You don’t exactly fancy yourself to be the citizen journalist type. But there you were on Academy Awards night, out near the red carpet with your digital video camera in hand right as one of the celebs lost it and started beating up an unruly fan. Somehow, this scene was out of sight from the pros and you got the shot, crystal clear and brimming with epithets not suitable for prime time.
So now what? You might sell it to a news network. You might post it to your blog. But something is missing. Why is it so difficult to share your big scoop with the world without selling out to a network or crashing every server that you breathe on?
So far, the world of online video is full of walls. In order to see video, you need a variety of media players, you might have to register or pay for a service, and of course you need bandwidth. But a raft of startups and search engines are here to help bring down those walls, allow anyone to upload their amateur video and other media, and make it more searchable than ever before. The catch? Major broadcasters have been slow to open up video content, worried it’ll be devalued by file-sharers.
Of the grassroots video hubs, the veteran site would be Ourmedia.org, which recently celebrated its one-month anniversary in alpha. In fact, if you were first in line to upload at Ourmedia, you probably were stuck in a techno-hell as the site’s bandwidth was quickly overloaded. Only recently have some of the kinks been worked out, though it still ran slow for me when I tried to view popular videos there.
JD Lasica, a longtime OJR senior editor, is a co-founder of Ourmedia along with technology pioneer Marc Canter. Lasica said the site was built without even a shoestring budget — a budget of $0 — with almost all volunteer help including coding from New Delhi. It is more like a proof of concept for non-profit-type funding and operates as a true open-source site with calls for coding and other resources.
“We believe there is an entire grassroots media phenomenon that’s rising up alongside commercial media, but it needs some help, it needs some nurturing,” Lasica told me. “We’re an enabling technology to light a fire under the personal media revolution. Once people see what they can do with media, they get very excited about it. They want to be engaged and not be passive consumers of Big Media content.”
Ourmedia features a wide-ranging blog on its home page, along with 14 featured pieces of content picked by the Editor of the Week (currently Canter’s wife). While much of the featured content is video, the site is meant to be a repository for all personal media, from photos to audio and even text. Lasica says they are trying to filter content — including a rule against pornography — but are generally going by the Wikipedia model of post first, filter later.
Hello, venture capital
As Ourmedia was finding its legs, it was also finding itself in interesting company, fueled by venture capital and the stock market. Jeremy Allaire, who had already panned gold with ColdFusion, began working at a venture firm before starting up Brightcove, a mystery company that could provide the e-commerce element to personal and commercial video online.
“We’re building an online service and retail Internet TV platform that allows publishers and programmers to deliver television content direct-to-consumers over the Internet,” Allaire told me via e-mail. “And for consumers we’re creating a service that gives them greater control over their TV media. Search is a building block of the Internet, thus we expect it to integrate into what we do.”
And on the non-profit side, Ourmedia has new competition, officially out in beta today, from the Open Media Network, backed by Netscape veterans Mike Homer and Marc Andreessen. Homer is also chairman at Kontiki, a startup that provides a video-serving technology on a grid like BitTorrent but with more centralized control and digital rights management (DRM), the special sauce that mainstream media companies hanker for.
However, you have to use OMN’s special free player to view video, and OMN is focused mainly on public TV and radio shows at the outset. While it’s free to view, there is copyright protection in place, and the Network plans to include a payment system in the future. Kontiki has worked with the BBC and AOL in the past and likely is using the OMN as showcase for its technology.
And if the room wasn’t crowded enough, in stepped the 900-pound gorilla, Google, with a surprise announcement at the National Cable Show that it would be letting anyone upload video for its new Google Video service. Currently, the search kingpin offers only TV transcript searches for a limited number of TV stations. But eventually, it will also index and host any content that users upload — as long as they own the rights to content and it’s not pornography.
While Google is currently accepting submissions, it hasn’t shown anyone exactly what the interface will look like when the next phase comes and the video is searchable and watchable. The only hint of things to come is in the Google Video FAQ, which explains how you might make money from your personal video submission.
“As the content owner, you decide whether you’d like to give away your video for free or charge a price that you set for it,” the FAQ says. “If you do charge a price, Google will take a small revenue share to cover some of our costs. If our costs to play your video on Google are extraordinary, we may charge users a fee (if you’ve specified zero as the price for your video) or take a larger revenue share of the price (if you’ve set a price greater than zero for your video) to cover some of these costs. … Please be assured, however, that we’ll let you know before we add a price or charge a higher revenue share for your video.”
Loren Baker, editor of the Search Engine Journal, notes that Yahoo’s Video Search is already further along than Google, with the latter’s service more of a work in progress. Still, Google might just pull off a more automated version of Google News for audio and video from broadcasters and the grassroots crowd.
“I would not be surprised if that is what is in Google Video’s plans given the success of Google News and their current ‘public’ partnerships with ABC, Fox News, PBS, C-SPAN, and NBC,” Baker told me via e-mail. “That’s a strong lineup of video content providers for such an online evening/headline news aggregation system.”
Singingfish, Yahoo and the MSM conundrum
Coincidentally or not, the rise of grassroots video efforts is happening just as the large search engines are putting their video search offerings into beta. Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo’s director of media and desktop search, told me that the portal is crawling third-party content on the Web while also making deals with commercial media companies.
