Video in Broadband Driver's Seat

How big is internet video to the future of broadband? Well, if the PBS's experience is any indication, "sick nasty" big.

According to Angela Morgenstern, managing director of PBS Online and formerly with MTV, their online audience wants "everything ever made," and they want it in high definition, full screen and top quality, and they have little patience for delay.

That was her message in an FCC workshop Thursday on how online video is shaping, and may shape, the deployment and adoption of broadband, all part of a series of workshops to help FCC staffers draft a national broadband plan.

PBS earlier this year began making full-length videos of its programs available online, and while the industry average for online video viewing has been 3-4 minutes--YouTube
still dominates with 40-45% of video viewing--Morgenstern said PBS surfers have been tuning in much longer than expected: 20 minutes.

She also talked about the double primetime effect, where the site is now seeing a viewing peak at 10 p.m. along with the traditional daytime peak.

"Sick nasty," she pointed out, is a good thing.

But while the rise in online viewing was generally seen as helping drive adoption and supplementing public interest programming on other media (or compensating for
its lack by the reckoning of some), some of those efforts were not without their critics.

Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn, for example, took aim at the cable/telco online play, TV Everywhere, or ESPN360, saying the content was being put behind a pay wall because Disney charges operators a per-sub fee for the content, and because TV Everywhere is bundled with other services.

She took the opportunity to push for Carterfone-like regulations from devices on cable nets, openness conditions and a host of other conditions, including program access enforcement for the Internet.

Dick Green, former president of CableLabs, responded to Sohn's' criticism of cable online efforts, saying there were plenty of services that deliver broadband and charge fees. But he said the arrangements are all different and are all experiments. "Let a thousand flowers bloom and let's see how this goes," he said. "I can't see that it is restrictive."

What he did see was service providing high-value content that was not available before, and that the current model allows them to authenticate a customer, which allows a programmer to provide the content with the reasonable assurance that it won't be stolen. "Programmers want access to people, and this is one model," he said.

Green said that there are a lot of different potential models for video delivery and that that might require some "conversations" between networks and programmers. For example, he said, it would make no sense to deliver HD to phones or it might make sense to multicast for more efficient routing.

That would mean conversations, likely in everyone's interest he said, between content providers and deliverers, about the optimum methods. He added that with 320 mbps on tap for Docsis capability by next year, cable would be able to handle the video loads.

"What about the competitive tensions of such conversations?" asked an FCC staffer.

Sohn said she had no problem so long as they were not "smoke-filled room meetings between Hollywood and big ISPS. She pointed out that most video is user-generated. She said she wasn't suggesting everyone with a video of their cat get in the room, but that it needed to be a broader conversation.

An FCC staffer asked if the video model moves more toward the Internet, how that would impact the traditional media--broadcasting--and their ability to fulfill their public service and public interest programming functions, and whether the new platforms will be able to replicate those functions. "Should we care and what should we be thinking
about doing about it?" the staffer aksed.

Phil Wiser, Chairman of Internet TV company Sezmi said that broadband video was an even better medium for educational content and raising awareness about issues than broadcasting because it can be targeted one-on-one. "It's smart delivery."

Morgenstern agreed. She said there was more opportunity to define what the public interest meant by engaging the public in the process of determining what they consider in their public interest. "The FCC can involve the audience in the decision in a way they couldn't with one-way broadcast."

Sohn said she thought localism would be a huge thing over the internet because "broadcasters are not serving those needs." She said that an online video ecosystem, if it is allowed to grow, will meet those public interest needs. "I think you are going to see online programmers hopefully pick up where local broadcasters have left off, and hopefully drive broadcasters to say: 'I need to consider programming that will allow me to keep my spectrum.'"

Asked whether there was actually a commercial model for producing such programming, Sohn said yes. Prefacing her remarks with a call for attention since she was "going to say something nice about cable," Sohn said: "Cable does it today. What is Newschannel 8 (Allbritton's Washington cable news net)? What is Channel One in New York? There is a commercial market for local news and programming. I think there could be one online as well."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.