Content is king. If you have a good story to tell, people will watch it."

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