“You’ve got to remember that Yahoo has Broadcast.com, and for some time, we have been one of the major forces in streaming content on the Net,” Horowitz said. “In certain domains such as music videos, we are the No. 1 streamer of content of that type of content on the Web today. Video Search not only indexes outside content but also the content that exists within Yahoo, whether it’s news or music video.”
Perhaps the dark horse in the video search world is Singingfish, a pioneer in the field now owned by AOL that has been doing audio and video search for six years. Search Engine Journal’s Baker calls it a gem in Time Warner’s back pocket that TW could integrate more tightly with its content offerings.
Singingfish vice president and general manager Karen Howe said the company’s income was mainly from licensing deals with other search engines and portals such as Lycos, Real, WindowsMedia.com, Dogpile and Metacrawler — all of whom could filter results in their own way. Howe estimates that Singingfish handles 8 million searches across all its affiliates (and AOL sites) per day.
Howe says the search engine gets 98 percent of its indexed material via automated Web crawls, with the rest coming from either “handshake” deals with media companies or via a contract that spells out just what content Singingfish can crawl and link to. Both Yahoo and Singingfish are setting up special extended RSS feeds for media companies to use in order to better automate indexing in the search engines with metadata so people can find just what’s in the video stream. Neither site actually hosts the video content that it crawls and indexes, though Yahoo shows thumbnail photos taken from within the video streams.
“I’ve been through like 10 knotholes with the Time Warner legal folks, and I think I’ve pretty much put to bed their concerns and fears over what could be the bad thing,” Howe said. “Because there isn’t a bad thing. It’s a shift in mindset, it’s something different. And anything new that smacks of someone getting access to something they didn’t have is problematic.”
Howe estimates there could be 300 million video streams online, but Singingfish has still only scratched the surface with just under 20 million streams indexed. Singingfish also crawls adult content — literally anything that’s legal — and includes a “Family Filter” with pretty conservative rules for what partner sites or individuals can filter out (including sex education material).
Finally, Howe believes that there’s been a sea change at media companies when it comes to embracing video search. “There’s been a general recognition that they’re going to have to digitize their content, and if they’re going to digitize it, then they’re going to have to monetize it,” she said. “I think people have sort of gotten over themselves. They used to assume that people would just go to such-and-such site to find this wonderful content. Well, no, because people have so many options.”
Larry Kramer, head of the new CBS Digital division and former honcho at CBS MarketWatch, told me video search is critical to the future of CBS because it’s an extension of what the Web helps people do best — search and research. “We are actively in discussions with several outlets who are developing video search techniques and will likely work with several in various contexts,” he said. “This is an evolving marketplace and we must be careful to be able to evolve with it and take advantage of all forms of technology.”
CBS and other media companies are caught in a tough spot, wanting to exploit the technology and bring in ancillary income from “The Long Tail” — but are also worried that without DRM their content’s value will vaporize in a haze of file-swapping. John Battelle, author of the forthcoming book, “The Search,” and the Searchblog, says that at least now the entertainment industry sees the opportunity.
“They didn’t see it with Napster, but they see it now,” Battelle said. “They know that there are copies of ‘I Love Lucy’ in the content archives somewhere. Each one of those could become annuities that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, because of the power of ‘The Long Tail.’ But they’re afraid that [we'd] be swapping our copies of ‘I Love Lucy’ on the Web. Most of these solutions claim to do that with some flavor of DRM. But if they cut off the forces of participation and the forces of many, it ain’t gonna take.”
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Who Wants to Be An Online Video Hub?
A rundown of the major players in grassroots video and video search.
Business model: Unknown officially, but could take a cut of video sales.
Copyright stance: Unknown officially, but might offer some DRM.
Porn policy: Likely to filter it or ban it.
Star Power: Founder Jeremy Allaire, co-creator of ColdFusion software.
Business model: Takes cut of video sales — you set your price.
Copyright stance: You must own copyrights of your material.
Porn policy: No pornography allowed.
Star Power: Co-founders Sergey Brin, Larry Page and their cast of multi-millionaires.
Open Media Network
Business model: Non-profit showcase for Kontiki; might take cut of video sales.
Copyright stance: Mainly public TV content now; offers Creative Commons licensing.
Porn policy: Not allowed, but policing will be done by community.
Star Power: Former Netscapers Mike Homer and Marc Andreessen
Business model: Non-profit with funding eventually.
Copyright stance: User chooses scheme, must have copyright to material except for fair use.
Porn policy: Not allowed, though erotic photography is OK; post first, filter later.
Star Power: Tech guru Marc Canter.
Business model: License search engine to other portals; might do rich advertising, subscription bounties in future.
Copyright stance: Spiders material and links to it, makes deals with publishers.
Porn policy: Anything legal is OK, but optional Family Filter will exclude porn.
Star Power: Time Warner’s vast video and music library.
Yahoo Video Search
Business model: Unknown, but could include paid search links.
Copyright stance: Spiders material and links to it, makes deals with publishers.
Porn policy: Adult material OK, but SafeSearch feature will exclude porn.
Star Power: Former Hollywood and TV execs Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun at helm.