The man shuffled in past reception, ushered through the gleaming glass corridors of the internet start-up, his unkempt brown suit and mis-matched tie attracting a few glances from the chino-clad bright young things playing at the table football as he passed into the chief executive’s office.
“Have a seat,” said the chief executive, head of one of London’s hippest “internet incubators”, where the new paradigms of e-business were being forged through the gentle clack-clacking of fingers on keyboards.
“Tell me about the internet business,” said the man, scratching his stubble. “Tell me what really WORKS.”
The bemused chief executive glanced sideways at his deputy in the room and rattled off the old favourites: it was about media, e-commerce, intranets, B2B, disintermediation.
“Why did you call the meeting, anyway,” said the chief executive, letting it be known that he was running on “internet time”.
“Let me ask you this,” said the man. “What do people pay to look at online?”
“Business news and porn,” said the chief executive.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the man. “I reckon the punters will pay to see something else.”
Obviously checking his watch, the chief executive said: “What’s that?”
The man leant back in his chair. “Violence – I can get two guys in China to fight each other to the death for 500 quid. Film it, put it on the internet and then charge access to it. What do you reckon?”
This story actually happened at the height of the internet boom in 2000, as told to me by the deputy chief executive who sat in that room. But although this otherwise repugnant idea is gruesome and was thrown out along with its originator, the reality is, in a mainstream context, people will pay to watch conflict of one sort or another online – namely, sport and, latterly, war.
Sport, of course, came first. Britain’s Premiership League has long since signed deals with media owners and clubs to allow highlights to be shown over the internet and, more recently, third-generation mobile phones. What is changing, however, is that the internet has become less of an afterthought and more of a parallel broadcast medium.
In the US last month, Yahoo won the rights to stream live video of Major League Baseball (MLB) games from the opening of the 2003 season. Previously only highlights might have been shown. Two things attracted MLB’s decision to go with live broadcasts: better technology leading to a surge of interest among consumers, and the proliferation of faster broadband internet connections.
Of course, streaming video of sport online is not new. In the UK, content providers have had notable success in the field of entertainment (such as the ubiquitous Big Brother) and business, along with events of national significance (such as the BBC’s live webcast of the Queen Mother’s funeral).
The technology and adoption rates of broadband are driving the uptake. The Yankee Group estimates that the number of broadband households in the US is close to 20 million, while in the UK it recently passed the million mark. Pushed onward by faster computers, faster connections and bigger hard drives, improvements in streaming media technology from Microsoft (MediaPlayer), Apple (Quicktime) and RealNetworks (RealPlayer) has enabled cuts in the cost of bandwidth even as the potential audience size increases.
Added to this, revenues from subscriptions and tentative moves to create ad breaks during the webcasts has made the technology much more attractive to broadcasters.
In fact, it’s relatively easy to decide what to webcast and when – but harder to decide what to charge for, until recently.
Many observers say the tipping point for the mass adoption of online video could turn out to be the Iraq war.
Unprecedented demand for near-live information from streaming video feeds related to the conflict is just the latest sign of a seismic movement towards webcasting.
Streaming media powerhouse RealNetworks claims traffic for video and audio on its RealOne subscription service has risen fivefold over the wartime period and people are watching video online for longer and longer. And the interest in video has prompted portals like the aforementioned Yahoo and now AOL to get on the bandwagon, offering sports video and movie trailers, among other things last month.
Perhaps one of the bigger moves made during the war was by the Reuters News agency, which unveiled the un-ironically named “Raw Video”, a so-far free 24-hour streaming video service featuring exclusive Reuters TV footage from the war.
Reuters says Raw Video drew around 258,000 visitors a day since its introduction and, although not a subscription service yet, users are already being asked to register to access the service, indicating the service will go paid-for.
Other broadcasters have already gone down the charging route. Live news feeds from ABCNews.com and CNN.com have dominated usage of RealNetwork’s RealOne Superpass $9.95 (€9.20) a month subscription service, which last December had already attracted more than a million subscribers.
During the war, ABCNews.com visitors could choose from four different live video feeds. Even the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite channel has had its video feed streamed online. Now, no doubt due in large part to the huge interest in footage from Iraq, the BBC is rumoured to be debating whether to offer subscription-based streaming video online.
Just as other historical events have boosted the uptake of the internet, it looks like the war has created a new mainstream demand for live, unadulterated video online, along with a new revenue stream. For better or worse, violence and conflict has been the catalyst.
First published, Irish Times, 18/4/03