Television on the Internet taking off for real
Frederique Pris and Audrey Stuart report on how the long-awaited 'television on-line' dream is finally becoming a reality.
It's been a long time coming but television on the Internet appears finally to be taking off, opening up a new viewing experience for free and helping to fight online piracy.
One of the newest services, Hulu, which was launched a month ago in the United States, is backed by media giant NBC Universal and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
The online video-on-demand (VOD) service "will let you watch your favourite programmes anytime for free", Hulu's youthful CEO Jason Kilar told a conference at the giant MIPTV audiovisual entertainment industry trade show this week.
Geared to appeal to a wide audience, Hulu, which is free but comes with short 15 to 30-second advertising spots that fund the service, offers high picture and sound quality, Kilar said.
Another service that could prove a big hit is that users can select any video content and embed it on their blog or favourite Internet sites such as a MySpace page or Facebook, where it can be shared with friends.
As well as offering Fox and NBC hits like "The Simpsons" and "Heroes", Hulu has also inked deals with about 50 leading content providers that include Sony Pictures, Warner Bros. and National Geographic.
But while viewers can choose from 250 hit TV series, they cannot watch any live shows and instead are re-directed, if seeking "Grey's Anatomy" for example, to the ABC website which does have the show.
Kilar said the plan was to make Hulu available outside the US. "It can be a global service and that's our aim," he said. But this will take time as the company would need to negotiate content rights issues for each country.
In the meantime, the service looks set to meet some formidable competition from TV broadcasters.
Britain's giant state-owned BBC Corporation announced recently that it is teaming up with two of country's leading commercial channels, ITV and Channel 4, to launch an online video joint venture around the middle of this year.
'It's time to attack and not be defensive'
Setting aside their rivalries, the networks plan to hit back at the growing challenge posed by hugely successful Internet video-sharing sites such as YouTube, where their programmes are regularly illegally downloaded.
Several web-based TV services have been launched in the past few years.
These include Joost that was set-up in 2006 by the Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom, creators of the illegal music file-sharing service Kazaa, as well as Babelgum, Vuze and Veoh, which is the grand old man of the pack having been
set-up in 2003.
Web-based TV, which is also sometimes called Internet TV, is delivered over the open, public, global Internet using legal peer-to-peer file-sharing technology.
This differs from IPTV, which uses a private, "walled-garden" type of managed network.
Both Joost and Babelgum were launched last year but industry experts are starting to question what sort of results they and other fledgling web TV services are notching up.
These services have been criticised for not offering enough content and for incomplete TV series, and recently some have started to change track.
Joost is now concentrating on partnering with major studio and TV networks. Babelgum is focusing on independent films, sport, nature and travel, and Vuze is specialising in the sci-fi and animation genres popular with young males.
"It's time to attack and not be defensive," Kilar believes. "Internet users will find the programme that they want with or without you. But if they're downloading illegally, that's not going to generate any advertising revenue for you," he pointed out.
The cost of running the sites, however, is very high due to the heavy bandwidth.
"No one has come up yet with an effective business model for ad-supported long-form video on the web and the company that does might just hit on a gold mine," the specialist next-generation media and entertainment magazine FutureMedia underlined in its April edition.
Frederique Pris and Audrey Stuart