Some aren't waiting for broadband to create content
When it comes to the mousepad sport of complaining about the dearth of quality entertainment on the Web, content creators, journalists and new media pundits are often quick to blame bandwidth (or lack thereof) as the main villain. The pipes, it's said, are simply not yet big enough to accommodate streaming media in a format acceptable to our discerning sensibilities, i.e., the sit-back-and-entertain-us tastes we've developed after years of watching movies and television.
That rationale, of course, is too simplistic. While increased bandwidth undoubtedly will influence content (for the better, it's hoped), there's more than size at stake. Quality counts, meaning no matter the medium, the success or failure of any programming is usually an issue separate from technological concerns. And while quality, off- or online, is in the eyes of the beholder--one could argue that watching a buggy, pixilated streaming video program online is really no worse than sitting through this summer's over-hyped The Blair Witch Project in a movie theater--the fact is that well-executed ideas, whatever other qualities we assign them, have a tendency to float. Conversely, weakly produced ones tend to sink.
Indeed, what more and more online entertainment companies are now concluding is that despite a knee-jerk desire to co-opt the proven format of television and movies, then shoehorn said content onto the Web, that strategy may prove both foolhardy and ineffective. As many of us simply await broadband's triumphant and imminent arrival, companies such as WireBreak Entertainment, Bitmagic.com and Macromedia--which produces the low bandwidth, highly clickable Shockwave.com site--are coming up with entertaining content and solutions that defy the limitations of today's narrow bandwidth environment. Ingenuity can produce effective, engaging and sticky Web entertainment.
But first, a brief history on how we got to this place where aspirations and technology don't always connect.
It's not for lack of trying that online entertainment has yet to find a devoted mass audience. Many companies have soldiered on to make the model work--low bandwidth or not. The result was that early on, Web entertainment was saddled with the double whammy of lame programming--the best creative talent still favored more traditional entertainment outlets--and technological limitations, yielding content that awkwardly attempted to recreate the zeitgeist of mid-'90s offline entertainment.
In 1995, for instance, while popular primetime soaps like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 dominated broadcast TV lineups, startup new media companies, such as the hyped-then-doomed American Cybercast, tried to emulate television's then-reigning camp-and-vamp formula.
Because media streaming was in its Mesozoic period--aided by the fact that most online consumers surfed the Web at 14.4 or slower--Web serials such as American Cybercast's The Spot and The East Village used text, in the form of "diary" entries, along with static images of characters.
While the Web soap genre could have fed the public's appetite for cheese and sleaze, the reality was the cheap-looking production values gave these Webisodics the low-rent mien of soft-core pornography and "viewing" them online was about as entertaining as reading a transcript of MTV's Real World without the pop-music soundtrack.
By mid-1997, Webisodics all but disappeared. And while online powerhouses like America Online and Microsoft tinkered with their own in-house entertainment content strategies, namely AOL's Entertainment Asylum and Microsoft Network's "channel" approach, neither was able to find the right mix of good programming and out-of-box ideas to gain sizable audiences, and their respective Web entertainment projects, with big budgets behind them, proved that even in the richest hands, online entertainment is difficult to create.
The failed attempts demonstrated that despite the earnestness with which Web entertainment producers tried to create compelling content, the public wouldn't embrace whatever was available simply because it was online. True, audiences initially tuned in--at its heyday, The Spot garnered an impressive 100,000 daily hits--but the novelty faded quickly and audiences realized that bad content was plain bad, regardless of its distribution mechanism. For the genre's disenchanted potential audience, it was back to the TV remote control.
"Why should we have been more forgiving?" asks Allen Weiner, vice president of analytical services at Milpitas, Calif.-based Web measurement firm Nielsen/NetRatings. "We're used to turning on the TV, sitting back and watching quality programming. Despite the Net's technical limitations, I don't think people's expectations [for entertainment] were any less."
Enter a handful of companies that have opened their doors in recent months, ready to raise expectations of Web users hungry for online diversions. While waiting for broadband may be the most obvious way to solve the problem, these companies aren't waiting for broadband to do it.
"There's a huge opportunity to create a new kind of content for the Web," opines David Wertheimer, founder and CEO of WireBreak.com, a new online entertainment network that officially launches today. "We're trying to innovate what entertainment means in this medium. We think it's short form, it's giving people the opportunity to come in and get what they want and get out."
Instead of serving cut-up TV programming online, the Venice, Calif.-based company aims to entertain with a lineup of irreverent, short-form videos that are interactive and cater to the short attention span of distractible Net users.
"We're going after busy people with little free time, but who have every bit the need for entertainment, if not more so," says Wertheimer. The programs range from the Daily Show-esque News Blast to a chick chat show titled Girls' Locker Talk, to a loony interactive sitcom, It's Saul Good. The unifying aesthetic in WireBreak.com's at-launch slate of shows is an edgy, somewhat cockeyed look at the world, wrapped in compact video bites.
