Those determined to dub the Iraqi crisis the ?Internet war? are missing the big picture when it comes to media coverage.
It?s all about video with a capital V no matter how it?s delivered. Live video transmitted from battlefields, aircraft carriers and a hotel in Baghdad. Video clips available 24/7 to anyone with a decent Internet connection and patience during peak traffic times. Video repeats around the clock. (How many of you can quote CNN?s David Ensor on Saddam Hussein word for word?)
The Vietnam War came into our living rooms for a few minutes during the evening news via reports that sometimes took days to move from battlefield to air. Even the day-old images were enough to transform public opinion. Most of the first Gulf War battle video was limited to images provided by the Pentagon, keeping the media and the public at arms length.
This time there?s more video available more quickly from more locations than during any previous war -- and available to more people at times when they otherwise would lack access. Just one example: MSNBC.com delivered more than 26 million free video streams in the first three days of the war, most of them during mainland U.S. work hours.
It hasn?t hurt that an increasing number of Internet users have access to high-speed lines allowing faster and richer downloads of visual images.
So far the Arthur Kent of this war isn?t one of the dust-covered war zone correspondents -- it?s the live camera in Baghdad. Dean Wright, the new editor in chief of MSNBC.com, says it?s No. 1 on the charts every time he checks the control room. ABCNews reports longer visits as users leave the Baghdad screen open waiting for action, the video version of the Webcam fish tank only this time one of the fish is a stealth piranha.
?The Gulf War was still basically a cable war,? Wright says. ?It was television. It was immediate, as long as you were watching television. This one is always there, always in front of you.?
The result is a vastly different experience, one in which the media both cover the story and are part of it. Watching video online can feel more remote, but the ability to essentially produce your own newscast, if that?s how you choose to do it, can also produce a more personal connection. Horizons are literally expanded as news sites around the world provide their own video and Web casts.
However horrific, it could be just the push into the public consciousness streaming journalism needs at just the right time.
The major increase in downloads of streaming video -- both free and paid -- underscores the importance of the Internet as a journalism pipeline. It also points to the very real potential of online news video as a moneymaker if managed carefully -- and if no one relies on the inflated numbers delivered during a crisis as the basis for a business model. To that end, the truly important statistic isn?t the number of people tuning in now as much as it is the percentage of newcomers who stick around after the war.
Of course, the amount of streaming video pales in comparison to the amount of video being delivered by broadcast and cable networks or even local affiliates. Tossed the traffic metric from MSNBC.com, Mitch Gelman, a senior vice president and executive producer at CNN.com, quickly asks, not quite rhetorically, how many video clips or packages were delivered to millions of viewers by NBC.
?Video online is not meant to replace television,? Gelman says. ?If you have access to TV you should watch TV. There?s no better way to consume video than on television. What the online services provide is a way for people, particularly those at work who don?t have access to television, to follow the news and to get the story.?
Streaming video can untether users much as having a VCR or now a digital video recorder frees us from the tyranny of the television schedule. Over the weekend, I walked in the park and ate lunch at a caf? secure in the knowledge that barring a major Internet meltdown, I could catch up once I returned home. Or I can take it with me. As I write some of this, I?m in my neighborhood coffeehouse with Reuters Raw Video on in the background, Arabic chants and all.
Streaming video took the Internet stage during the first week of the war, showing both the potential and the pitfalls of a technology only beginning to come of age. The video being streamed still lacks the instant-on nature of television. But the image and the transmission quality of many services are closer than ever. (Some full-screen feeds on my 12.1-inch Toshiba Port?g? screen were as good as the television set on my desk.)
One Internet veteran couldn?t resist noting that as streaming video improves, after years of taking swipes at herky-jerky online images, TV networks are now forced to rely on some of the herkiest, jerkiest, murkiest video of all as correspondents show up from the back of tanks, the swirling brown of the desert and the green or red light of night.
The flexibility is greater, too, although you get what you pay for. Two significant additions to the subscription video scene came online literally just before the war began. ABCNews.com debuted ABC News Live, billed as the first 24-hour broadband news service and featuring what may be the best gimmick yet: a virtual control room with a quad feed that allows the viewer to scan all four streams. It?s nifty but still a little glitchy. For the first day or so of the war, the site only made use of one feed; later, the quad feed was sometimes unstable or would disappear altogether when the site decided one stream was enough.
That would be one of the pitfalls -- using a feature that isn?t always available to pitch a service. If I subscribed last week to ABCNews.com with the quad feed in mind, I would have been disappointed. When it works, it works very well.
Bernard Gershon, senior vice president and general manager of ABCNews.com, says that far from trying to debut the new service in time for the war, it?s nearly five years behind schedule. Codenamed ?Project Everclear,? he had hoped it would be up and running by the end of 1998. The project was tabled by ?lack of money, lack of broadband connectivity, poor video streaming quality.?
