THE KING KONG OF CONTENT
By George Cole
Later this year, European consumers with a personal computer and
a high-speed internet connection will be able to download full-length
films and television programmes to watch on their PC. The service
is being launched by US company Intertainer in a joint venture with
the Italian new media conglomerate Freedomland.
The companies plan to offer their service in more than 40 European
countries, with a combination of subscription and pay-per-view services.
Jonathan Taplin, Intertainer's CEO, claims there will be great benefits
to downloading films and programmes on demand. "People want what
they want, when they want it and they don't get that with a TV schedule,"
The idea of watching TV programmes on a computer screen may not
instantly appeal to all consumers. But the launch of entertainment-on-demand
services such as the Intertainer/Freedomland venture shows how internet
media groups are finding more uses for streaming media - the technology
that enables audio and video to be sent over the internet.
Before streaming media arrived, audio or video files had to be
downloaded on to a PC before playback. Streaming allows content
to be played on the fly.
The technology involves compressing content into a small file and
sending it over the internet to a PC. Many computers include streaming
media player software from Apple, Microsoft or Real- Networks and
the system has been widely used on the internet for advertising,
marketing and promotional purposes - allowing consumers, for example,
to watch a video clip of a forthcoming film.
Now, the increasing availability of high-speed, broadband internet
connections is encouraging media companies to create internet services
that combine content from a variety of sources to offer a package
If content is king, content aggregation is King Kong, say its supporters.
"Consumers want good content but they also want lots of it. If they're
going to purchase content online, content aggregation will help
drive this," says David Sidebottom, senior market analyst of digital
distribution services at the research company Understanding and
Intertainer's service, for example, includes content from film
companies such as Dreamworks, Universal, Warner Bros and MGM.
Last June saw the launch of RealNetwork's RealOne SuperPass service
in several European markets. The service includes content from CNN,
MTV, UEFA Champions League and BBC Worldwide, all of which can be
selected with just a few clicks of a mouse. Subscribers pay €9.99
€14.99 a month for content that includes news reports, sports updates
and a library of video clips from the BBC music programme Old Grey
"Companies with compelling content are looking for new revenue
markets and for companies [such as] Real that can aggregate content
and offer consumers attractive packages," says Larry Jacobson, RealNetwork's
president and CEO.
Jonathan Crane, director, commercial broadband and internet for
BBC Worldwide, says: "We are looking for new platforms to exploit
and video on demand is an interesting platform." But he adds that
there is an art to offering multimedia broadband content: "You need
to repurpose, repackage and be creative when you develop [the] content.
Short-form video chunks work best."
Chris Tant, managing analyst at research company Datamonitor agrees:
"Not many people would want to watch a full-length film on their
PC but content you can dip into could be attractive."
US company FullAudio offers music companies and publishers a content
aggregation service that includes technology support. FullAudio
has struck licensing deals with music companies such as BMG, EMI,
Universal and Warner Bros and has formed a distribution partnership
with Clear Channel, the largest US radio network.
In the first seven months, the US RealOne SuperPass service attracted
more than 600,000 subscribers who pay between $9.95 and $19.95 for
games, music, sport, news and entertainment.
Even more adventurous projects using streaming media are planned.
Companies talk about offering "DVD-like" pictures and "CD-quality"
sound on a PC.
Nevertheless, the success of streaming media services depends on
the fast roll-out of broadband. The Pew Internet & American Life
Project says that 24m US homes have a broadband connection, representing
one in five adult internet users. By contrast, only 3 per cent of
households in western Europe will have a broadband connection this
year - although according to Understanding and Solutions, almost
a quarter will have one by 2006.
Even with a broadband connection, streaming media can be temperamental,
says Mr Tant: "Streaming media quality is good but it's still got
a lot of ground to cover. You may have a fast connection to your
ISP [internet service provider] but there are bottlenecks. Anything
larger than quarter-screen video is pushing it in terms of quality."
Software makers counter that streaming media technology is improving.
Michael Aldridge, Microsoft's lead product manager for Windows
digital media development, says: "Later this year, we'll be introducing
a new technology called Corona that will offer features [such as]
improved picture quality, multi- channel sound and faster playback.
It's going to mean a more TV-like experience on your PC."
Companies are also looking at using MPEG-4 video technology for
improved picture quality. "We're developing a system that combines
streaming with downloading so you'll be able to play music as it's
being downloaded to your PC," says Chris Gladwin, CEO of FullAudio.
Streaming media will also appear on devices such as games consoles,
set-top boxes, mobile phones and personal video recorders. RealNetworks,
for example, is working with companies such as Sony, Nokia, Hewlett
Packard and Tivo to take streaming media beyond the PC.