"I think that giving audiences tons of information makes it harder for them to find the good stuff," says Sal LoCurto, vice president of marketing and programming at WireBreak.com. "It also makes us less focused as a network. We're not trying to be like a traditional network."
"One of the biggest mistakes people make on the Web is they think that streaming media is cool in and of itself, but users don't think it's cool in and of itself. They think it's crappy," says Wertheimer.
Another entry into the online entertainment arena is San Francisco-based BitMagic.com, which launched at last month's Jupiter Online Advertising Forum in New York. Co-founded by chairman and CEO Michiel Frackers, who was a founder of Europe's largest ISP, Planet Internet, BitMagic.com eschews video in favor of animated clips and interactive games that comment on current events and appeal to a global audience. Frackers believes that providing compelling content is not contingent on bandwidth or any other technical limitations. (Of course, the genre's early, unsuccessful pioneers may have said the same thing.)
"I think it's about creativity," says Frackers. "We're focused on creating content that everybody can watch now. We don't focus on a specific demographic or focus on a specific type of connection speed."
A proprietary BitMagic player allows for daily updates to be pushed to subscribers, while demographic data is tracked to target advertising. The BitMagic content is created as Flash animated shorts that are quick to download, without the hassles of streaming.
"We tested streaming media for a long time and we found that it basically doesn't work consistently over lowband. It's just not satisfying," says Frackers. "Say you're getting a joke and right at the punch line, the video knocks out, then the whole point is lost."
"The terror of the click," as Frackers puts it, should encourage online entertainment producers to strive to create even better content, not force users to lower their expectations.
"You don't watch TV with your hand on the remote control the entire time. But when you're on the Web, you have your hand on the mouse the whole time," he says.
In the interim between narrow and broader bandwidth, Frackers thinks that Flash, a scalable, vector-based animation technology, has changed the landscape for online entertainment. Widely considered a bridge technology meant to fill the gap until broadband arrives, Web developers have used Flash to create compelling animated short films that have rivaled offline animation at times.
Macromedia, the San Francisco-based company that developed and distributes Flash, hopes to parlay the technology's cachet with Web developers into a consumer audience with its consumer site Shockwave.com, launched in June. The site offers Shockwave and Flash enabled games, cartoons, music and greeting cards, drawing on small developers and giants such as toymaker Hasbro Interactive and entertainment leaders Comedy Central and Warner Bros. to create its smorgasbord of content elements.
"I think general consumers believe that Shockwave is the best rich media content experience that they can get," says Steve Fields, CEO of Shockwave.com. "What I think about our site is that it's a great narrowband experience. I think it's the best interactive, narrowband experience that you can get. And it is also great in broadband."
So does that make the ultimate online experience both interactive and broadband? Well, if history is any guide, the truth may be that the best online experience is one that is really enjoyable--in any shape, form or bandwidth.
Faster, Faster : Startups set sites on broadband
For those who are betting on broadband to make their online content aspirations come true, it's worth noting that industry experts indicate they will have to wait about five years for a wide rollout of broadband access. Some of those same experts say that five years is earlier than they expected, but the delay hasn't stopped a bevy of wannabes from starting broadband entertainment companies.
"I'm far more bullish on broadband than I was a year and a half ago," says Allen Weiner of Nielsen/NetRatings.
In fact, the biggest of the broadband rollouts, from Excite Home, had 620,000 subscribers as of the end of June; and Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, has already bet that 27 million homes will have high-speed access by 2003.
Therefore, much of the emphasis for startups has been on plans to build content that will be ready to take full advantage of the broadband future. Companies such as San Francisco-based Digital Entertainment Network and New York-based Center Seat, which produces and distributes content for broadband are focused on keeping a watchful eye on the future, while working within the parameters of today's narrowband world.
But if the mid-1990s breed of online entertainment producers had trouble attracting Hollywood types to work on their projects, this new group, focusing on broadband, are having better luck. The founders of DEN, which have signed major advertisers such as Ford and Pepsi, come from the in-school news TV station Channel One. At Center Seat, president Lee Haddad and CEO Scott Harmolin, both veterans of pioneering tech company Icon, have quietly gathered a staff of producers and programmers from such mainstream outlets as Access Hollywood, Good Morning America, Fox and MTV.
Further, this new band of online entertainment companies sees everyone--not just the early adapters that surfed The Spot in the Net's youth--as a likely audience for what they produce. DEN is aiming its content at teens, but plans to reach sub-groups within that demographic as wide-ranging as Christian teens and Hispanic teens. And Center Seat, which recently acquired Second Coming Productions, an Emmy award-winning production company, also claims it has "the largest collection of independent films," as well as over 25,000 hours of exclusive classic TV programming, which the company is cleansing and digitizing.
The upshot? A coming online universe where the interactivity involves selecting programming from a vast array of outlets and then, in many cases, sitting back and enjoying the show.
Will everything old be new again?--KC