This time he was able to launch the new feature with a subscription-backed revenue stream -- he has said the site could be in the black this year -- for very little money, far better video quality and the use of fewer resources ABC and CNN were the first two news sites to put video behind a subscription-only wall. Both are available with RealOne, the Real Networks? mix of subscription services, as part of AOL and as single services each with its own plan. As of last week, ABCNews.com is also available on new subscription service Yahoo Platinum, which debuted with the remarkable combo of a war and a more expensive exclusive out-of-market NCAA March Madness streaming video package. Yahoo Platinum costs $9.95 a month for its basic package, and an additional $7 for its SportsPak.
That combination came in handy for those of us so caught up in the war we missed games we once considered important. Yahoo?s NCAA package comes with an archive of games that can be fast-forwarded or rewound, although watching an entire game that way is for the truest of fans. Then again, fans have been watching live games with simulated action on sports Web sites for years.
A Yahoo spokesman said the company couldn?t tell which got the most attention, but that both were among the most viewed sections on the site last week.
Like most of the subscription video services, including Major League Baseball?s new MLB.tv streaming package being offered for $14.95 a month, or $79.95 for the season, Yahoo is aiming for the work crowd with enough interest to watch several-inch screens and bosses who shrug their shoulders.
Why would anyone watch sports and news online when they can see it on television? March Madness, baseball and, yes, much of the war take place while most of us are at work. You may be able to get away with a sick day for the first round of the tournament, but you can?t skip work every time your baseball team plays during the day.
Merrill Brown, a senior vice president at Real Networks, says it?s the first workplace war. ?This is the greatest test of television at work and the effectiveness of that delivery system in that space that?s ever occurred,? he said. ?People will be watching at work in this week and in coming weeks in extraordinary numbers.?
The same holds true for travelers. In Pebble Beach on business earlier this week, Brown crowed about being able to overcome distribution bottleneck. ?I?m in a hotel now that doesn?t have Fox News, but the laptop has literally everything.?
Everything except a live streaming video of what is appearing on most networks, save C-Span. Contractual obligations with cable operators keep MSNBC and CNN from streaming their on-air content live, although MSNBC can use some special coverage live from NBC News. ABCNews.com used ABC Radio anchors for the first five days of the war. Each produces regular updates and uses clips from their broadcast siblings.
Says CNN?s Gelman, ?We?ve offered more interactive features and rich media now than we have in covering any story before in large part because more people have access to the Internet through high-speed connection.?
CBSNews.com had more than enough video for anyone who wanted to keep track of the war, although neither CBSNews.com nor FoxNews.com are really meant to be stand-alone sites.
MSNBC, Reuters, Fox and CBS have something else going for them: free access to streaming video. That may mean slower, less rich streams and consequently smaller pictures, but it allows an untold number of people to access streaming video without a subscription. According to internal server numbers, MSNBC.com served up 2.5 million live and on-demand streams on Tuesday, March 18, 6.1 million on Wednesday when the key action took place at night; close to 9.8 million on Thursday and 10.3 million on Friday. By Saturday it was back to 2.5 million, still high compared to the usually light weekend traffic.
By comparison, RealOne SuperPass, which Brown says has close to 1 million subscribers, served 3 million accesses to audio and video content on Thursday, March 20, double the volume of a typical day. Brown admits that Real had some bugs in the first 24 hours, explaining ?there was a server bug in some of our new equipment that related to new users, and we didn?t add capacity quite as quickly as we needed to.? Both problems have been resolved.
These aren?t the only streaming options for news consumers. The lower costs of technology and the smaller sizes of equipment make it possible for virtually anyone to become a multimedia reporter without doing an imitation of Al Franken wearing a dish. A number of journalists usually confined to print are producing gripping coverage with video and/or audio while those whose main job is on television are sending text files and contributing to blogs. The Internet Broadcasting System, a network of local television sites, provides national and international clips while their affiliates cover the home front.
CBSNews.com head Betsy Morgan told The New York Times she doubted the viability of subscription news, saying, "Why would anyone sign up to pay for CNN.com or ABCNews.com unless they are total Peter Jennings or Diane Sawyer or Wolf Blitzer junkies?"
That slides right past the point. The real value is in being able to access video on demand -- to watch ?60 Minutes? or your favorite nightly news or ?Nightline? on your own terms. Comcast digital cable subscribers in Philadelphia can watch Tom Brokaw on demand but that?s still a rarity as cable video on demand matures.
Reuters plans to charge. At MSNBC, Wright is struggling with how to move to subscription without losing the viewers drawn by free video. Besides, he adds, MSNBC can create revenue from free video when video pages aren?t ad-free as has been the case so far during the war.
?I think it?s especially important during the war that we continue to be able to offer free video,? says Wright. ?We feel that the extra traffic that?s coming more than compensates and we have built into our budget a little bit of excess. ? We don?t feel a great sense of urgency to move into a subscription model.?
That?s a plus for those news consumers who don?t feel a great sense of urgency to type in their credit cards numbers to make this a pay for play war.
Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has co-produced a segment for "Nightline."