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Originally published Monday, May 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Via the Internet, TV's future promises to be more eclectic

Cable television often boasts that it can deliver esoteric fare suiting nearly any taste. But it could be rendered obsolete by the likes...

The Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Cable television often boasts that it can deliver esoteric fare suiting nearly any taste. But it could be rendered obsolete by the likes of Bill Eason's hog-cooking class.

The North Carolina cook's program — self-described as an "all-day, whole-hog class edited down to 45 minutes on how to find, select, prepare and serve whole hog from the man who cooks several hundred per year" — will be available for a $1.99 download as early as next month on something called DaveTV.

It's the type of show — niche programming to please any taste or whim — we'll be seeing much more now that broadband Internet has finally become a more reliable conduit for the delivery of broadcast-quality video.

A number of startups are promoting this sort of "narrowcasting."

A look at some startups seeking to capitalize on the emerging market for Over-the-Internet video delivery:


DaveTV: An Atlanta distributor that says it will launch a service next month offering more than 100,000 hours of licensed content. The service will offer video to consumers and allow content providers to publish their works and tailor advertising. www.dave.tv

Brightcove: A Cambridge, Mass., distributor that plans to offer video content for consumers and publishing services for content providers in the second half of this year. www.brightcove.com

Akimbo Systems: A San Mateo, Calif., distributor of more than 50 categories of programs delivered to a TV set-top box offering up to 200 hours of video storage. www.akimbo.com

Orb Networks: An Emeryville, Calif., company offering a box that routes the TV signal from a cable box or video recorder into any Internet-connected portable device, such as a laptop or handheld. www.orb.com

Sling Media: A San Mateo, Calif., provider of software that allows a user to access video, music and photos from any Web-connected device through technology that gets around conflicting formats the machines use. www.slingmedia.com

— The Associated Press

Theirs is a vision of a video universe of endless variety that will dwarf traditional television and pay-per-view offerings even as new players — regional Bell phone companies among them — emerge to vie for viewers with cable, satellite and other providers.

Ken Lipscomb, chief executive of the Atlanta-based company, says DaveTV will offer more than 100 channels featuring 100,000 hours of licensed programming, much of it specialized fare such as illegal street racing and bedtime stories read by an on-screen narrator.

The hog video will be on the company's "BBQ" channel, featuring more than 1,000 barbecue-related programs. Initially, DaveTV will only be available for viewing on a computer. But the company promises a set-top box for about $200 that will allow downloads to be played on televisions.

Linking to computers

Also getting into the act is a company called Brightcove Networks, which will let customers avoid buying a separate set-top box and instead link their TVs to newer computers that run Microsoft Windows Media Center software.

Led by Jeremy Allaire, former chief technical officer of Macromedia, the Cambridge-based company says it plans to begin offering a platform to deliver all manner of programming — supplied by everyone from traditional TV producers to video bloggers to video-on-demand startups — sometime in the second half of the year.

"I deeply believe that over the next several years it will be this blend of very popular shows to kind of middle-of-the-road, down to you-happen-to-be-a-fly-fishing-guy, and you watch fly-fishing videos made by some guy in Kansas, and you're paying him $10 to see it," Allaire said.

Startups like Brightcove are counting on revenue from consumers, advertisers and such content providers as small-time filmmakers looking to gain exposure. The latter can feed their masterpieces to a distributor and set terms for pricing and any ads that might accompany the show. Revenue from viewers who pay either a subscription or per-program fee could be split.

Other fledgling companies, such as San Mateo, Calif.-based Akimbo Systems, offer a mix of traditional TV fare and more esoteric content. Akimbo charges $10 a month and offers about 1,600 programs, though 60 percent of them cost extra — anywhere from 50 cents to a few bucks.

The History Channel, A&E, CNN and Playgirl TV are among more established players who are already latching onto the new distribution services even as they license their programming to traditional cable and satellite operators.

Technology boost

The shift in the video landscape is made possible by high-speed connections and increasingly fast microprocessors that typically allow a two-hour feature film to be downloaded in less than an hour.

For spur-of-the-moment viewing, a customer can begin watching a film in less than a minute and download the rest while the movie plays. Or, like TiVo, a download can be scheduled while a computer isn't in use, for later viewing.

Allaire and others expect that companies like his will bypass the copyright battles plaguing music downloads because distributors can choose to offer only copyright-protected content. And copy-protection technologies such as Microsoft's Windows Media Digital Rights Management system are expected to limit unauthorized copies.

Allen Weiner, a new-media analyst at Gartner, says startups like Brightcove are "all going after the next generation of what television will look like."

Looking to nourish all this technology with programming are a host of new players in the movie business such as streaming video site iFilm.com and AmazeFilms, a partner that is among content providers to Akimbo.

They may not be the next Steven Spielbergs. But the new media offer promise for creators like Jonathan Caouette, who spent just over $200 assembling camcorder footage and other recordings into a personalized family documentary using movie editing software.

His 88-minute downloadable film "Tarnation" won critical acclaim at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals.

There also are free alternatives to the pay-to-view model, including the recently formed Open Media Network, a service for the online distribution of video and audio content whose founders say they won't allow it to traffic in pirated programming.

Internet TV

Meanwhile, traditional phone companies — including Verizon and SBC Communications — are investing in Internet Protocol television, or IPTV, which involves converting a TV signal into small data packets.

New TV delivery systems such as IPTV are expected to accelerate fragmentation of TV audiences with more robust video-on-demand offerings and greater interactivity.

A recent report on the future of television by Deloitte & Touche said cable-subscription revenue has tripled since 1997 while revenue from DVD sales has risen by a factor of 15.

IPTV "has the potential to drive video-content revenues higher still," the report says. "The bottom line is that television networks will have plenty of opportunities for rapid growth. They'll just be different than the ones companies rely on today."

Gartner's Weiner says companies like DaveTV, Brightcove and Akimbo can thrive initially by drawing early adopters who are tired of traditional network fare. But the competitive landscape could quickly change if the likes of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft can leverage their Internet search muscle and provide portals for consumers to access video content, he said. All three tech giants are already developing video search engines.

Weiner says big companies may eventually take over, but not before lots of small players rush in. "My greatest fear is that once people begin to see these services, there will be so much excitement around this and so many companies moving into this space that there will be a bust," he said. "In the interim, people will just see an unbelievable opportunity. You will see a huge rush into the space."

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