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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Niche TV growing quickly online
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

If you have a hobby or interest you are passionate about, the chances are that you have already found a website or a blog dedicated to it.

Rob Bonnet
The BBC's Rob Bonnet also presents village cricket highlights

But with the spread of high speed broadband there is an increasing possibility that you just might find a whole TV channel, not just on the internet, but through your TV and mobile too.

English village cricket in the heart of Oxfordshire is not the sort of thing you would expect to find on TV.

BBC Sports Correspondent Rob Bonnet, a familiar face to millions, presents match highlights but this is not the BBC.

Serving the world from Chipping Norton, The Country Channel is one of thousands of new television stations springing up worldwide, available over the internet.

I visited a TV production facilities house that usually serves the traditional television stations. Now it also produces and encodes IPTV.

The IP stands for Internet Protocol, and it is the same system used to deliver web content when we surf, or our voices when we use internet telephony.

The rapid take up of broadband means there is now essentially an "open network" over which anyone with enough bandwidth can provide new channels to a worldwide audience.

Finding a niche

Paul Aitkin, chairman and founder of countrychannel.tv has leased 60 acres of land, which he calls his outdoor studio, so his channel can actively get involved in the subjects it covers.

He has been waiting a long time to start a station devoted to the great outdoors.

Countrychannel.tv
Countrychannel.tv is one of thousands of niche channels

"For a long time I felt the countryside has had a bit of a raw deal in terms of the way it's covered and shown on standard forms of media," Mr Aitkin said.

"Early in 1998 I did a first internet broadcast on 28k modems. It was a fascinatingly appalling picture but we did actually do it for four hours, live, from the building we're in at the moment.

"We got responses from America, we did have people who watched it. What's important to me is that now, at this point in time, the technology allows us to reflect easily what it is we want to tell stories about."

The Country Channel launched earlier this month, with an audience measured in hundreds.

Funded mainly through a mixture of subscription and advertising, Paul is gambling that interest will grow quickly so he can meet his six figure annual running costs.

Targeted marketing

More entrepreneurs who are passionate about a hobby or interest group are starting to set up their own TV stations using IP technology narrowcasting, or slivercasting.

Simon Brydon
I just wanted the opportunity to see more cycling
Simon Brydon, Cycling TV
Narrowstep provides technical support to these smaller channels.

It encodes live satellite feeds on the fly, offers editing facilities, provides flexible bandwidth and servers to meet demand, allows first-time channel controllers to manage their schedules from home, and helps with something crucial to IPTV's success - direct, targeted, advertising.

"The technology that exists today enables us to reach out to parts of the world that we wouldn't otherwise be able to reach, but also you're actually speaking to them directly," explained Steve Beaumont, CEO of Narrowstep.

"The old adage 'half my advertising spending is wasted, I just don't know which half' is gone.

"I can now direct my advertising to you, or anyone else, once I know their interest group."

While some niche channels will prove too specialist to survive, sports channels appear to be doing well.

Live cycling

Simon Brydon set up Cycling TV three years ago. Half a million pounds later, 2006 could be the first year that he makes a profit.

Tour de France
TV is keen to cover the Tour de France
"I just wanted the opportunity to see more cycling. I thought if nobody else will provide it we'll do it ourselves," he said.

While the bigger broadcasters rush to cover cycling's premier event, the Tour de France, often the only place you can find live coverage of other European races is on Cycling TV.

"It's during these times that simultaneous viewing figures peak hitting 8 or 9,000 - that's comparable to some established cable channels, and it's rising.

"The rights to many sports at the moment have no value whatsoever," Mr Brydon added. "In fact, a lot of sports pay traditional television companies for their coverage.

"That means the internet will be able to develop a small rights fee for a sport that traditionally doesn't have a value, and, for the rights owner, that's additional revenue for their sport."

Competition from big business

Ironically, niche sports IPTV could become a victim of its own success if sports rights become too expensive.

Some actually plan on being bought out by bigger players. But these are early days.

Most home broadband connections are too slow to stream full screen broadcast quality pictures, and many of these channels simply do not offer that.

Despite the facility to control streaming speeds, buffering and frame dropouts can pose problems.

In theory, these services can be streamed to mobiles and set-top boxes with broadband connections.

In practice, many are not set up to for those platforms yet.

At the moment it appears the loyal audiences these channels attract are prepared to forgive any technical shortcomings.

But with telecoms operators, broadcasters, and multi-nationals also taking an interest, niche channels will need to continue to raise their game.



SEE ALSO
Broadband to rule the TV waves
14 Sep 05 |  Technology
Internet TV 'to boom' in Europe
22 Nov 05 |  Entertainment
TV's future down the phone line
14 Mar 05 |  Technology
Q&A: Internet Protocol TV
09 Mar 05 |  Technology
Broadband set to revolutionise TV
09 Mar 05 |  Technology

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