Why television is worth watching

Developments bringing the computer screen close to the tv set as a viewing medium have will have an impact on web use that companies need to keep an eye on.

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At last the future has arrived. It is called ‘convergence’ and it means we can finally get television on the computer. But what does it signify for business?
The UK’s Channel 4 has just started simulcasting – you can watch its television programmes on its website as they go out. Well, you can if you have broadband, if you are in the UK, if Channel 4 has the rights (sorry, no Simpsons) and if you aren’t suffering from the same gremlins that turned my video screen into a jerkily distorted bit of modern art. In principle – let me leave it as that – convergence is here, and I’m sure it can only get better.
Meanwhile, over on the BBC site I have been watching the traditional defeat of Tim Henman at Wimbledon. The BBC provides broadband video for UK audiences only (it ‘sniffs’ where you live, and decides if you are British), which meant I could at least watch Henman’s humiliation in better quality than his conqueror Roger Federer’s Swiss fans could. This does not feel like a great leap forward, because the BBC has offered video for a few years now. But the steady increase in broadband speeds means that I, with a fairly standard two megawotsit connection, can finally follow a match without having to rush screaming for the television. Presumably it will not be too long before I really can get a similar quality picture on either computer or television set.
The arrival of simulcasting is psychologically important because it puts the computer on an (almost) equal footing with the television set when it comes to watching television programmes. The next stage – which has more to do with intellectual property rights than technology – will to be the spread of television-on-demand. At which stage another much-predicted development, the end of the television schedule, will have arrived.

The wider picture

But what does all this mean for the non-broadcaster? First, internet users will become more accustomed to seeing video on the web; they may come to expect and it and will be disappointed if it is not there. So there will be more pressure to offer it.
Partly because of this, the limited amount of video now on company sites will be better watched. The most mundane form of internet video is the webcast – a creature usually restricted to the investor section that allows analysts to follow presentations and the like. Some European companies offer video webcasts already, while Americans stick to audio. I suspect video will spread, even if the picture is simply of men in suits. Expect the webcasts to become widely available as downloads, so analysts can catch up on their mobile phones as they sit on the train, or in bed. The Norwegian telecoms group Telenor is already there, providing a video webcast of its recent capital markets day presentation.
Some companies are exploiting videos in less specialist areas. Arcelor uses video extensively in its special section covering the Mittal deal. The latest of several offerings is a cosy chat between the chairmen of the two groups. Siemens has video in its online Journal. Bayer has many videos – this week the home page linked to one on the World Cup. The interest here in not in the content, but in the way Bayer manages to give much better quality by offering a wide range of speeds – it is unusual in having a 700 Kbps option, which gave me a much more impressive result than others could manage.

Exploring combined strengths

Web owners also need to think how to tap the medium’s other strengths to complement video. Returning to the broadcasters’ sites, the real imagination is not going into the film itself, but into accompanying interactive content. On The Channel 4 site you can visit the Big Brother Forum, which had 113,034 posts on it when I looked. You can chat about the housemates (punctuation optional) and you can use a drawing tool to recreate a ‘housemate’. More solemnly, from the BBC tennis site I clicked through to the professional players site. Here I found all the details I could possibly want about every player. Not only could I see what shoes Federer wears, I could link to an online shop to order a pair.
I am not suggesting that you follow any of these specific ideas. But they do show the way the web can be used, and that is always worth knowing. Combining the teenage interest of Big Brother with video, have a look at MySpace or YouTube. Here, youngsters are creating and publishing their own videos. You may struggle to think how relevant this is to a site for grown-ups, but remember that not so long ago it was only teenagers who used text messaging. Will your shareholders be publishing their own videos on your corporate website one day? Perhaps not – but it does no harm to see what kids are up to now; they are, after all, the grown-ups of the future.
First published on ft.com 30.06.06

First published 05 July, 2006
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