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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 17:46 GMT
Internet broadcasting's fuzzy future?
Royle family watching TV
It will be hard for the internet to shake TV's popularity
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Making predictions is tricky at the best of times, making them about the internet is perilous, but making them about broadcasting on the net is downright dangerous.

The reason for this is the rabid mix of technological, social and political forces driving the development of netcasting, make it all but impossible to predict just what will be thrown clear as they collide.

The only thing commentators can agree on is a word that describes what is happening. And that word is: convergence.

But that doesn't do much to describe a situation in which the net, analogue TV, digital TV, interactive TV, cable TV, satellite TV, Third-Generation mobile phones, digital radio, high-speed web connections, personal video recorders, and set-top boxes are all striving for a share of viewing audience.

Children watching TV
TV is just one electronic entertainment open to children
Gone are the days when broadcast meant pumping out programmes to an audience that simply sat back and listened or watched them. Technology has moved on.

Now it is getting ever easier for people to interact with and direct what they watch. On the internet interactivity tends to take precedence over images, and on TV the reverse is true.

But as broadband net connections, digital TV and set-top boxes which have net links become more common, this divide will disappear. Which technology will predominate is not yet clear.

These technology changes will have a profound effect on the way people watch TV or listen to the radio and on the economics of program production.

Wap phone
The internet is now available through mobile phones
Some commentators such as Chris Tant from Datamonitor believe that traditional channels such as BBC One and Channel 4 are doomed.

In the future we are likely to have hundreds of channels, and the programmes people enjoy will be spread across them rather than concentrated into the five most people have today.

"People will become more selective," said Mr Tant, "Loyalty will shift to particular programmes rather than channels."

Instead of just sitting there waiting for something good to turn up, people will search out favourite performers or programmes created by production companies they know and have entertained them in the past.

Ananova is a virtual newsreader on the internet
But Mr Tant does not think that our experience of the net will radically change the way that people watch TV.

He thinks it unlikely that documentaries will become multimedia extravaganzas made up of short video clips around a central theme that people pilot their own way through, pausing the video while they scour the web for background information on the parts that they want to know more about.

"You can have high levels of interactivity in something short," he said, "but you cannot sustain high levels of interactivity in anything long because it becomes too much of a challenge to work out or follow the thread."

He also thinks that TV is too closely associated with relaxing to tempt people to a lot of interaction, all that searching, looking up and improving your knowledge is too much like work for the generations used to vegging out on the sofa in front of their favourite soap.

Tiny audiences

Using a PC and watching the telly are very different experiences. The former tends to be a solitary experience involving lots of leaning forward and reading, with TV you sit back, often with your family, and let the sound and vision wash over you.

But what will undoubtedly change is the economics of programme production.

Andy Bell, a TV producer and founder of the ETV Centre, which is branching out in web-based programmes, says that creating shows for television was about one thing - viewers, and lots of them.

"As TV producers we always think about what we would like to do and weigh that against what we have to do to get a big audience," he said.

But as channels proliferate it becomes possible to survive on audiences which are tiny by national TV standards. The series of programmes being developed by ETV Centre will be 10 minutes long and will be profitable if they can win an audience of over 100,000 viewers.

But he acknowledges that the hard part is making programmes that are good enough to win any audience when there are hundreds of channels and thousands of choices.

Charting its past, present and digital future
See also:

12 Jan 01 | Business
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02 Mar 00 | Business
04 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
19 Apr 00 | Entertainment
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