Time to Raise Hell With Network Webcasts

Updated 21 October. Prior date: 21 March

It’s not a watershed moment, yet, but there has been one improvement since this was first penned in March, at MSN Video.

Imagine, for a moment, that you could watch NBC News only if you owned a GE television. Or listen to ABC radio only with Sony equipment. That situation is too quickly becoming analogous to the one faced by broadband customers who want to watch streaming TV news on their laptops: if it’s not a Wintel machine, with Microsoft software, they can kiss the idea good-bye.

Apparently network executives — marketing or otherwise — missed Tim Berners-Lee’s (in)famous quote about the liberating power of web standards:

Anyone who slaps a “this page is best viewed with Browser X” label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network. — Tim Berners-Lee in Technology Review, July 1996

I’m not a big TV fan, so I can’t say how long this insidious “it’s gotta be Windows” balkanization of Internet broadband has been going on. But the “big three” mega-corp networks have aligned themselves with Microsoft. (Is the software giant again giving away technology in an effort to protect its operating system?) Cable news, on the other hand, is technologically agnostic.

Who are the culprits?

  • ABC News free video requires Media Player, but a click on its “on demand” news service reveals this:
    • *Subscription service is only available on the windows operating system.
  • CBS News requires Media Player, but the free clips are accessible on the Mac. However, for the NCAA playoffs, CBS requires PCs and Media Player 9 or 10 but also runs on Firefox. Funny, the latest version of Media Player for the Mac is …. 9.0. So what’s the excuse for PC-only? Can’t be a technological one.
  • MSNBC video delivers some of its news via Macromedia Flash, which runs on both Macs and PCs. But most greet Macintosh users with this rude message:
    • This product requires Microsoft© Internet Explorer 6, Microsoft© Media Player 10, and Macromedia Flash 7. To download these free software applications, click the links below and follow the on-screen instructions.
    • Update: MSN video is now powered by Flash.

Perhaps because they have smaller audiences (and understand the wisdom in not alienating viewers) or perhaps because they better understand net culture, both CNN and FOX have taken a different approach:

  • CNN is Mac-friendly, for free video as well as its premium service, which PC Magazine calls “the most impressive video offering the Web has ever seen.”
    • The CNN Pipeline Web Player can be accessed online using a browser, such as Safari 1.3 or Firefox (Mozilla) 1.  All you need is the Windows Media Player, version 9 for Mac OS X, and you’re ready to go LIVE with CNN Pipeline.
  • FOX, too, does not discriminate but offers only “free” video clips.

We can argue about whether Media Player is better technology than Real or Quicktime — but the fact is that CNN and FOX show that, in-and-of-itself, Media Player video is not a barrier to delivering this content to Macs.

Finally, someone needs to tell network and cable execs — as well as their advertisers — that the barrier imposed by a 30 second commercial for a 2 minute news clip is excruciatingly high: 30 seconds is an eternity online. Adding insult to injury, I’ve watched 30 second commercials that were the lead for news stories less than 2 minutes … selected another news video … and found myself having to watch the same commercial. Again. That dog ain’t gonna hunt, either.

Most Americans get their news about political events from TV. More and more of us chose to consumer our news online. The fourth estate has made billions off of the access to public airways; it’s actions are protected by the First Amendment. Here’s my proposed quid pro quo:

Put up all the barriers you like for your “entertainmenet” feeds. But when it comes to news, the information should be available to all platforms. And yes, that also means PDAs and phones, which are video-capable, as well as transcripts/captions for the visual or auditory impaired.

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