The Wall Street Journal
By DEBRA JO IMMERGUT
Updated May 28, 1998 12:01 a.m. ET
Unlike his embattled counterparts in traditional network TV, Internet broadcast mogul Joey Manley is pretty confident about his future. But then, he has an ingenious business plan: militant lesbians, pot-smoking road-trippers, and anticorporate agitprop, viewable 24 hours a day, on demand. If you'd rather watch a show starring performance artist Frank Moore, the “spastic messiah” of San Francisco, than the latest episode of “Touched by an Angel,” then Mr. Manley's got your must-see TV.
As director of Free Speech Internet TV, a sprawling Web site that features over 500 “programs” — snippets of digitized video that range in length from several seconds to more than an hour — Mr. Manley represents one possible future for the endangered breed of network executive: a guy in Boulder, Colo., sitting in front of a computer, posting videotaped programming onto the World Wide Web. He believes that, by the time the much-ballyhooed convergence of Internet and broadcast television arrives, he'll be miles ahead of the big media players. “They're going to attack it as if it were regular television,” he predicts. “And they're going to fail. We're already learning things that will help us compete.”
Mr. Manley's site is one of a proliferating number of Webcasting sites on the Internet — sites that provide video footage, live or canned, for home viewing. According to BRS Media, the number of audio Webcasts has increased by more than 2000% in the past two years. Video is too new to count, but estimates for real-time video Webcasters range in the thousands, from the live feed from CNN to interactive sex videos.
“The Internet is becoming another broadcast network,” says Peggy Miles, a consultant and author who specializes in the burgeoning field of Webcasting. “It now has more audio and video content than the biggest broadcaster, with millions and millions of programs available on demand. ”
One can trace the recent explosion in the number of sites offering video and audio content, says Ms. Miles, to improvements in the software that enables Internet users to access such files. Up until a year or two ago, Web surfers had to download audio and video files, a process that was aggravatingly slow. And once accessed, the quality was lamentable: Audio files sounded garbled; video files looked more like living-room slide shows. But the situation has improved now that streaming media, which cuts out the download delay and allows instant access to files, is the standard. And further refinements are made all the time. This week, RealNetworks, producers of the software used by over 80% of Webcasters, announces the latest version of its RealPlayer streaming media system, and Microsoft is also rolling out its new Webcasting software. Both are available for free on the companies' Web sites.
As the technology comes up to speed, scads of traditional broadcasters, from Disney/ABC to the Sultanate of Oman Television Network, are investing in Webcasting. But the Webcasters who are truly exploring the limits of the new technology are the so-called “community Webcasters” such as Free Speech Internet TV, which give broadcast time to material that would never make it onto the airwaves. The video programs are unmistakably homegrown.
“We believe that people have a lot to say and especially now that technology is proliferating into the middle and even working classes, they have the tools to make media products. We have an obligation to present their media,” says Mr. Manley. And as he points out, the shows on his network have no resemblance to “America's Funniest Home Videos.” The site, funded by Colorado telecom entrepreneur John Schwartz, has a clear-cut political agenda, leaning firmly toward the left. There's a four-part interview with Noam Chomsky, an 18-minute documentary examining how a Canadian air show promotes arms sales to third-world nations, shows on every hot-button left-of-center concern from Mumia Abu Jamal to “corporate evil and globalization.” Gay and lesbian issues are covered in particular depth, from mini-documentaries produced by “Dyke TV” to “Goatboy and the Music Machine,” a show billed as a glimpse of “alternative queer living” in the mountains of Tennessee.
Ironically, the network's most popular show has little political content as such. “Rox” is a series created by two post-grad ne'er do wells in Bloomington, Ind., and was originally produced for the local community access channel. Known only as J and B, the two put together a long-running string of 10- to 30-minute videos documenting their infatuation with marijuana, their run-ins with landlords and the time they broke a little-known Gary, Ind., law against appearing in public less than four hours after eating garlic. Wry, funky and innovative in its experimentation with the medium, their show became something of a cult classic, but sadly, success tore the duo apart. J now writes for Wired News; B is a grad student at Indiana University. But thanks to the video-on-demand nature of Free Speech Internet TV, their shows can be viewed in perpetuity.
With programming like that, Free Speech Internet TV may be one of Webcasting's pioneers — last month they won the “Make-it-Happen” award at a RealNetworks' conference in Burlingame, Calif. — but they do have plenty of competition. There's Psuedo.com, for example. While the folks at Free Speech strive for earnest engagement, Manhattan-based Pseudo leans toward artsy hipness and hosts dozens of live programs each week, from “GO! Poetry's” spoken word performances to “Near Death Experience,” a show about death-metal music. With its smartly designed interface and its clever niche programming, Pseudo is a standard setter in the world of home-grown Webcasting.
Along with its many curiosities, Pseudo offers content that might actually contribute to the larger culture. For example, Franklin Furnace, the venerable artist's organization formerly based in New York's Tribeca is now a “virtual institution” that exists only on the Internet. Since February, Pseudo has been Webcasting Franklin Furnace's “shows,” mainly performance pieces by emerging artists, every other Friday at 5 p.m. Tomorrow, Lenora Champagne, who has performed at Manhattan's PS 122 and the Public Theater, will appear live on the program with a piece called “Anxious Women.”
Further down the food chain are the truly grassroots Webcasters — such as the students at West Branch High School in Morrisdale, Pa. Their video offerings include very blurry footage of the recent junior-senior prom and occasional live hook-ups to Spanish class. This is clearly not a mass medium. Indeed, very few community Webcasts are worth watching for more than a few minutes. And in an age when the average living-room television is approaching movie-theater dimensions, it's off-putting to squint at the tiny two-inch-wide RealVideo screen. Still, peering through this miniscule window in the corner of your monitor at programs produced in basements and rented studio space around the globe, you can't help feeling that you are seeing the larger world. Will these basement media moguls survive once Webcasting captures the attention of the big entertainment conglomerates? Mr. Manley at Free Speech, for one, plans to stick around. “We've had a defensive stance from the get-go. We wanted to build a reputation, an audience, before the giants log on.”